Human Rights and Peaceful Co-existence among States: Universality – Diversity – Dialogue

by Professor Dr Dr h. c. mult. Hans Köchler, President International Progress Organization

Peace is a supreme value of the international community. It is indispensable for the enjoyment of human rights at the collective as well as at the individual level. In the hierarchy of human rights norms, the right to life – the basic rationale of peace – is fundamental for the realization of all other rights, whether political, economic, social or cultural. In the community of nations, states can only flourish in the absence of violence against their sovereignty and independence. The ban on the use of force in relations between states, enshrined in the United Nations Charter, is an essential element of the international rule of law.
  The general obligation of states to conduct their relations in a peaceful manner implies mutual respect and non-interference in their internal affairs. This also follows from the principle of sovereign equality of states, which includes the right of every state to conduct its affairs according to its own traditions and on the basis of its specific conditions and priorities.
  In view of these universal norms, proclaimed by the United Nations as its guiding purposes and principles, the enjoyment of human rights cannot, and must not, be subordinated to the conduct of power politics. Human rights reflect the inalienable dignity of the human being – in terms of the individual (as citizen) as well as of the collective organization of individuals (the sovereign state). This implies that no state – whether small or large, weak or powerful – seeks to dominate other states, or undertakes to impose its domestic system, socio-cultural tradition and worldview upon the rest of the world.
  In the above-described sense, human rights – as expression of human dignity (individual as well as collective) – are universal. However, universality of human rights does not mean uniformity of their application. There is a rich diversity of civilizations and socio-cultural traditions at the global level. The multitude and variety of traditions are also reflected in the perception and implementation of human rights under different historical circumstances. Thus, if one is committed to an order of peace, diversity has to be acknowledged not only in terms of culture, ethnicity, religion, etc., but also in regard to the social aspects of human rights. Corresponding to the development of civilizations and cultures, there is indeed a complex variety of perceptions and paradigms concerning notions such as “citizen,” “state,” “individual”, “family,” or “collective,” and their structural connection in different contexts. Internationally, this has resulted in a diversity of interpretations of social standards, conventions of social decency, protocol, etc., according to particular national and civilizational traditions.
  Accordingly, in terms of human rights, no state has the right to impose its peculiar socio-cultural tradition or system of values – in general, its worldview (Weltanschauung) – upon other peoples and states. While, in certain traditions, the focus may be more on the assertion of the individual versus the state, other traditions follow an essentially community-oriented approach that defines the role of the citizen in a more integrated sense where the state is not juxtaposed in opposition to society. Accordingly, the only adequate approach to diversity of human rights perceptions is dialogue, based on mutual respect. In an international order of peace, there simply is no “paradigmatic state,” and there can be no tolerance for an intrusive human rights doctrine that only serves the interests of the most powerful states.
  The differences in perceptions and priorities, related to the social and historical peculiarities of states, are also obvious in the ratification status of international human rights instruments. To give just one example: The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, one of the core treaties of the global human rights system, is not ratified by the United States. China has signed the treaty in 1997 and ratified it in 2001. It goes without saying that a country that is not party to a treaty cannot act as authoritative interpreter or judge – not to speak of the role of self-appointed enforcer – of the rights enshrined in that treaty. Even among the group of state parties of a treaty, no state has the right to impose its unique socio-cultural traditions and life-style, insofar as they may impact on the national implementation of the treaty’s provisions, on fellow member states.
