Western Human Rights in a Diverse World: Cultural Suppression or Relativism? (2023)

The Western cultural construct of human rights provides inherent and inalienable rights to all, regardless of culture and tradition. Non-Western cultures do restrict the application of human rights, but only when these rights culturally and traditionally breach the rights of theirmembers. These cultural traditions, such as Sharia law and female circumcision, challenge the cultural foundations of human rights by providing alternative means of understanding the individual and their role in the broader community. As such, cultural relativists who support each culture’s right to variation, even if it grossly abuses the rights of its members, are wrong to suggest human rights is a form of cultural imperialism. Human rights provide a means of enabling all of humanity with inalienablerightswithout regard todifferences or cultural traditions, and as such international human rights law is almost universally supported by states.

This essay will first examine why the concept of human rights isconsidered a Western cultural construct, how it has evolved from the West, and why it is now a universal standard for all cultures. The second sectionwill demonstrate how international human rights law protects cultural diversity and how cultural relativist arguments are used by states to justify behavior which abuses the rights of its citizens and to claim non-required adherence. Thirdly, an examination of Sharia law and human rights will be undertaken, demonstrating how the Western construct of human rights clashes with the non-Western construct of Sharia limiting the application of human rights. Lastly, female circumcision will be used to demonstrate the complexities of individual rights, as established in human rights, and collective rights, as established in many traditional cultures. Human rights are a Western cultural construct. They provide all with inalienable and inherent rights, and cultures which dispute the validity of human rights are those which abuse the human rights of their members, and are those which should change their practices.

A universal standard

There are a plethora of philosophies and theories pertaining to the rights of men, of women, of communities and of humans in the world. Some are modern, and some are traditional. One such theory, modern human rights, is the continuation of a long philosophical and ideological tradition, evolving over time from the Enlightenment (Falk 1992, 45). Whilst no longer an exclusively Western creation, the tradition of human rights is, and its characteristics remain, distinctively Western (Pettman 2010, 133). Indeed, the legacy of the Enlightenment in the development of modern human rights supersedes all other cultural influences (Ishay 2004, 7).

Principally developed in the West (Howard 1995, 84; Falk 1992, 45), modern human rights have been directly inspired by, and evolved from, two pivotal Western Declarations (Brown 1999, 44). Prior to the formulation of modern human rights were the 18th Century French and US Declarations, both of which provided guided aspects of the language and content of the cornerstone of modern human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (Brown 1999, 43; Kobila 2003, 102). The French and US Declarations, as well as the UDHR, are all constructs and manifestations of Western modernist culture (Douzinas 2000, 1-2). The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the US’s Declaration of Independence provided the foundational concept of inherent, inalienable human rights, now cemented within modern society as a central component of the UDHR (Hunt 2007, 17-19). Inherent, in so much as rights are awarded to all humans simply for being human, and inalienable, because being human can be not lost, stolen or forfeited (Donnelly 1998, 18). The French Declaration’s influence on the inherent qualities of ‘man’ can be seen when we compare Article 1 of the UDHR, which reads, “All humans beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (UN 1948), and Article 1 of the 1789 French Declaration which reads, “Men are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (National assembly of France, 1789; Hunt 2007, 17-18).

Both of these documents, whilst distinctively different in their awarding of rights to ‘Men’ and ‘All humans’, focus on the individual. The foundational value of the rights of the individual, pivotal to modern human rights, is also traceable to the Enlightenment (Howard 1992, 94). Abdullahi An-Na’im (1992, 23) in addressing the construction of modern human rights, argues that because the culture of the West was embedded within the consciousness and identity of the makers of human rights, the subsequent foundations of human rights are strongly Western in culture. Subsequently, the modern international human rights system was created when the United Nations General Assembly unanimously voted in support of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 (UDHR) (Donnelly 1998, 5). In the postwar climate, and in the shadow of the great atrocities committed against nations and the individual (Boersema 2011, 380; Morsnik 1999, 36; Bell, Nathan and Peleg 2001, 4), the United Nations (UN) moved to establish a declaration guiding states’ treatment of theircitizens (Brown 1999, 5; Falk 2000, 6).

The UDHR formulated a notion of human rights, which, being significantly more egalitarian than its historical predecessors (Nickel 1987, 6-7), belonged to all people on the basis of their humanity alone (Boersema 2011, 367). The inclusion of women’s rights, rights of Indigenous peoples, and the right to political participation are all testament to this (Nickel 1987, 7-8). The modern human rights structure has moved beyond the exclusive Declarations of the past, and whilst foundational elements have been maintained (Brown 1999, 43), human rights are strongly universal in content (Ishay 2004, 3). Modern human rights are set on the non-exclusive value of the dignity awarded to all individuals (Hasson 2003, 83; Donnelly 2007, 3). They are a universal affair which enshrines the dignity and well-being of every human being (Baderin 2003, 12).

