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Universal Human Rights and the Challenge of Cultural Relativism

  • 06 Pages
  • Published On: 28-10-2023


The idea of universal human rights emerged in the 20th Century with the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in Paris, France. Prott and UNESCO (2009) explicate that to the proponents of the idea of universal human rights; the 1948 declaration is a sacred document. The document consists of 30 articles which espouse the various economic, social and political rights and freedoms that every individual in the universe are entitled. Universal human rights are deemed to be self-evident, inalienable and applicable to all persons in the world. People, in this case, are entitled to these rights based on the fact that they are born human (Goodale, 2013). However, the idea of universality of human rights has been met with widespread criticism from both scholars as well as practitioners across the world. The majority of the critics argue that universality of human rights is a western idea that largely ignores the differences in norms and cultures of societies in such places as Asia, Africa, and South America. This essay purposed on evaluating the problems that emanate from the idea of having universality in human rights in the world.

Problems with the Idea of Universal Human Rights

Freeman (2008) argues that the biggest problem with the concept of universality in human rights is the idea itself. According to critics, the idea and the articles in the UN Declaration on Human rights are largely based on the Western Philosophy and legal framework. In this case, the idea cannot, therefore, be espoused to apply to the whole world since it fails to incorporate the differences in societal norms and cultures across the Universe. On the other hand, the Western liberals who largely act as propagators of the idea of universality of human rights hold the common notion that perspectives held by the Africans, Asians, and Arabs pose the biggest challenge towards the attainment of universal human rights (El-Nazzer, 2009). In this case, it is, therefore, important to explore the differences in the ideological, religious, political and cultural perspectives that render the idea of having universality in human rights such a hotly debated topic.

Firstly, the most common challenge to the notion of universality in human rights is the cultural relativism concept. Based on the arguments of cultural relativism, each culture possesses its unique value system, practices, and norms (El-Nazzer, 2009). As such, before any value judgments can be made on the culture, the cultural context has been taken into account. For example, while the practice of polygamy and female circumcision often looks strange to western

societies it is widely accepted in Africa as well as other places in Asia. According to Langlois (2009) there persist differences between the Western interpretation of human rights and the Asian, African and Latin understanding of human rights. The western nations such as the USA and the UK are individualistic societies based on the Hofstede index. In this case, the national laws and provisions on human rights place prime importance on an individual. However, other societies in the world are based on collectivism as opposed to individualism. Polisi (2004) explains that to Vedic traditions, the duties of the individuals are considered to be of higher importance than the rights of the individuals. On the other hand, in African societies, the rights of the community as a whole take precedence over the individual’s rights of the individuals. Moreover, the personal liberties of the individuals mean less given that the decisions in the political process of the nation are based on the consensus in the society and not individual rights and liberty to vote. Viljoen (2012) opines that in the Africa, the decision to marry lies not with the woman but with their family and at times their community. In this case, the argument for free choice contravenes the cultural beliefs of the African societies and the claim for such a right for the woman negatively impacts on the bond that they have with their family and societies. As such, Langlois (2009) espouses the idea of universality of human rights is flawed as it fails to integrate the relativism in differences cultures in the world.

Secondly, the idea of universality of human rights is viewed as taking precedence over the economic development goals of a nation. Ayittey (2011) opines that for the developing countries across the world, the key focus is on the economic development of their nations in ways that reduce the prevailing poverty levels in the nation as well as provide services to citizens. Freeman (2008) adds that developing nations in Africa, South America, and Asia view the implementation of human rights as being an expensive and risky exercise. The advocates of the idea of economic development in developing nations argue that unlike the western countries, the developing countries are divided across ethnic lines. Thus, there is a general fear that the human rights pose the threat of subverting social order in their countries hindering economic development. According to Ayittey (2011), the rapid economic growth recorded in the Asian Tigers economies is credited to the authoritarian rule embraced by governments in these economies. The Asian culture is based on the Confucian values which encourage the people to be obedient, be orderly as well as respect authority. The view in these nations is that individual human rights should be suspended for the benefit of the many in society. There is, therefore, a valid argument that human

rights should not be enforced in such developing nations, given that unlike western countries, developing nation’s economies cannot support the honoring of universal human rights as their nation building and economic development tasks have not yet been attained. Thirdly; many anti-west regimes view the idea of universality in human rights as being the new model of western imperialism. Reggner (2011) espouses those leaders that do not support the Western powers view the advocacy of human rights in their nations as the new model embraced by the western powers for the purposes of masking their interests in their nations. Viljoen (2012) argues that though regarded as the stewards of the implementation of universal human rights, western nations continually dismissed human rights violations committed by leaders in the nations that they considered friendly during the cold war period. Good examples include the US support and extension of foreign aid to the Moi regime in Kenya, Haile Selassie in Ethiopia and Pinochet in Chile (Coyne and Ryan, 2009). Moreover, there is the shadow rhetoric that precipitated the invasion of Iraq and the overthrowal of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq in the year 2003 which alluded that the nation was harboring weapons of mass destruction and was violating human rights. Contrastingly; the United States has continually failed to promote human rights in the neighboring Kuwait despite having a strong presence in the nation for decades. Burt, S., & Añorve (2008) argue that the US argument can justify the use of human rights as a tool for imperialism that its inability to advocate for human rights in friendly nations as being caused by the differences in the domestic policies of these nations.

Moreover, in line with postulations of cultural relativism, the discussion of the differences in the cultural orientations is inseparable from the issue of religion. Critics in religious circles argue that the idea of universality of human rights lacks validity, as it is not founded on the transcendent values that are symbolical of God and which are endorsed by the guardians of the many religious beliefs in the world (Atiemo, 2008). As such, the cardinal document of the 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights cannot claim such heritage (Nathan, 2009). Feron (2014) deems human rights to be a worldwide secular religion, one founded on the basic tenets of faith but also one that draws parallels with the religious beliefs in some societies. For example, during the adoption of the 1948 UN Human rights Declaration, Saudi Arabia refused to vote due to two reasons; freedom granted to individuals to leave their religion and equality of rights in marriage. The religious rights of people in Saudi Arabia are based on the Sharia law and not on the UN declaration on human rights. Banchoff (2009) explains that differences in western religion and religious beliefs in other parts of the world have been the achievement of universality in human rights problematic.


Based on the evaluation above, it is evident that the idea of universal human rights in the world though noble has encountered several problems. Firstly, the universality of human rights has been hindered by differences in societies across the worlds. Moreover, the rights are based on western laws and philosophies which make them not applicable in other societies. Secondly, the advocacy of human rights in anti-western nations is seen as a measure of masking the interests of western nations in the anti-west nations. Thirdly, the implementation of individual human rights is viewed as not being a priority in developing nations where nation building and economic development goals take precedence. Finally, the differences persisting in religious faiths across the world have also impeded on the idea of having universal human rights in such states as Saudi Arabia which adopts Sharia law.


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