What is meant by the expression “universality of human rights“? Just simply that these rights belong to all members of humanity, all members of the human family, without any distinctions. They are equal rights, not just the rights of a particular class, race, gender, nation or religion. Human beings have these rights, not because they belong to a certain group, or because they have certain beliefs of convictions, or because they fulfil certain conditions or whatever. They have them for no other reason than because they are human. This is, of course, obvious from the word “human” in “human rights”.
Why is it important to mention this? Because it’s contested. Some say that gays shouldn’t have the right to marry, even though this right is included in the Universal Declaration, a Declaration which explicitly states that
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind.
People of color, members of other ethnic groups or members of other religions are regularly treated as inferiors (or worse). Women often have less legal rights than men. And the list can go on and on.
If you oppose this, and believe that all people should be treated equally and should be able to enjoy the same rights as everyone else, then you in fact espouse the ideal of the universality of human rights. (Equality, in the sense of equal rights, is a concept that is closely related if not identical to the concept of universality of rights).
However, how would you defend this position against those who want to discriminate and treat certain people unequally? There are many possible defenses. For example, you could say that all human beings are created in God’s image, and are therefore equal. Treating them unequally would then be an offense against God. Or you could invoke a concept such as human dignity. My preferred defense is based on certain very specific human values, values which are shared by all human beings and which require human rights in order to be protected. Physical security, bodily integrity, self-control, peace, prosperity, belonging, property, identity etc. are some of these values. The problem here is not to convince opponents of human rights – or better of the universality of human rights – of the importance of these values. It will be very difficult to find anyone who needs to be persuaded of this and who is not self-destructive. The problem is how to give an adequate and convincing explanation of the way in which these values require human rights. (I tried to do this here).
These values are shared by human beings in the same way as they share some biological features, like their organs, limbs, and skin, as in the image by Escher pictured above. This analogy with biology can be taken quite literally, in the sense that human life can cease when these values are negated. Hearts may not stop beating and brains may not stop working (although they can in extreme cases) but people at the very least will stop living like human beings when they are unable to realize these values. Human rights are therefore indispensible for humanity: all human beings needs them, and we all need them for our humanity. I said a moment ago that all human beings have human rights because they are human beings and for no other reason than their humanity. If asked what is humanity, I would say that it is respect for these universally shared human values.