The historical traditions and cultural influences of human rights are important, not only because they are now the basis of the monolithic legal construct of modern human rights, but alsobecause not all cultures and traditions share the same values. Indeed, the secular, individualistic and rationalist components of human rights, attributable to Western cultural influences (Zion 1995, 211; Pettman 2010, 133-134), are not universal in the great diversity of cultures, and as such these qualities have the potential to isolate and disengage cultures that are not individualistic, secular or rationalist. Whilst both the French Declaration and UDHR state the inherent equality of all humans, some cultures, such as Hindu cultures, do not share this belief (An-Na’im, Gort, Jansen and Vroom 1995, ix). For instance,Hindus believe that birth is determined by karma, the accumulation of good and bad deeds in previous lives, and as such Hindu’s can only interpret these claims within their own religious framework (An-Na’im, Gort, Jansen and Vroom 1995, ix). Furthermore, the inherent right of ‘all humans’, and as such equality between genders, is disputed by a range of African, Islamic and Western societies (Renteln 1985, 534).

The individualism of human rights, presents a host of complexities in non-individualistic, communal cultures, where traditionalists argue that human rights of the individual are ‘inappropriate and irrelevant’ in a communal setting (Howard 1995, 87). Indeed, human rights law only pertains to individual rights, not group rights (Donnelly 1990, 43), so much so that the individual is provided the rights to challenge societal and community norms in the realisation of their own desired life. As such, human rights protect the individual against society (Howard 1995, 8). The complexityof these rights—specifically the individual within the community, and the historical tradition and subsequently enshrined cultural values—is that not all nations and states prescribe to them. Indeed, the cultural differences are said to be so great between human rights and non-Western cultures that some states argue human rights are juxtaposed to their indigenous, traditional values and as such are not applicable.

Cultural diversity andcultural relativism

Human rights, whilst a Western cultural product, receive broad international state-based support, and most international human rights treaties are ratified almost universally (Donnelly and Howard 1987, 4). Internationally, the principal mechanism for implementing and enforcing human rights was, and remains, the state (Donnelly 2001, 12). Indeed, human rights only become meaningful when given a political context (Hunt 2007, 20; Kohen 2007, 132-133). As such, they only exist when a state decides to implement them (Kobila 2003, 106).

It is important to note that pivotal human rights treaties receive broad, cross-cultural, support from the international community. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has 193 Parties (UN Treaty Collection (1) 2012), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forces of Discrimination of Women has 187 parties (UN Treaty Collection (2) 2012) and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination has 175 state parties (UN Treaty Collection (3) 2012). All are ratified by amajority of states and as such demonstrate a general acceptance of the content and concept of human rights by states in the international community (Donnelly and Howard 1987, 4). As such, the UDHR continues to receive near universal formal acceptance by governments as a ‘standard of control’ to determine the acceptability of state behavior (Alston 1990, 7).

Importantly, despite the claims of Western cultural dominance within human rights, cultural rights are enshrined as a core component of the broader human rights construct (Thamilmaran 2003, 146). Underpinning these cultural rights is Article 27 of the UDHR, which states, “everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community” (UN 1948). Furthermore, twenty years after the UDHR, the UN adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Althoughthey were not ratified till 1976, both further established the role of cultural rights in the broader context of human rights (Thamilmaran 2003, 146).

It is important to note that these three documents are considered to form the International Bill of Human Rights (de Waart 1995, 45; McChesney 1992, 232), as they all establish and reinforce the importance of cultural rights, not just for majority culture but minority culture also, implying that no culture has the right to dominate another’s culture (Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2012). Indeed, Article 27 of the ICCPR states that “in those States with ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their native language” (UN 1966). The importance of cultural rights isreinforced and given great contextual relevance when referenced in other UN treaties, such as Article 13(c) of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forces of Discrimination of Women, which refers to a woman’s “right to participate in recreational activities, sports and all aspects of cultural life” (UN 1979). Human rights and local culture are not incompatible. Human rights relate to a great diversity of cultures and assist communities to address concerns of great importance (Alston 1990, 7). Yet whilst these rights are essential in providing a host of cultures a means of protection and a means of articulating their concerns, they do not deconstruct the Western values of human rights, nor does it provide human rights with broad cultural legitimacy (An-Na’im 1992, 7).

Some argue that despite these reoccurring developments in cultural rights, the Western cultural components of human rights are incompatible with national practices rooted in indigenous, non-Western cultures (Kobila 2003, 103; Afshari 2001, 3). As such, some states do not support human rights law on the grounds that it suppresses and damages their own, non-Western culture (Afshari 2001, 3). Some cultural differences, such as equality between men and women and equal access to education, have restricted the degree to which both the ICCPR and the ICESCR have been ratified (Thamilmaran 2003, 148). Indeed, a range of Governments in Asia have argued that their states’ cultural traditions and values, including family over the individual and welfare over freedom, are incompatible with human rights (Bell, Nathan and Peleg, 2001, 7). This sentiment was echoed by former Iranian representative to the UN, Said Rajai-Khorasani, who argued that as a Western construct, the UDHR was inappropriate for Muslims because itfailed to recognise their cultural requirements, and as such Iran would have no hesitation to violate its provisions (Mayer 2007, 9).

