Berkeley Journal of International Law
Human rights law claims to be universal, setting rights apart from paradigms based on shared religion, culture, or nationality. This claim of universality was a significant factor in the proliferation of human rights NGOs in the 1970s and remains an important source of legitimacy. The universality of human rights has been challenged and contested since they were first discussed at the United Nations (UN). Today, much of the debate centers around the origins of human rights-particularly whether they arose out of Western traditions or whether they have more global roots. For too long, discussions about universality have ignored the practice of human rights in the Global South, particularly in Arab countries. Instead of searching for evidence of universality in the halls of the UN, this Article looks at how activists mobilized and produced universality through their work. Archival sources and interviews show that the turn to human rights in the Arab world was rooted in the politics of the 1970s but relied on the concept of universality as embodied in the foundational human rights documents of the 1940s and 1960s. Activists used these documents to advance conceptions of human rights that were compatible with several distinct political visions. Their work supports the claim that human rights can be universal, not because rights exist outside of politics or have diverse origins, but because they were constantly reinvented to support a range of different, sometimes contradictory, political goals.