Reflections on the ambiguous universality of human rights: Cyrus the Great's proclamation as a challenge to the Athenian democracy's perceived monopoly on human rights.

Author:Abtahi, Hirad
 
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By day I praised you and never knew it. By night I stayed with you and never knew it. I always thought that I was me--but no, I was you and never knew it. Rumi * I. INTRODUCTION

[Europe] is ... the source--the unique source--[of the] ... ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, equality before the law, ... human rights, and cultural freedom.... These are European ideas, not Asian, nor African, nor Middle Eastern ideas, except by adoption. (1) This assertion of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. illustrates the fact that, to date, in the Western legal, philosophical and political literature, the established viewpoint has consisted of setting the ideas shaped around the 508 B.C.E. Athenian Democracy as the origin of human rights. (2) And it is true that despite the vicissitudes of history, the ideas that germinated in the minds of distinguished thinkers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle journeyed through millennia and profoundly influenced the Age of Enlightenment's philosophical movement. In Western Europe and North America, through the contributions of great thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau, that philosophical movement resulted in a series of declarations and charters of human rights. The Habeas Corpus (1679), the Bill of Rights (1689), the American Constitution of 1787 and its first ten amendments of 1791, and the French Declaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (1789) were all brought into life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (3)

This study does not seek to refute the unquestionable achievements of the above-mentioned values in the world civilisation. Instead, this study will focus on an old--often anthropological--debate over cultural relativism, which, by initiating the very heated Universalist/Relativist debate, has inevitably impacted the understanding of human rights which are perceived in two main diverging ways. Firstly, there are the partisans of universality who claim that human rights are, and must be, the same everywhere. Opposed to this first category are the advocates of cultural relativism who "claim that rights and rules about morality ... are encoded in and thus depend on cultural context." (4) While each of these approaches presents its own arguments--which will not concern the present study--a paradox has emerged within the partisans of universality. Accordingly, some Universalists maintain that, on the one hand, human rights are universal--hence they should be applied by all members of the international community. On the other hand, they see the values that they consider universal as an exclusive emanation of one selected civilisation--that is, the civilisation linking itself to the values formulated by the Athenian Democracy. In other words, the above subgroup is Universalist only to the extent that the application of human rights is concerned; whereas, with regard to the origins of human rights, it remains profoundly--whether or not knowingly--Relativist. Hence the impression that Universalists use human rights as a tool in order to promote values intrinsic to their own civilisation.

Since reality is not composed of one element, but instead, like a prism, offers a multitude of facets with each of them reflecting only one aspect of the whole, this paper aims not at contradicting the contribution of Athenian values but at bringing to the attention of the reader another facet of the prism in relation to the origins of human rights, whereby the Athenian Democracy should be viewed as only one component of a general egalitarian aspiration within the ancient world. Thus, while modern democracy and human rights are fundamentally complementary to each other, it is interesting to consider how and to what extent thirty years before the official birth of the Athenian Democracy human rights were conceptualised outside the European continent in Western Asia, in Cyrus' Proclamation--a replica of which is kept in the United Nations (UN) Headquarters, New York. By analysing the 538 B.C.E. Proclamation of Cyrus the Great, founder of the first Iranian Empire, this study proposes to place the emphasis on the above paradox of human rights' Universalist debate. More concretely, this study will call into question the dualistic conception according to which human rights could only find their roots in the Athenian Democracy and its inheritors--perceived as necessarily progressive--as opposed to all "other" civilisations, often symbolised by the so-called Oriental Despotism.

Accordingly, an eighteenth and nineteenth century intellectual trend--which included, among others, the Physiocrats, the Utilitarians and the Marxists--considered Oriental Despotism as the expression of an ignorant and stagnant society characterised by the despot's arbitrary inclination and a repressed civil society. (5) In short, as it has been viewed by Edward Said, it was the expression of a society characterised by "its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness." (6) Among the aforementioned schools of thought, Marxism provides the most startling example. Thus, Karl Marx, one of the most radical thinkers of his age, while--unsurprisingly--condemning colonialism declared--surprisingly--that Asiatic colonies

had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath the traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. (7) What is striking is the certainty with which Marx asserts that Asian lands have "always" been subjected to Oriental Despotism, almost as if they had been marked by a congenital misconception. Even Marx--the man who condemned imperialism and the proletariat's exploitation, the man whose message has represented for over a century the hope of the world's marginalised--fails to conceive a genuine equality between civilisations and ultimately concludes that the coloniser has to accomplish a double mission in the colonies: "one destructive, the other regenerating--the annihilation of the Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia." (8) Thus, in this almost eschatological dialectic leading to the salvation of the oppressed, precedence is still given to the values of the oppressor. Through his dark side, the tutor may have mistreated the minor, but it will still be up to the tutor--and the tutor alone--to overcome his dark side and rectify his behaviour towards the minor. Even in order to break free from its alleged chains of backwardness, Asia needs Europe because, ultimately, it is defined and exists through Europe. Even to Karl Marx, no other option is conceivable.

In fact, this persistent dualistic approach finds its roots in Antiquity where the Greeks saw themselves as the centre surrounded by the "Barbarian" hordes, in other words an early version of the "Oriental Despots." As this paper will argue (see particularly Section V), this psycho-sociological pattern may explain why, in human rights education, important texts such as the Proclamation of Cyrus have fallen into oblivion despite solemn reminders, as in the case of the first International Conference on Human Rights in 1968, Teheran. (9)

Among the early precursors of social regulation figure the Babylonian king Hammurabi's 1780 B.C.E. Code of Laws along with Moses' circa 1300 B.C.E. Ten Commandments. (10) The common point between Hammurabi's Code and Moses' Ten Commandments is that both constitute codes of laws applying to a specific people, that is Babylonians in the former case and Hebrews in the latter. The diverging point is that Hammurabi's Code is a legalistic code issued in a polytheistic context--a God and its pantheon--while the Ten Commandments bear a moral emphasis in Judaism's monotheistic context. As for the object of this study, that is, Cyrus' Proclamation, it combines aspects of both of the above instruments. Contrary to Hammurabi's Code, the Proclamation does not constitute a code of law. But like the Code, the Proclamation addresses the peoples of the empire in a polytheistic approach, as opposed to the Ten Commandments which is addressed to a specific people in a monotheistic context. On the other hand, like the Ten Commandments, the Proclamation bears a strong moral emphasis.

A pertinent aspect of Cyrus' Proclamation is the fact that it represents the recognition of human rights norms by the State proprio motu; i.e. by an emperor who--at the zenith of his power--grants rights constituting the principles of human rights which, by nature, would limit his power in favour of his subjects--in modern terminology, the power of the State and of its Government in favour of the citizens. Thus, this study is not about a conqueror, but instead about the expression in one of those "other" civilisations, of the ideal of human rights, whose vector happened to be one of those so-called "Oriental Despots": Cyrus.

By illustrating the fact that they also developed outside the civilisations depositories of the Athenian Democracy, may this study contribute to the understanding that human rights are not the monopoly of a given civilisation--as it is frequently thought--and that they are indeed more universal than they are so often perceived. Indeed, human rights find their roots in the superior principles of what has been referred to as natural law which, depending on the civilisations where they take shape, may be based on god, providence, conscience, moral, reason, etc. What matters is not their designation, whether they should be called natural rights, rights of Man, or, since World War II, human rights. (11) Nevertheless, regardless of their corresponding civilisation those superior principles have a common denominator, that is their philosophical grounds are laid on the essence of human dignity, pre-dating the sophistication of...

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