The ratification of international human rights treaties has been restricted by the perceived cultural exclusivity of human rights (Thamilmaran 2003, 147). As such, Abdullahi An-Na’im (1992, 2), whilst not agreeing with the justification of the non-application of human rights within states, suggests that a ‘cross-cultural approach to human rights may explain the discrepancies between theory and practice’. This argument of cultural relativism is on occasion cited to explain the non-applicability of human rights in non-Western states. Yet, equally as important, this same argument is also used by societies which continue to abuse the rights of theirmembers.

Such is the case with some societies that practice Sharia law and justify their neglect of human rights on cultural grounds (Baderin 2003, 11; Hoods 2001, 115). In Reza Afshari’s (2003, 3) examination of human rights in Iran, he suggests that ‘the argument of cultural relativism is strongest when the traditional patriarchal systems of authority is being challenged’ suggesting that cultural relativism is often a smokescreen for the justification of a system that favours the powerful. This opinion was echoed by Iranian human rights lawyer and Noble Peace Laureate, Shirin Ebadi, (2004) who stated that ‘the argument of cultural relativism is simply an excuse to continue to disregard and violate human rights’. An-Na’im (1992, 4) supports both of these statements, suggesting caution over the use of cultural relativism, ensuring that it is not used to excuse the abuses of human rights.

To demonstrate the dangers of cultural relativism, we need look no further then the Second World War. Even though an attempt use to cultural relativism as justification for atrocities, specifically those committed by the Germans, seems absurd, it would have been plausible in some cases (Droogers 1995, 80). Cultural relativism is, primarily, an ethical stance which assumes that no one culture can, or should, dominate the customs and beliefs of all others (Howard 1995, 52). Yet when taken to anextreme, relativists are critical of any outsider which passes judgment on a practice that is culturally grounded, and as such do not believe that human rights are relevant to cultures which do not share Western cultural values and beliefs (Howard 1995, 52-53).

Whilst cultural relativism may indeed act as a smokescreen for the ongoing exploitation of the many by the few, it is often more complicated than this and remains an important argument against the culturally Western human rights. Indeed, many non-Western philosophies and religions retain a strong community focus, with an emphasis on duties arising from strong social responsibilities, instead of inherent rights, none of which were part of the early development of modern human rights (Douzinas 2009). The ethical non-Western conceptions of human rights as non-individualistic, non-egaliatiran and community based are juxtaposed to Western thinkers who view human rights as necessarily liberal, egalitarian, and individualistic (Chavret 1998, 524). As such, relativists reject many of the fundamental human rights as culturally naïve, ahistorical and even imperialistic (Bell, Nathan and Peleg 2001, 5). Indeed some argue that human rights are simply “Western values masquerading as universal concepts” (Bell, Nathan and Peleg 2001, 5). Whilst providing for cultural variation within large international human rights treaties and conventions, human rights are ultimately a construct embedded within Western culture. As such, in some societies, such as Islamic societies that operate under Sharia law, modern human rights are not compatible with important components of the traditional society, specifically those relating to punishment and gender equality.

Sharia law

Not all cultures prescribe to all the rights established within the UDHR and supporting international human rights law. Indeed, some cultural traditions include components that are juxtaposed to the rights provided within the modern human rights system. Societies that operate under Islamic Sharia law are one such example (An-Naim 1984, 75). This is not to say that Islam or the Koran are non-compatible with human rights. They are (Jawad 1998, 5; An-Naim 1984, 75), but the conditions imposed on women and the means of punishment against offenders for a range of crimes under Sharia law are not compatible with modern human rights (Kobila 2003,104). In the centuries following the prophet Muhammad’s death a set of laws were developed that were intended to organise Islamic authority (Dalacoura 2003, 43). These laws, which are combination of religious, historical and social factors, form Sharia law (Mayer 2007, 114; Dalacoura 2003, 43-46; An-Na’im 1992, 33). Sharia law and human rights, on specific issues, greatly diverge and are indeed non-compatible (Mayer 2007, 2). This includesequality between genders, which is explicitly denied by Sharia law (Dalacoura 2003, 46), so much so that even states with liberal interpretations of Sharia law are reluctant to support human rights treaty’s pertaining to gender equality (Cook 1990, 688).

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Within Sharia law women receive only minimal rights, far less than men do, and a great inequality exists between the genders (Dalacoura 2003, 46). Aman can use physical force against his wife if he so chooses; in a separation the man has exclusive rights over children; and in court the testimony of a man is equal to that of two women (Dalacoura 2003, 46). Gender-based violence is considered a violation of human rights (Felice 1996, 32) yet they are all are a breach of a woman’s human right to equality. Indeed, some Iranian Islamic feminists argue that ‘throughout history men inappropriately defined the parameters of Sharia law, in an effort to keep women secluded and subordinate’ (Afshari 2001, 255).

