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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les droits de l’homme sont-ils universels?

by Aliocha Wald Lasowski

Are Human Rights Universal?

Translated Friday 8 February 2008, by Isabelle Métral

In his latest book entitled “Universality, Uniformity, Commonality, and the Dialogue between Cultures" [1], French sinologist François Jullien points out the historical yet contingent nature of the struggle for emancipation.

« Having been taken to task by vociferous supporters of a soft version of humanism, I found it was time I made my position on this issue clear.” That was how François Jullien came to make an incursion into political theory after initiating the Western public to Chinese thought and culture in his previous works. Central to his questioning is “the universality” of human rights.

The debate seems intricate enough. Understandably, awareness of the contingent, particular processes by which universal rights are eventually established leads one fairly naturally to challenge their universality in ways that are complex and even formidable in view of the ideal unanimously proclaimed by the 1948 UN Charter, namely, the regulation of international relations.

Far from ignoring the objection, Jullien focuses on the paradigmatic case of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the preamble asserts is “the common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations”. If human rights are a product of the abstract mode of prescription specific to European culture, how ever can they make sense and be observed in the rest of the world?

These rights do not constitute the crowning achievement of a fully perfected process. As they result from clashes between irreconcilable positions, they are the dynamic expression of decisive breaks. To Jullien their universalizing virtue is a function of their “negative power”. Those that invoke them find in them an ultimate recourse not with a view to adumbrating a new form of opposition but more radically, in order to resist, to say no. It is therefore essential to grasp the negative capability of human rights. As a means that can be indefinitely re-configured, re-written at every moment in history and raises a de-contextualized protest, human rights spell the ultimate recourse which but for these rights would carry no insurrectionary empowerment.

It follows from this that the validity of the universal must be sought in its capacity to oppose uniformity. “As I see it,” Jullien writes, “thought is today singularly powerless against the rule of uniformity which, now that uniformity has spread all over the world, is limitless.” The dia-logue between cultures, if any, must bring into play the negating and divisive potentialities of the prefix, which “aggravates the tensions, discloses to the eye the outmost limits of our potentialities, sets off the diversity of cultures as offering many exploitable resources.” Yet at the same time this dialogue must take its bearing from the common territory we share, where experience has its roots. What does the plural wisdom of the nations tell us about the “commons” of human experience?

Clearly the emphasis shifts from one pole to the other, from universality to commonality, from morals to politics, from prescription to participation, until the political extension of commonality makes for the advent of rational politics and the notion of a community of all human beings becomes a possibility.

Applying an extra turn of the screw to the differential and confrontational dynamics, François Jullien sees in discrepancy the concept of a cultural resistance that re-legitimizes the function of negation against the threat of the world’s future uniformity. “What sort of world? What sort of life?” today’s philosophers and writers ask. Short of being able to forecast the future they forge the tools of vigilance. They see to it that the universal sustains mankind in its quest, in its process of emancipation, in its insurrection. François Jullien’s book provides a stronghold against the crushing weight of the lack of differentiation.

[1"De l’Universel, de l’Uniforme, du Commun et du Dialogue entre les cultures”, Fayard 2008, 268 pages, 18 euros.

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