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Human Rights: Universalism vs Cultural Relativism — A Brief Thought


Human Rights Discourse

The human rights discourse has been under heated debates and discussions as it continues to be a problematic issue due to disagreements between societies, individuals and states. Although human rights document holds certain power within societies and in the international arena, it would be a mistake to assume that the contemporary human rights framework is accepted worldwide. If it was the case, then there would not be ongoing critics of the human rights concept as a legal and regulatory system. In general, individuals assume that if the international community withholds a legitimate document that outlines the rights of every single individual within the globe and is assumed that it is designed for the purpose of protection of their rights, then there is no underlining counter-argument that would question the efficiency and rationale of it. However, this assumption is mistaken. This is not to argue or discuss the reason for the existence of human rights as a legal system or the roots of it as this is not an entirely philosophical interpretation of the issue even though human rights discourse requires methodical observation, it is merely to understand why the enforcement of the legal international framework as human rights has been problematic in the past decades and continues to be an issue of disagreement among different entities.


The most used and recognised legitimate mechanism that defines and summarises the rights of individuals is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted shortly after World War II (1939 - 1945) in 1948. Since then it is regarded as a holy scripture by a majority of people, especially within the Western part of the globe. The adaptation of a legal document that outlines human rights is a core around which revolves the political, economic and social life just as the planets revolve around the sun. However, not many realise that the UN’s well-known Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not as definite as they believe. The main issue is not whether the states or certain individuals stay accountable to the human rights framework and or how should be managed so the violators have consequences, or whether is there a greater benefit from the implementation of this framework to a certain group of people. Although these points require thorough analysis and studies, the main idea of this paper is to attempt to identify why the contemporary framework of human rights is not globally accepted by everyone, especially by those who do not belong to the Western part of the world.


Figure 1: Eleanor Roosevelt and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What are human rights?

Before the attempt to investigate this particular issue, it is important to briefly look at how the idea of human rights came into existence, or simply put, what is the nature of human rights. It is true to say that the rights that human beings possess have been there since birth. Since the existence of the first human being, individuals have been entitled to certain rights that are God-given. Therefore, rights are inherent to humans, and the roots of today’s human rights concept derive from early times. It would be baseless to assume that the origins of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 or even The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 do not have theological, and or anthropological grounds. For instance, one of the essential documents that shaped the United States of America is the Declaration of Independence of 1776 which also contained an outline of the basic human rights such as rights to liberty, life and pursuit of happiness which is inherently “endowed by their Creator”. Therefore, rights, in general, are related to the divine decree. The rights that belong to every human being, such as the right to equality, liberty, etc. come from the law of nature. Those rights are appointed by God and are mainly interpreted through the scriptures. Any contemporary framework of human rights has the foundations from the divine decree. John Locke, a 17th-century political philosopher, whose works heavily influenced the way today’s world’s public administration is shaped and functioning, proposed in his famous Second Treaties of Government that the issue of the fundamental human rights of people is the rules and norms that “God hath given to mankind” (Locke, 1690). It would be simple to assume, as the universalists do if all human beings have a mutual ancestral line then all individuals regardless of the geographical locations do have the same human rights, therefore, the universally designed human rights framework ought to be accepted by everyone. If the study of human rights is observed through the simple and general anthropological perspective then it is to be agreed that all human beings regardless of their status within the society or the circumstances are indeed entitled to fundamental rights, such as the right to life, right to equality, etc. However, these assumptions are not entirely true.


Figure 2: The original Declaration of Independence.

Although human beings have the same lineage, as per historical development, people grow into different cultures, norms, beliefs and traditions. People tend to change their system of beliefs which also makes one person to be different from another. Apart from it, in the contemporary world, people disregard the importance of theological grounds, therefore, an exploration of human rights becomes irrelevant on a metaphysical level, and their only source of understanding human rights is legal enactments designed by people. Moreover, even though, as discussed earlier, the basics of human rights are derived through the law of nature, the broad interpretation and expansion of human rights brought with it crucial challenges.