In 1981 and in accordance with Sharia law, the Islamic Council developed the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR). Distinctively different from the UDHR, which is founded on individualism, the UIDHR is founded on the divine qualities of humans, as is the Muslim perception of humanity, and is collective and sacral (Pettman 2010, 133-134). Farhat Haq (2001, 249) in ‘Negotiating Culture and Human Rights’ argues that ‘it is not possible to develop an adequate human rights construct from Sharia law, as Sharia law is non-individualistic and focuses on duties rather than rights’. As such the UIDHR fails to adequately resolve the unequal rights between men and women, specifically Articles 19 and 20, which address the rights of family and married women, both of which are stipulated to be in accordance with sharia law and both of which fail to provide adequate rights to women (Dalacoura 2003, 51). Furthermore, Article 6 (b) encapsulates the rights of women within the contexts of family and religion, providing women with only their collective right (Baderni 2003, 60) and failing to provide them with inherent, inalienable rights. As such the rights provided to women in the UIDHR also fail to replicate the rights enshrined within international law, such as those in ICCPR (Mayer 1994, 330).

Islamic human rights schemes have used Islamic law and criteria, embedded in restrictive patriarchal values, to restrict women’s rights (Mayer 2007, 113). Another issue of divergence between human rights and Sharia law is the treatment of individuals who are convicted of illegal practices under Sharia law. This treatment breaches human rights conditions pertaining to cruel or inhumane treatment or punishment, which is prohibited by regional instruments (An-Na’im 1992, 30) and by Article 5 of the UDHR (UN 1948), the ICCPR, CEDAW and the Convention against Torture (Kao 2011, 94). Under Sharia law, offenders of theft, unlawful sexual intercourse and other crimes can be sentenced to whipping, stoning and exact retribution (an eye for an eye) (An-Na’im 1992, 32-4), carried out by state Sharia courts (Kao 2011, 94). Whilst some Muslim states, such as Afghanistan and Egypt, have ratified conventions pertaining to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the definition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment differs greatly depending on a community’s observance of Sharia law (An-Na’im, Deng, Ghai and Baxi 2009, 86). In so much as those that follow Sharia law do not necessarily share the western cultural understanding of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, primarily because punishment sanctioned by Sharia law absolves the offender of more punishment in the next life (An-Na’im, Deng, Ghai and Baxi 2009, 88; An-Na’im 1992, 35).

Furthermore, human judgment of the appropriateness or cruelty of actions enabled under Sharia is simply not socially or religiously permissible (An-Na’im 1992, 35). However, the sheer severity of criminal punishments under Sharia law, obviously and unavoidably infringes human rights law (Mayer 1993, 47; An-Na’im, Deng, Ghai and Baxi 2009, 87). As such some Western analysts have argued that Sharia law fails to provide basic provisions for human rights, citing these sever punishments as example, have argued that Sharia law and the values of human rights are not compatible (Baderin 2003, 10). The modern human rights construct does not exist under Sharia law, and given the cultural divide it cannot (Mayer 2007, 117). Sharia law provides a significantly different perspective, and an incompatible perspective, from the modern human rights construct. The difference in culture is so pronounced that unless there is a significant shift in the understanding of Sharia law then innate and inalienable rights, such as those developed in human rights, will not be realized within Sharia societies. Profound cultural differences between non-Western cultures and the Western human rights often revolve around the role of the individual within community, a difference well demonstrated through the example of female circumcision.

Individual vs. collective rights: female circumcision

The Western construct of human rights is based on the principle of inalienable, innate rights that are awarded to all individual human beings. Human rights are founded on the rights of the individual, and as such individuals, not groups, have internationally recognized human rights (Donnelly 1990, 43). This presents a point of difference for societies whose traditions emphasise community rights and not the individual (Bell, Nathan and Peleg 2001, 5).

Female circumcision is one such important cultural tradition (Gallo, Tita & Vivani 2006, 50). The term female circumcision is the collective name given to several different traditional practices, all of which include cutting of the female genitals (Rahman and Toubia 2000, 3) for religious or other non-therapeutic reasons (Fineschi and Turillazzi 2007, 98). The practice in some African cultures is an indispensible prerequisite to marriage and an essential component of a women’s traditional role within her community (Gallo, Tita & Vivani 2006, 50). The tradition is a highly contentious one, as many Western women view the act of female circumcision as a ‘brutal perpetuation of patriarchal domination of women’ (Fraser 1994, 148). As such, Ashley Montague (1991, 1) in her article ‘Mutilated Humanity’ argues that female circumcision is an ‘archaic ritual mutilation that has no justification and no place in civilized society’. Indeed some view female circumcision as an act of such terrible violence against women that it is indistinguishable from murder, rape, physical abuse and forced prostitution (Abusharaf 2006, 10).

