Annual Survey of International & Comparative Law


Eric Engle


Human rights are universal. Not in the sense of being the same positive laws, at all times and places, but rather as being aspirational goals, at all times and places, and also as containing core values which are indeed universal, such as the right to life (no irrational deprivation of life). Histories of human rights usually propose that the concept has evolved through at least three separate historical waves. This historical account, while roughly accurate, must be clarified as a theoretical construction which corresponds only partially to the historical reality: the rights of women and of non-white persons, in fact, arose relatively late in history. With that qualification, however, the historical description is roughly accurate, and also explains why we can speak of human rights as "universal" in a meaningful sense. While human rights are a possible, and not necessary, consequence of economic development, there is nothing uniquely "western" about human rights. Indeed, all cultures aspire to what Aristotle described as "the good life." At least in this sense, human rights are universal as all humans are rational animals gifted with speech.