Yet, the main proposal of this writing is not about the historical birth of the concept of human rights. This paper tends to investigate one of the major challenges that today’s legal system of human rights generates which is the clash between universalism and cultural relativism. It is one of the reasons why the universal legal document of human rights is not accepted globally. Although, the concept itself lacks an unequivocal definition and interpretation, the major issue that the legal framework of human rights faces is the importance of understanding the idea of universalism and cultural relativism. This article will thoroughly analyse the core difference between these two opposing interpretations and will argue that the legal enforcement of human rights, which is in the contemporary world based upon the universalist approach, serves as a threat to social stability among the people and the states. This paper will attempt to identify if the holistic approach to the creation of human rights is a possibility in the contemporary world. The heated debate within the human rights discourse is the idea of universalism, which is based on the contemporary international mandate of human rights, and cultural relativism, which is in return continuously criticised as being absurd and illogical.


Figure 3: The logo of the Arab Charter on Human Rights.

Universalism vs Cultural Relativism

The globally used UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights name itself contains the word “universal” which points to the fact that it is an international legitimate framework that is expected to be accepted worldwide by every single country that is recognised internationally. This itself is problematic. The universality of human rights simply means that every society even though each of them possesses absolutely opposite beliefs, norms, values and system of governance is expected to be obedient to one set of rules. Even if supposedly the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proposed for genuinely humanitarian purposes, it neglects the fact that human beings comprehend the question of humanitarianism, morality, dignity and ethics differently. There is no concrete ground on which individuals come together in their understanding even though there is a unified truth.


The universalistic approach mainly revolves around a liberal political ideology which propagates freedom, equality, democracy, individualism and so on. These main concepts are a part of today’s legal enactments. These values are considered to be superior as they are the ones who promote peace, prosperity and development in society. However, one of the main issues that stand out is the conceptualisation of these terms. What does freedom mean and to what extent it is taken? What if freedom of action happens to contradict ethics? Then arises the question of ethics and everyone has their own definition of ethics which consequently leads to complex problems within society and the world. Langlois (2009) noticed that the universality of the human rights framework is born out of the moral argument. Even, as was discussed earlier, the human rights discourse is derived from moral grounds, in the contemporary world morality for each culture and each person is different. The need for searching for the truth becomes necessary. In most cases, especially to be witnessed in the West, the concept of freedom is taken above morality. Perhaps, in the Western world, the display of affection in public between two people is regarded as freedom of action, whereas in Qatar, for instance, any display of affection in public is frowned upon and justified on moral grounds. Both, the West and Qatar have the concept of freedom; however, it is interpreted differently.


Figure 4: Core of a human being.

The question of democracy has been the major one over the past decades. Human Rights discourse, as per the universalistic approach, arises from democracy and only within the democratic society, the human rights can exist. It generates several points. Assuming that in order to implement universal human rights in certain countries, first they have to be democratically structured. This assumption is highly dangerous. It can be given to legal groups for illegitimate interference with the slogan of establishing democracy and in reality have different intentions and objectives. It can also work and vice versa. UNUDHR is expected to be followed globally, therefore, if any of the rights are violated it can also give a legal ground for the dominant state to use coercion in relation to other countries. Fields (2003) highlighted the fact that there is a possibility for the state to have an “obligation to intercede and remedy the violations”. This certain belief can cause destabilisation within the country, between people and states, and lead to detrimental consequences. Moreover, implementation of the democracy and international human rights politics in another state who has a different political and socio-economic structure is an attempt at the forceful integration of people with different views, values and beliefs. Countries that have Shari’a Law as their legitimate way of governance and where people abide by different rules cannot be integrated into another set of values. It means that people within that society have to conform to that specific societal standard and forcefully conform to it. It is itself a violation of human rights. As a matter of fact, Indonesia passed legislation prohibiting any sexual intercourse before marriage. It is officially a law of the country. This news created a big resonance among human rights activists as well as the LGBT community (Aljazeera, 2022). This particular issue can trigger the human rights framework as it contradicts the right to freedom. For the Western world, this legislature might seem absurd as it directly contradicts the right to freedom; however, for Indonesia, it does not. The question now is about the conceptualisation of the term “freedom“ and what it means. Therefore, the application of the UNUDHR becomes irrelevant as their understanding of freedom is different. The culture, religion and morals of Indonesia are reflected in their laws and in their understanding of rights, such as liberty. If a country or the population denies accepting the universal standards of human rights and way of life, then they are often regarded as uncivilised and backward.