It is also considered to be a breach of human rights (Rahman and Toubia 2000, 3), violating three pivotal protections: the rights of the child, the right to health and the integrity of the body (CRLP 2002, 69-80). As such, a total of seven international human rights documents are argued to be infringed by the act of female circumcision. These include the UDHR, The United Nations Declaration on Violence Against Women and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees Statement Against Gender-Based Violence (Abusharaf 2006, 10). Opponents of female circumcision believe it to be a form of child abuse, and as such a breach of the rights established within the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, specifically the right of a child to ‘develop physically in a normal and healthy manner’ (Boulware-Miller 1986, 164). Furthermore, the UN have recognized female circumcision to be an act of sexual assault, and as such believe it to be a form of torture and a violation of the individual’s human rights (Boyle 2001, 8).

Yet the practice of female circumcision is no longer isolated to traditional communities, and now present in a host of Western nations (Fineschi and Turillazzi 2007, 98). Some of these nations have now developed legislation banning the act of female circumcision, such as in Germany where the act is also ground for asylum (Boyle 2001, 8). Importantly, and juxtaposed to the views of traditionalists (Howard 1995, 4), Section 2(2) of the 1985 Act to prohibit female circumcision in Great Britain stated that the Parliament was not persuaded by arguments that female circumcision was somehow mandated by custom, and thus deserving of some special status (Fraser 1994, 148). This Western understanding of the individual’s role within a community conflict with the traditional African understanding of rights, which were founded on the community, on collective rights, where the individual interacted with the community on the basis of obligations and duties (Ibhawoh 2004, 32). This is a tradition that appears incompatible with the rule of the Parliament of Great Britain.

Within modern human rights, the fundamental unit of society is not, nor can it be, the family or community but rather must be the individual (Ibhawoh 2004, 31). Human rights do have important collective dimensions and rights, as demonstrated earlier, but human rights, by their very nature, are rights of the individual (Felice 1996, 19; Donnelly 1990, 39). Whilst some human rights, such as rights to assembly (Burger 1990, 72), can only be exercised collectively, it is the individual’s rights which remain the subject of dispute, not the collective’s (Donnelly 1990, 44; Burger 1990, 72). Indeed, collective rights may be viewed as important, as in the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, but according to international human rights law they remain meaningless if they disregard individual human rights (Dalacoura 2003, 6). Individuals may hold rights both as an individual and as a member of a community; such as cultural rights which are held by members of that culture, or family rights, which are held by members of a family (Donnelly 1990, 43). But the culture or family as collectives do not posses rights.

The same can be said for rights awarded to religious or linguistic minorities to preserve their religion and language (Burger 1990, 72). These rights are collective in nature, but the beneficiary is the individual (Triggs 1988, 156). As such the priority of human rights is to preserve the rights of the individual, and thus communities that are not based on the free and equal participation of all sane, adult members, and thus violate the human rights of its members are in need of change (Howard 1995, 8). This emphasis on the individual is a continuation of the historical Western cultural influence on human rights (Pettman 2010, 132-134). Traditionalists however, despite the foundations of human rights, do not believe that traditional societies, which maintain the values of an orderly society by violating human rights, should be required to change (Howard 1995, 4). Thus the argument of collective and traditional rights are interwoven into the arguments surrounding female circumcision. Whilst some may argue that Western civilization does not have the moral right to establish its values and rights into a universal standards, by which all others must abide (Milne 1986, 4). It is inescapable that the rights developed within human rights are provided to all equally and thus no one can, or should, without a just judicial decision, be denied enjoyment of those rights (Howard 1995, 1). Furthermore, human rights are awarded to all regardless of whether or not they fulfill their community obligations (Howard 1995, 1). As such, arguments pertaining to moral hegemony or cultural damage resulting from human rights are insufficient, as community obligations that exist on the grounds of a gross abuse and violation of another’s human rights do not deserve moral or international protection (Howard 1995, 8).

The human rights approach to culture builds on the claim that culture is in fact a quality possessed exclusively by the individual, and that which affects his or hers ability to enjoy the rights awarded to them, on the grounds of being human (Almqvist 2006, 8). Thus protection of the individual is indeed protection of the culture. Cultural traditions which do not award the equal protection of all of the cultures participants are not cultural traditions which should be protected. Regardless of the importance of traditional cultural norms, modern human rights provides protection to all members of all cultures equally, and thus is not limited by its own historical cultural influences.

Conclusions

Human rights are a Western cultural concept. The implications of this for non-Western cultures is, at times, significant. Despite international human rights law receiving almost universal ratification by states, non-Western and Western, diverse cultural traditions limit the application of human rights. Sharia law and the cultural beliefs associated with punishment of certain crimes demonstrates the cultural complexities surrounding human rights. The difficulties of enforcing an individualistic rights system in communities that believe in collective rights can be seen in the issues surrounding female circumcision. The argument advanced by many of these cultural traditions, cultural relativism, is a complex argument which carries some worth. However, cultural traditions that restrict or violate the rights of its members, such Sharia law, often claim cultural relativism as justification for human rights abuses.

