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Universal Human Rights and Cultural Differences

Since the end of the Second World War, an increasing number of human rights instruments have been adopted, by the United Nations. These instruments have set forth common standards of human rights, and members’ states of the U.N. are called upon to respect in order to ensure better protection of human rights everywhere. But opposite to this trend, there has been a sort of resistance in many parts of the world, where human rights norms are seen as western matter. During the Cool War period, countries of the Soviet block used to consider them as linked to ‘capitalist bourgeoisie’ while young independent nations of the South saw the focus on human rights as a threat to their newly acquired sovereignty. Both sides claimed their right to difference. This raises the issue whether human rights standards should be considered differently because of cultural or differences among peoples. To put it another way, “are human rights of universal viability and applicability or are they better understood and evaluated within specific social and cultural contexts? What level of social accountability can be accommodated within the emerging global human rights regime to accord it cultural legitimacy within various societies?”1 Voices from the West have pointed out that differences among people did not permit them to meet the Western standards of human rights. It is believed that some cultures are more likely to commit human rights abuses, and for a series of reasons, there are people elsewhere to cover them or to keep silent because of their interest, thus ‘excusing the inexcusable’ which they claim being ‘part of their culture’.

The aim of this paper is to sound the long debate on the relationship between universal standards human rights and cultural differences. Firstly, it recalls the foundation on which is grounded the concept of human rights, namely the human dignity, irrespective of culture, race, religion or gender. Secondly, it analyses major arguments put forward by cultural relativists, highlighting their danger, that is, the risk of having double standards of human rights. Finally, in concluding remarks, the paper considers the actual trend of recognizing human rights norms and condemning their abuses (such as female circumcision or sharia), even where people justify them by cultural specificity.

I. The universal concept of human rights and the recognition of human dignity

The concept of human is grounded on the idea that Man has rights simply because he is human. The universal worth and dignity of human being is founded in the writing of philosophers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. For the former, “human beings are by nature free, equal and independent”2, and the protection of that freedom and equality should be the end of the political society. Rousseau also insists on the freedom of the human being and writes that Man should never surrender his freedom: “A man who renounces to his freedom renounces at his quality as human being”. After bloody revolutions, there were attempts to introduce these concepts in states constitution in England, in France, and in the United States of America. But the first recognition of the need to secure rights for human being was stated in the Charter of the United Nations, following the atrocities of the Second World War. In its Preamble, it is said that one of the purpose of the U.N. is the achievement “international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedom for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights is the first instrument on human rights in its preamble presented itself as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations”. It went further by stating: “Recognition of the human dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Subsequent instruments such as the Covenant on Civil and political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights contained what is usually called ‘core rights’ meaning “that are indispensable for an existence in human dignity and therefore need absolute protection”. Among those core rights are the right to life, the prohibition of torture, slavery, arbitrary arrest, discrimination or genocide. No derogation from such rights is permitted, even in time of war.

The philosophical foundations of the concept of human rights are to be found in the Western Europe. As Robertson and Merrils write, “it is clear that the mainstream has its origin in the liberal democratic tradition of Western Europe, a tradition which is itself the product of the Greek philosophy, Roman law, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the humanism of the Reformation and the Age of reason”. It means that the Western World translated into international law its philosophical, moral, cultural and religious value. Questions arise therefore as to their universality that is whether it is possible to take into account the differences while focusing on the common standards of human rights. On the other hand, if cultural differences cannot be denied, it is to establish whether differences can be an excuse to human rights abuses. Who will decide the nature and the level of change to meet universal standards of human rights and how avoid to be labelled /or accused of cultural hegemony?

For the relativists, moral and cultural values differ from one culture to another. According to Parekh, “Different societies throw up different systems of moral beliefs depending on such things as their history, traditions, geographical circumstances, and views of the world. We have no means of judging them for there are no objective and universal criteria available for the purpose, and even if there were, we would be too deeply conditioned by our own society to discover them”.

Cultural differences may have an influence on the human rights issues where national competence, the sovereignty of the state or the quest of self-determination are opposed to the idea of universal human rights standards. The 1993 Vienna Conference was an example of arena where, universal principle of human rights clashed with relativistic assumptions. At the eve of that important even, African and Asian groups of nations mate to draw their views they intended to put forward at the conference. In the Tunis Declaration, which reflected both their convictions and their expectations, the African group nations gave a different sound. While admitting that the universality of human rights, they declared that “ no ready-made model can be prescribed at the universal level since the historical and cultural realities of each nation and the traditions, standards and values of each people cannot be disregarded”. They also highlighted the “principle of the indivisibility of human rights”: “ Civil and political rights cannot be dissociated from economic, social and cultural rights. None of these rights takes precedence over the others”. Finally, the Tunis Declaration insisted on the link between human rights and economic development: “Political freedom when not accompanied by respect for economic, social and cultural rights is precarious. The right to development is inalienable. Human rights, development and international peace are interdependent (…) Africa, which has chosen the path of democracy, economic reform and the promotion of human rights, in an unfavourable international economic environment, and which finds itself particularly exposed to internal tensions deriving from the failure to meet the basic needs of populations and from the rise of extremism, will nevertheless remain committed to its choices and its responsibilities, and calls upon the international community to do likewise, in particular through an intensification of international solidarity, an adequate increase in development assistance and an appropriate settlement of the debt problem”.

In the Bangkok Declaration, Asian group of nations opposed what they saw as Western imperialism and urged the international community to take into account their cultural difference as regard to human rights. While agreeing like Africans that human rights are universal in nature, they insisted that those rights “must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm-setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds”. Furthermore, they added, “the promotion of human rights should be encouraged by cooperation and consensus, and not through confrontation and the imposition of incompatible values”. Finally, criticising “the use of human rights as conditionality for extending development assistance and as an instrument of political pressure”, the Bangkok Declaration stressed “ the need to avoid the application of double standards in the implementation of human rights and its politicisation”. Indonesian Foreign Minister stated later in Vienna: “While human rights are universal in character, it is now generally acknowledged that their expression and implementation in the national context should remain the competence and responsibility of each government. This means that the complex variety of problems of different economic social and cultural realities and the unique value systems prevailing in each country should be taken into consideration”12. One may draw the conclusion that for Southern countries, priority has to be given to the satisfaction of basic needs for food, shelter, clothes before other rights such as freedom of expression and fair elections. One may even go so far to consider Western concepts of human rights as luxury for poor countries, because “cultural

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