Figure 5: Cover image from the book "Orientalism" by Edward W. Said.

It is undoubtedly true that some countries with authoritarian leadership manipulate the idea of cultural relativism in order to control the citizens. For instance, Prasad (2007) talked in his article about how the authoritarian leadership of Zimbabwe used cultural relativism to abuse the rights of homosexuals. The same cases might be found in other countries. However, the essential point here is that although the leadership might be authoritarian, what does the majority of the population believe? It is a mistaken assumption not to take into consideration the consensus. If the population of the country has its morals and beliefs, then its form of governance is relying on its values. It is undoubtedly unjustifiable to kill or torture a person; however, attempting to force the country to embrace alien to them ideas is simply wrong. Killing a human being is not justifiable and it is a crime. However, attempting to integrate that country into the universal human rights framework is also a mistake. Therefore, it requires deeper analyses and other solutions rather than coercive attempts at integration. For instance, Shari’a Law is a God-given set of rules and regulations that dictate how a person should live his life in order to be successful. People follow those rules within the countries and they would not want to be bound to the international universal law that might preach the opposite doctrine. Even though the country might be under authoritarianism and to dethrone them a country should be forced to accept the universal declarations, it does not mean that the population should bend the knee and be obedient to the human rights framework or have any influence from alien to their ideology. It requires a deeper analysis and problem-solving and adequate resolutions that would take into consideration all the aspects.


The diversification of the global society is one of the if not the only significant reasons why there is an ongoing discussion between universalism and cultural relativism. The most popular opinion stands that the concept of human rights was born in the Western Hemisphere as a response to the deeply hierarchical, racial and violent way of governance and life. Jack Donnelly (2013), in his book Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, emphasised the idea that human rights and their practices shaped the Western culture and not the other way around. It is the role of human rights that gives a certain course or direction to the countries. It can also be assumed, following the phrase, that the contemporary human rights framework is designed to shape the lives of other societies, even though they are different. It resembles forceful integration as the universal approach disregards the notion of differences between people and countries. Higgins (2012) in The human rights commission highlighted that the concept of culture was seen as a “malign force", and by not taking it into an account it led to the emergence of concentration camps. Therefore, it was important to reconsider cultural relativity.

Thought-Provoking Questions

Can it be argued that the adaptation of the international universal human rights covenant means the reconstruction of the whole identity and the change of the cultural-traditional way of life? We could assume that their adaptation of them is a good thing; however, who decides what good and bad are? If no one, then what right it gives to one group of people to design the universal international framework and anticipate everyone's participation and obedience? If human rights discourse is a complex issue, does it mean we have to refer back to theological reasoning to identify what is human rights and what is not? When a society loses the theological reasoning, then it becomes up to people to design a human rights framework which creates further issues.


Bibliographical References

Donnelly, J. (2013). Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. Coronell University Press.


Fields, A. B. (2003). Rethinking Human Rights for the New Millennium. Palgrave Mcmillan.


Higgins, M. (2012). The Human Rights Discourse: Its Importance And Its Challenges. The human rights commission's annual lecture international human rights day.


Indonesia passes new criminal code, outlaws sex outside marriage (2022). Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/12/6/indonesia-passes-legislation-outlawing-sex-outside-marriage


Locke, J. (1980). Second Treaties of Government. Hackett Publishing.


Prasad, A. (2007). Cultural Relativism in Human Rights Discourse. Peace Review.


The Declaration of Independence. US History. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/

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Kanan Babazade

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