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Columbia Human Rights Law Review

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The half-century since the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights' has been famously heralded as the "Age of Rights" and the concept of human rights described as "the only political-moral idea that has gained universal acceptance." During the same period, however, both terms defining the subject-human and rights-have become increasingly contested. Informed by the emergence of identity-based political movements, critics have attacked the category human has as bearing the baggage of Western Enlightenment assumptions about personhood and community, inherently racist, sexist, and classist. Theorists across the political spectrum have criticized the concept of rights as indeterminate, destructive of political community and even threatening to moral values. In light of these developments, it seems appropriate not so much to celebrate the survival of the Universal Declaration and its progeny but to consider the significance of that survival for the meaning of human rights in an increasingly fragmented world. This article speaks to this theme by considering the Universal Declaration and the human rights framework it established in light of various rights-based and identity-based critiques. I confess that, as a feminist, I am sympathetic to many of the critiques that have emerged from identity politics. Moreover, I am skeptical of the ability of a framework of liberal rights to safeguard many of the important human needs underlying international human rights instruments. At the same time, as a human rights lawyer, I am committed to the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration and to the existence of a standard which permits cross-cultural human rights activism and legal remedy. Thus, in this Article, I attempt to explore some of the challenges presented by both the politics of difference and the various critiques of rights to the Universal Declaration and suggest ways that those challenges might be met without undermining the power of that document as a yardstick of human integrity. In Part II, I first summarize briefly several characteristics and critiques of rights discourse. I then consider the relevance of these critiques to the discourse of international human rights and argue that human rights discourse is less vulnerable to certain of these critiques than is rights discourse generally. Part III elaborates a second important challenge to the concept of human rights, the emergence of identity politics. Part IV integrates these two themes by suggesting ways in which a shared discourse of rights may bridge cultural differences and build political community and, at the same time, systematic attention to cultural contingency may address some of the weaknesses of that discourse.