This is insufficient. Cultures which violate the rights of theirmembers and claim tradition are, as demonstrated by female circumcision and Sharia, often oppressive, patriarchal cultures whose members are in need of human rights. As such, inherent and inalienable rights are provided to all humans, regardless of which cultural tradition they are born into, and cultures which violate these rights behind the cloak of cultural relativism are deserving of cultural intrusion by human rights. Despite the complexities surrounding the application of human rights in a culturally diverse world, it remains that the rights awarded to the individual, within modern human rights, remain paramount, and no cultural variation can transcend their importance.

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(Video) 9 Goodale

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(Video) Western Civilisation: What to Keep and What to Kill

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(Video) THOC Public Lecture: Human Rights: Reflections of the East and Perceptions of the West

Written by: author wishes to remain private
Written at:University of Melbourne
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Date written: July2013

Further Reading on E-International Relations

  • Cultural Relativism in R.J. Vincent’s “Human Rights and International Relations”
  • Human Rights and Democracy: An Incompatible or Complementary Relationship?
  • The Resonance of Name-Shaming in Global Politics: The Case of Human Rights Watch
  • Human Rights and Security in Public Emergencies
  • Human Rights and the ‘ASEAN Way’: Political Barriers to Progress
  • Group Rights and the Protection of Individual Autonomy

FAQs

Are human rights cultural relativism? ›

The claim that human rights are rights that all humans hold everywhere and at all times embodies the concept of universalism. There are however some that do not believe that human rights are universally held. Those who hold such views are widely described as cultural relativists.

Why human rights is Western concept? ›

Human rights are a Western cultural construct. They provide all with inalienable and inherent rights, and cultures which dispute the validity of human rights are those which abuse the human rights of their members, and are those which should change their practices.

Are human rights a form of Western cultural imperialism? ›

The concept of human rights and UDHR may be a Western construct with its foundations in the West, but it is not a form of imperialism. The UDHR outlines some of the basic rights and liberties an individual has and opens up channels to criticize the communities that violate them.

What are examples of cultural relativism? ›

Illustrative Examples

Cultural relativism does not merely relate to morality and ethics. Cultural relativism, for example, explains why certain cultures eat different foods at different meals. For example, traditionally, breakfast in the United States is markedly different from breakfast in Japan or Colombia.

What is the meaning of cultural relativism under human rights law? ›

human rights, cultural relativism may be defined as the position. according to which local cultural traditions (including religious, po- litical, and legal practices) properly determine the existence and. scope of civil and political rights enjoyed by individuals in a given. society.

How does culture affect human rights? ›

Because culture affects all aspects of human life, cultural rights illustrate the indivisibility and interdependence of all rights in a more comprehensive fashion than do any other rights.

What is Western concept? ›

Western culture, sometimes equated with Western civilization, Western lifestyle or European civilization, is a term used very broadly to refer to a heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs, belief systems, political systems, and specific artifacts and technologies that have some origin or ...

What is the main concept of human rights? ›

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.

How are cultural rights different from human rights? ›

Human rights are inalienable fundamental freedoms to which a person is entitled simply because they are human beings. In contrast, cultural rights are those that a given group of people has come to see as essential for their social well-being and identity.

What is cultural imperialism in human rights? ›

cultural imperialism, in anthropology, sociology, and ethics, the imposition by one usually politically or economically dominant community of various aspects of its own culture onto another nondominant community.

What do you mean by cultural imperialism? ›

The term cultural imperialism refers most broadly to the exercise of domination in cultural relationships in which the values, practices, and meanings of a powerful foreign culture are imposed upon one or more native cultures.

Is international law a Western concept? ›

Abstract. The way in which international law has been constructed and reconstructed over the ages in favour of the Western countries has driven some Third-World scholars to perceive international law as 'a global law made by the West' for the purpose of controlling global undertakings.

How does cultural relativism affect human rights? ›

“Cultural relativists ” believe human rights should take account of cultural differences. Cultural relativism states that values are defined by local culture as opposed to global ideology. Cultural relativists argue that human rights were developed by Western countries and are based on Western morality.

How does cultural relativism affect society? ›

Cultural relativism eliminates the rigidity that societies have in place regarding ethics, conduct, and reasoning. It also means that there are no actual definitions that are in place for a society. Cultural relativism promotes an individualistic perspective which governs how a person acts, thinks, and responds.

What is cultural relativism how it affects to our society? ›

Cultural relativism maintains that man's opinion within a given culture defines what is right and wrong. Cultural relativism is the mistaken idea that there are no objective standards by which our society can be judged because each culture is entitled to its own beliefs and accepted practices.

Can human rights be universal and have respect for cultural relativism? ›

Whenever one group denies rights to another group within a culture, it is usually for their own benefit. Therefore human rights cannot be truly universal unless they are not bound to cultural decisions that are often not made unanimously, and thus cannot represent every individual that these rights apply to.

Why is cultural relativism important essay? ›

It can help to understand different cultures better and to learn from them. It can also help to reduce tensions between different groups. Cultural relativism is also important because it allows people to accept different cultures while still respecting their differences.

