Soraya Ghebleh - Essay on Human rights and Cultural Relativism
Human beings are diverse in appearance, behavior, culture, but human
nature is derived from the shared characteristic of merely being born human.
Modern discussion on human rights has only been formulated in the last few
centuries. A human right is defined as a right that is inherent by virtue of humanity
alone. These rights are inalienable and can never be annulled or denied by outside
parties and conflicts between rights must be resolved with just, impartial laws and
Documents like the Universal Human Declaration of Human Rights delineate
what these basic rights consist of but there is stilllittle consensus on what
justificationsmakes rights universal on a philosophical level.2Positive legal norms
have been established but there are still disagreements as to the moral reasons
behind these norms. The ability, however, to discuss and hold different opinions
about human rights demonstrates the universality of rights and principles that
everyone in the world, regardless of culture holds dear.
The decision to enforce human rights law needs to be balanced with
principles of state sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs. In the last
century, the world witnessed atrocities governments committed against their own
people. An agreement on basic concepts of right and wrong regardless of country,
culture, or belief system needed to be established and the Declaration of Human
Rights accomplished this by establishing basic civil, political, economic, social, and
cultural rights for “all members of the human family” with the intent of establishing
“a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations.3 The ratification of
this document, however, still does not establish the universality of human rights
because many argue that it promotes Western values without taking inspiration
from indigenous, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern traditions. Many nations
continue to vehemently oppose any kind of interference with domestic affairs on the
“basis of alleged human rights standards” but if these nations were to join the
discussion and come to international consensus on what human rights standards
are, they may be more open minded.4
Cultural relativism exists in the human rights regime but can absolutely be
reconciled with the universality of basic human rights. The acknowledgment that
different cultures have different beliefs does not eliminate the claim that human
rights are universal, rather it “points to the need to justify universality within a
framework that acknowledges the descriptive truth of cultural pluralism.5I believe
that it is wrong to assume that we cannot create a universal set of norms just
1P. Sieghart, The International Law of Human Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).
2Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 71 (1948)
3Weinberg, Matthew. (1996). The Human rights discourse: a baha'i' perspective.
Baha'i' World, 247-273.
4Sloane, Robert D. "Outrelativizing relativism: a liberal defense of the universality of international human
rights." Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 34.3 (2001): 527.
because various cultures may not agree on every aspect of what is right and wrong.
The “requirement of relativism that diversity be recognized in no way destroys the
possibility of an international moral community,” because through research,
communication, and understanding, it becomes obvious that almost every culture in
the world shares common, universal, moral ground on some level.6
There are acts that are considered morally reprehensible that no person or
culture regardless of birthplace could deny, such as murder, rape, genocide, human
sacrifice, and ritualistic mutilation. Although the Declaration of Human Rights
undoubtedly has many roots in Western ideals, this does not make it irrelevant or
out of line with the beliefs of other cultures and belief systems. The 1993 Vienna
Declaration was adopted by 171 nations, with these nations recognizing that
“Human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings;
their protection and promotion is the first responsibility of
Governments…regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems…The
universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question.”7 A majority of
the nations in the world agreed to the universality of human rights and although
these rights have yet to achieve full consensus from every culture on every level, the
push to achieve solidarity is clearly in place in this interconnected, global world and
for the safety and security of humanity it needs to be. Politicians still use relativism,
however, as a means of justifying their actions and treatment towards their citizens
while avoiding criticism by using “culture” as a defense.
It is impossible to assert that there is only one, single understanding of
“human well-being or only one code of moral truth in a diverse world.”8 It will not
be fruitful or beneficial to try and create a system of assuring rights that tries to
reconcile every single belief system and set of cultural norms. Trying to come to an
agreement on the particular social, economic, and moral aspects of human rights is
similar to trying to come to agreements on international law and the systems by
which we govern the international system. It takes time, discussion, and
compromise but the benefits of cooperation and consensus far exceed the costs and
the ultimate goal is to improve humanity.
Human rights violations continue to occur, however, for various different
reasons but one in particular is extremely relevant to the discussion of differing
cultural beliefs. If there is a lack of cultural legitimacy for the right being violated,
the person committing the offense would not think it a problem. An international
consensus “establishing the legitimacy of human rights in differing cultural
traditions is a prerequisite for developing universal and effective standards of
6 Sloane, 2001
7Vienna Declaration, World Conference on Human Rights, June 1993, New York : United Nations, Dept.
of Public Information, 1993.
human rights.”9 In order to try and overcome disagreements on what the specifics of
human rights law and norms should be cross-culturally, existing human rights
standards need to be re-examined and looked at by all cultures, including the West,
to guarantee the highest degree of collaboration and lowest degree of
ethnocentrism. This kind of international consultation could potentially ensure
higher levels of stability and security and greatly reduce future violations of human
Human rights advocacy groups and NGOs dedicated to ensuring the
standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and looking out for human
rights violations are also key players in this ongoing discussion. Groups like
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch collect data, interview people who
have suffered violations, and advocate on the behalf of those who have undergone
violations to the Declaration. These groups are important because they can apply
political pressure on different countries and create public awareness and outcry at
atrocities being committed to people around they world. They are also able to assist
in attaining the economic and social rights proposed by international human rights
standards. International players, states, and mankind all need to work together to
ensure that every human being has access to the rights decided and agreed upon by
the world, that every person would want for themselves and the people they love to
be given and achieved by every human being.
9Mayer, Ann Elizabeth. "Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives: A Quest for Consensus." Human
Rights Quarterly 14.4 (1992): 527-534.