Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Human Rights Enforcement: Cultural Relativism and Universalism

From the beginning of history of human rights law there has been a debate between cultural relativists and universalists. Cultural relativism presupposes the relevance of culture in human rights enforcement. Many states violating human rights use this approach when justifying their actions. "Our country has an exceptional, unique culture and history. We are doing our best, but we did not violate human rights when we upheld our laws," they say and continue the abuses or mitigate them by haphazard and uncommitted enforcement to avoid the 'sticks' from other nations.

Universalism instead proclaims the superiority of certain universal values and code of rules over a specific 'unique' culture or nation. In its quest to express, promulgate and seek obedience to these universal values, universalism much too often disregards cultural differences among the subjects-- state actors. After all, every state formulating its pathways in obeying human rights law is a mirror of the people it purports to represent and people are products of their culture, more or less. While in this interdependent world stark cultural differences among countries have superficially dissipated, they still exist under the surface, especially at a cross-regional level. European countries share many core values amongst themselves that they could hardly share with African countries and vice versa.

So both cultural relativism and universalism are co-existent and are not mutually exclusive. Both are imperfect approaches when taken separately, but in reality they enmesh very positively together. Therefore, human rights law enforcement should not be taken one-dimensionally from either perspective. When a region or a set of countries-- finding this core set of values among themselves-- proclaims their version of Declaration of Human Rights, it should not be taken negatively. The goal behind this process is salutary, if it is only not used as an excuse to violate the universal norms set by the United Nations. Islamic states have done that and have proclaimed their versions of Declaration of Human Rights-- not very different from the UN version except for their religiosity, not welcomed by universalists (for an example here). For more on this see my upcoming article "Islamic Law and Path to Peace."

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