What is the difference between universalism and cultural relativism in the interpretation of human rights? ›

cultural relativism and radical universalism. Radical cultural relativism would hold that culture is the sole source of the validity of a moral right or rule. Radical universalism would hold that culture is irrelevant to the validity of moral rights and rules, which are universally valid.

Does human rights depend on culture? ›

International human rights are universally recognized regardless of cultural differences, but their practical implementation does demand sensitivity to culture. International human rights standards enjoy a strong claim to universality, with considerable adaptability to different cultural contexts.

What are some examples of cultural rights? ›

Economic social and cultural rights (ESCR) include the rights to adequate food, to adequate housing, to education, to health, to social security, to take part in cultural life, to water and sanitation, and to work.

Can culture affect our freedom? ›

Answer and Explanation: Culture is a source of human freedom because it is the means through which human beings explain, create, and communicate knowledge about the world. Culture also assists humans in connecting with other humans and the world around them.

What are the impact of Western culture? ›

The effect of western culture is greatly seen in our customs, tradition, social and moral behavior, our love and respect for others. These days a person loves to live in freedom, he does not want to bind themselves in Indian customs and traditions.

How does Western culture influence the world? ›

The impact that western culture has on various parts of the world is very broad. The exploitation of fast food and western fashion through multinational corporations, has allowed western culture to influence religion, culture, tradition, economy, and government. It reduces the country's traditional way of clothing.

What are examples of Western culture? ›

French culture, Spanish culture, and British culture are all sub-categories under the broad, loose category of Western culture. Europe and much of the Western Hemisphere is Western in culture.

Why is it important to have human rights? ›

Human rights are needed to protect and preserve every individual's humanity, to ensure that every individual can live a life of dignity and a life that is worthy of a human being.

What is the most important human right? ›

Some human rights that can never be restricted – not even during declared national emergencies and wars. These rights are called absolute human rights and they include the right to freedom from torture, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and the right to freedom from slavery.

What are the importance of human rights? ›

Human rights are basic rights that belong to all of us simply because we are human. They embody key values in our society such as fairness, dignity, equality and respect. They are an important means of protection for us all, especially those who may face abuse, neglect and isolation.

Why is human rights more important than cultural rights? ›

Universal human rights are symbolic of the general will and commitment of the international community to respect and protect human dignity, which carries greater legitimacy, primacy and urgency than any cultural interest.

How is culture useful in promoting human dignity? ›

Culture includes outlook of the world, life, values and a multitude of other ideas. With these ideas, culture affects people's cognition and understanding of other people, nations, nature and society. As a result, it produced certain human rights outlooks and practices.

Should rites be protected as cultural rights? ›

Even if a rite can be defended as a cultural right, other more fundamental rights, like those of women, children, and other vulnerable groups, may outweigh the right to culture. In general, the right to culture should be protected so long as the customs are innocuous.

What is the summary of cultural relativism? ›

Cultural relativism refers to not judging a culture to our own standards of what is right or wrong, strange or normal. Instead, we should try to understand cultural practices of other groups in its own cultural context.

How did Western imperialism affect the culture of the colonies? ›

Imperialism adversely affected the colonies. Under foreign rule, native culture and industry were destroyed. Imported goods wiped out local craft industries. By using colonies as sources of raw materials and markets for manufactured goods, colonial powers held back the colonies from developing industries.

What are examples of cultural imperialism? ›

A prime example of American cultural imperialism would be the expansion of the Disney brand in foreign nations. Since its establishment in the United States, Disney has now expanded to locations such as Latin America, the Middle East, Russia, India and China.

How does cultural imperialism happen today? ›

In global communication today, Cultural Imperialism manifests itself mainly through media, especially mainstream and mass media. Media is one of the most prominent and visible forms of global communication.

Which is an example of cultural relativism quizlet? ›

Viewing bullfighting from its history, its folklore, its ideas of bravery, and its concepts about sex roles is an example of cultural relativism.

Is cultural imperialism good or bad? ›

However, cultural imperialism has potential negative effects as well. From a spread of Western ideals of beauty to the possible decline of local cultures around the world, cultural imperialism can have a quick and devastating effect.

What are the criticism of human rights? ›

After a brief overview of the rise of human rights (especially its legal dimension), the article focuses on three persistent empirically tinged critiques: the absence of sociological legitimacy, lack of effectiveness, and distributive inequality.

Are human rights universal debate? ›

Within practical international relations, however, it appears obvious that human rights are currently far from universal, as their accessibility is limited to certain nations and repeatedly restricted from others. This inequality should alert the international community to the importance of addressing the issue.

What is Western centric perspective? ›

Eurocentrism (also Eurocentricity or Western-centrism) is a worldview that is centered on Western civilization or a biased view that favors it over non-Western civilizations.

Do you think human rights are universal or relative in nature? ›

Human rights are indeed 'universal' in some standard and important senses of that term – but not 'universal' in some equally standard senses. Likewise, human rights both are and are not 'relative' in standard senses of that term.

How is the idea of universal human rights distinguished from relativism? ›

How is the idea of universal human rights distinguished from relativism? Universal human rights are the same for all people regardless of nationality or ethnicity, whereas relativism emphasizes due respect for local traditions and histories.