  The disparity in terms of ratifications corresponds to the fact that there is no uniformity of cultures and civilizations in today’s globalized world. Denying diversity would be tantamount to an essentially totalitarian approach that is not only intrinsically antithetic to human rights, but also incompatible with the above-mentioned sovereign equality of states. False human rights universalism – a position that declares as “universal” (and legally binding) the particularities of a national tradition – is indeed based on the legacy of colonialism, and in particular Euro- (or: West)centrism. What is universal is the principle of human dignity, but not the implementation of the principle in a specific (socio-cultural) context. The notion of dignity can indeed be found e.g. in the Confucian, Christian, and other religious, but also in the secular traditions of Marxism or European Enlightenment (Immanuel Kant).
  False universalism has often served hidden geopolitical purposes. It has provided the ideological framework to justify interference into the internal affairs of states. The history of so-called “humanitarian” interventions, since the 19th century in particular, testifies to this instrumentalization of human rights.1 More recently, political and economic sanctions have become a tool of human rights “enforcement” in the service of ulterior motives. These practices are essentially self-contradictory, as the comprehensive economic sanctions against Iraq (1990–2003) have demonstrated. Instead of protecting human rights, the states that insisted on the continued enforcement of those punitive measures (over more than a decade) systematically violated the basic human rights of the entire population of the targeted country.
  A policy of double standards is a frequent corollary of this form of ideological imperialism in the context of today’s global power struggle. States that, in the name of humanitarian principles, undertake to impose their standards on other states have often been proven to be selective (a) in regard to the countries targeted (the choice depending on considerations of geopolitics, not of human rights), and (b) in the priorities of interpretation, or weighing the dimensions of human rights. The latter is the case when states emphasize particular rights in one case while neglecting those same rights in another, depending on political convenience. Often, those states violate basic human rights on their own territory or have not even ratified human rights treaties the implementation of which they demand from other states.
  Human rights activism tainted by power politics risks to undermine, and ultimately discredit, the efforts of the United Nations in the promotion of human rights on the basis of impartiality and inclusivity – two criteria which the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan, in her inaugural speech identified as essential for credible human rights monitoring at the global level.2 Only if impartiality and inclusivity are observed, can human rights monitoring, based on the respect for national sovereignty, contribute to the strengthening of the international rule of law, and subsequently to a stable order of peace. This includes the right of every state, as legally constituted collective of citizens, to self-preservation, as it evokes, at the same time, the duty of every state to abide by the international treaties it has ratified. This also is the challenge before member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
  Under these circumstances, and in view of the imperatives of peaceful co-existence, there is no room for ideological arrogance in the implementation of human rights. No state has the right to lecture others about their worldview, value system or socio-cultural tradition. Human rights must not become a tool of geopolitics. On the basis of a joint commitment of nations to cooperate for the common good of mankind, human rights discourse should instead become part of a global dialogue between civilizations and cultures, informed by mutual respect. The United Nations should facilitate an exchange of experiences in the implementation of those rights. Debates must not be used as a tool of indoctrination or an instrument of global confrontation. In today’s multicultural – and increasingly multipolar – environment, there is no room anymore for suppression of the diversity of human rights perceptions in the very name of human rights. Accordingly, international policies and initiatives must follow a multilateral approach, informed by the mindset of cooperation among equals. This will be in conformity with the solemn commitment, made by the founders of the United Nations, “to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours.”3   •

