The universality of Human Rights and Hurdles thereto

Human rights are defined as entitlements that one acquires. Moreover, there is no definite definition as to what human rights are; as they can be described in various ways. Their definition can either be derived from various documents such as International treaties, covenants or conventions; and one of its principles is that human rights are universal.

The term universality of human rights connotes that these rights apply to all regardless of sex, age, colour, religion, ethnic group etc. They are recognised by international law; meaning they apply both to a global and national system as it stems in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[1]. However, the universalism of human rights has proven to be a complex and controversial issue as it has been difficult to implement in practice due to various reasons.

Furthermore, one of these reasons will be that of culture or cultural practices which have acted as hurdles in the implementation on the set of universal human rights. These practices are viewed as norms within a certain cultural group which threaten the lives of individuals and the promotion of human rights, thus making it difficult to protect individuals from certain cultural beliefs or norms that bring forth harm into their lives. A typical example will be that of female circumcision which has been in practice for over many years in many African countries.This practice threatens the lives of women and girls as it is in breach of article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which describes that every individual is entitled to the right of life.[2] It is also in breach of article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights which stipulates that every individual has the right to health.[3] According to a case study that was conducted in Burkina Faso in 2004, about 90 percent of girls have gone through such a horrific procedure[4] and this on its own challenges the promotion, protection and the universal concept of human rights.

Despite the efforts that have been made to raise awareness on the protection of human rights; cultural relativism has seemed to take its own toil. The concept, ‘Universality’ has rather been described as a western idea that promotes western practices and values but further challenging cultural values and norms.  This, on the other hand, has relatively caused an inherent conflict as it is difficult to balance between cultural relativism and the universalism of human rights in order to ensure that all rights are protected.

One other practice which is a major concern will be that of honour killings. This is basically where an individual kills a massive number of people all in the name of their deity.  This religious norm causes a corrosive effect both on the individual and the society. However, many seem not to realise that encouraging such norms is also challenging the humanity of other people. This may explain why the implementation of universalism has almost seemed impossible.

There are many other different practices which challenge the concept of universality, however, in conclusion, the start of challenging these is through education; that is making individuals realise the importance of respecting one’s individual rights. Just as the late South African President, Nelson Mandela once said ‘Education is the most powerful weapon that can be used to change the world.

[1] Human rights and their Universality <

[2] Summary of ICCPR and ICESCR

[3] Ibid

[4] Religious practices in female Genital cutting: A case study in Burkina Faso <Https://>




Lesego Gaetwesepe is a law graduate and she is intrinsically passionate about human rights, community building and empowering young people. She is a participant at the YALI Regional Leadership Center in Southern Africa and was also part of the #ageofconsent project. She was also part of a project facilitated by NACA (NATIONAL AIDS COORDINATING AGENCY). Ms Lesego is currently a volunteer at Gogontlejang Phaladi Pillar of Hope Project and also represents the organisation at the UNESCO Pan African Youth Network for building a Culture of Peace, and she is also taking up training as an ASFL (African Students for Liberty) Local Coordinator.


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