What is human relativism? ›

Relativism, roughly put, is the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning, and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that their authority is confined to the context giving rise to them.

What is an example of cultural relativism? ›

Cultural Relativism Examples

Food choices are a good example because people have become more tolerant of food from cultures that are not their own. In the past people were more likely to find some types of foods unacceptable, but now they are more likely to not judge others based on their food choices.

What is cultural relativism and why is it important? ›

Cultural relativism is the ability to understand a culture on its own terms and not to make judgments using the standards of one's own culture. The goal of this is promote understanding of cultural practices that are not typically part of one's own culture.

What are some examples of relativism? ›

Relativists often do claim that an action/judgment etc. is morally required of a person. For example, if a person believes that abortion is morally wrong, then it IS wrong -- for her. In other words, it would be morally wrong for Susan to have an abortion if Susan believed that abortion is always morally wrong.

How important is cultural relativism in your daily life? ›

Cultural relativism enables moral differences between cultures to be all acceptable and right depending on context. This means that moral concepts can come across as morally wrong for a group in one context and pass as morally right for another in other contexts.

How and Why is cultural relativism a threat to morality? ›

Because of this ethicists believe that the concept of cultural relativism threatens the discipline of ethics since, if values are relative to a given culture than this must mean that there are no universal moral absolutes by which the behavior of people can be judged.

Do you agree in cultural relativism? ›

Conclusion. Cultural relativists are correct that sometimes we should be more tolerant and accepting of cultural differences. Some things done in other cultures are unfamiliar and may seem strange. But “different” is not the same as “wrong,” and learning about relativism can remind us of that.

Can human rights be universal and have respect for cultural relativism? ›

Whenever one group denies rights to another group within a culture, it is usually for their own benefit. Therefore human rights cannot be truly universal unless they are not bound to cultural decisions that are often not made unanimously, and thus cannot represent every individual that these rights apply to.

Are human rights relative? ›

Human rights are indeed 'universal' in some standard and important senses of that term – but not 'universal' in some equally standard senses. Likewise, human rights both are and are not 'relative' in standard senses of that term.

What is the concept of human rights? ›

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.

What is the difference between cultural relativism and universalism? ›

cultural relativism and radical universalism. Radical cultural relativism would hold that culture is the sole source of the validity of a moral right or rule. Radical universalism would hold that culture is irrelevant to the validity of moral rights and rules, which are universally valid.

How does cultural relativism affect human rights? ›

“Cultural relativists ” believe human rights should take account of cultural differences. Cultural relativism states that values are defined by local culture as opposed to global ideology. Cultural relativists argue that human rights were developed by Western countries and are based on Western morality.

Why is cultural relativism a problematic perspective in promoting universal human right? ›

Alternative Basis for Universal Human Rights

Radical cultural relativism gives too much potential for abuse, with those in power able to dictate what determines 'culture' to hide abuses of power (Freeman, 2011, 120). Radical universalism is also a weak notion, dismissing culture entirely (Donnelly, 1984, 403).

How is the idea of universal human rights distinguished from relativism? ›

How is the idea of universal human rights distinguished from relativism? Universal human rights are the same for all people regardless of nationality or ethnicity, whereas relativism emphasizes due respect for local traditions and histories.

Are human rights universal or relative to each culture? ›

The foundational answer is that human rights are universal because they belong to every human being as such, not merely those having the requisite sex, ethnicity, nobility, caste, talents, or other feature.

What are three main causes of human rights violations? ›

  • Poor socio-economic conditions. Social and political exclusion.
  • Conflict relating to changing power dynamics. Gender-based discrimination and violence.
  • The presence of non-state armed actors. The presence of organized crime.
  • Grievances relating to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. ...
  • Environmental hazards.

What is the main aim of human rights? ›

Human rights are a set of principles concerned with equality and fairness. They recognise our freedom to make choices about our lives and to develop our potential as human beings. They are about living a life free from fear, harassment or discrimination.

Why are human rights important to citizens? ›

Human rights are needed to protect and preserve every individual's humanity, to ensure that every individual can live a life of dignity and a life that is worthy of a human being.

What is the most important human right? ›

Some human rights that can never be restricted – not even during declared national emergencies and wars. These rights are called absolute human rights and they include the right to freedom from torture, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and the right to freedom from slavery.

Why is cultural relativism important essay? ›

It can help to understand different cultures better and to learn from them. It can also help to reduce tensions between different groups. Cultural relativism is also important because it allows people to accept different cultures while still respecting their differences.

How does culture relativism preserve human culture? ›

Cultural relativism maintains that man's opinion within a given culture defines what is right and wrong. Cultural relativism is the mistaken idea that there are no objective standards by which our society can be judged because each culture is entitled to its own beliefs and accepted practices.

What is the universalism theory of human rights? ›

Universality means that human beings are endowed with equal human rights simply by virtue of being human, wherever they live and whoever they are, regardless of their status or any particular characteristics.

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