1 Köchler, Hans, in: Xiandai Guoji Guanxi / Contemporary International Relations, Monthly Chinese Edition, Beijing, No. 9, serial no. 143 (2001), pp. 28-33.
2 United Nations, Human Rights Council, Geneva, 8 February 2021,

* Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, fifth paragraph.

* Keynote Speech at the International Human Rights Conference, convened by China Society for Human Rights Studies in co-operation with Jilin University School of Law, and Jilin University Human Rights Center, Center for Jurisprudence Research, Jilin University, Changchun, China, 8 April 2021;

International Human Rights Conference in China

More than 100 participants from China and abroad attended the one-day hybrid conference*, sponsored by the China Society for Human Rights Studies and organized by the Jilin University School of Law and Jilin University Human Rights Center. The President of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, Qiangba Puncog, delivered the inaugural speech. Ms Li Xiaomei, Special Representative of Human Rights Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, briefed the experts on China’s participation in the work of the UN Human Rights Council. Scholars and journalists from Austria, Burundi, Colombia, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, United Kingdom, and United States shared their observations on the diversity of human rights traditions in China and their respective countries. Among the speakers were Tom Zwart, Director of the Cross-cultural Human Rights Centre at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Netherlands); Anthony Carty, Professor of Public Law at the University of Aberdeen (United Kingdom); Rune Halvorsen, Professor of Social Policy and Co-director at the Centre for the Study of Digitalization of Public Services and Citizenship, Oslo (Norway); and Harvey Dezodin, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for China and Globalization and a former legal adviser in the Carter administration (United States). Foreign media and social science professionals based in China spoke about their experiences concerning the human rights situation in the country.
  The participants of the conference agreed that a self-critical attitude – on all sides – is indispensable for a fruitful global debate on human rights. In the closing session, Chinese delegates addressed the tension between East and West and emphasized the need to overcome misunderstandings through fact-based analysis. The Executive Director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Jilin (China), Professor He Zhipeng, organizer of the conference, summed up the debates, stressing the cross-cultural perspectives of human rights and expressing the hope for continued dialogue between Chinese and foreign experts. 

* In a hybrid conference, a subset of the people attending the meeting is located together in the same place. Other participants join the meeting by conference call or web conference. (Editor’s note)

Source: News Release International Progress Organization of 8 April 2021 (excerpt); HUMAN_RIGHTS-Changchun-08April2021.htm


“The Swiss Lectures – World Order and the Rule of Law”

The book “The Swiss Lectures – World Order and the Rule of Law” is the extended edition of the German book “Schweizer Vorträge – Texte zu Völkerrecht und Weltordnung” (2019). The English book will be published in June 2021. It is a collection of all articles by Hans Köchler published in the Swiss journal Current Concerns, from 2011 to 2021. The articles summarise lectures given in Switzerland to readers of Zeit-Fragen, the German edition of Current Concerns. The book also contains further analyses and interviews on pressing issues of our times.

Hans Köchler’s approach combines basic legal-philosophical analyses with an assessment of current developments in law and world affairs. In one of his texts he writes:

“In philosophical – or more specifically, hermeneutical – terms, we can only understand ourselves if we are able to relate to other identities. This is true for the individual person as it is for a collective of individuals. [...] Realizing that knowledge of other cultures is indispensable for knowing oneself will also help to create a new and solid basis for what is called peaceful co-existence, namely a harmonious living together of communities – cultures and civilizations as well as states” (p. 24f).

„May this English edition encourage readers to further deepen their appreciation for the dialogue between cultures and people, to advance the awareness of the benefits of diversity and exchange rather than violent power politics, and to acknowledge the ‘resulting need to reach an understanding beyond ideological boundaries’ (pp. 70f below).” (Preface of the Editors, p. 10)

The book can be ordered at: Zeit-Fragen. Redaktion und Verlag, Postfach, CH-8044 Zürich.
CHF 30.– / EUR 25.– (plus shipping)
CH: PC (CHF): 87-644 472-4, IBAN: CH91 0900 0000 8764 4472 4 / BIC: POFICHBEXXX
D: Volksbank Tübingen, IBAN: DE12 6419 0110 0067 5170 05 / BIC: GENODES1TUE
A: Raiffeisenlandesbank, IBAN: AT55 3700 0001 0571 3599 / BIC: RVVGAT2B

The Author

Hans Köchler (*1948) is emeritus professor of philosophy. From 1990 until 2008 he served as Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Innsbruck (Austria). Köchler’s research interests include legal and political philosophy, hermeneutics, and philosophical anthropology. As co-founder and president (since 1972) of the International Progress Organization (Vienna), he has committed himself to the causes of peace and inter-cultural dialogue. This has been evident in numerous publications and lectures all around the globe, as well as in his engagement in many international organizations. Köchler served in committees and expert groups on international democracy, human rights, culture, and development. In 2019 he was appointed as member of the University Council of the University of Digital Science (Berlin). Since 2018 he has taught at the Academy for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin. Hans Köchler lives in Vienna.


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