22nd April 2014
“The Vienna Declaration (1993) states that
All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
(Section 5, Part 1)”
“Reciprocal systems of rights and duties (obligation) must be as old as human beings themselves” (Galtung, 2004), the value and importance of each, individually dependent, yet also interdependent on the myriad of factors, both positive and negative, which anchor themselves in the notions of differential behaviors between the self and other. Despite ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ being more than half a century old, and the ample discourse on the universality of human rights provided by Western states, critics from around the world continue to be divided, debating whether anything in our multicultural and diverse world can be truly universal. They maintain that, if nothing more, the simple idea of universality poses more questions than it answers, and that this, alongside notions that human rights are essentially a Western political neocolonialistic construct, ignorant of the diversities of culture, economics and politics in other areas of the globe, and fettered with the scent of cultural imperialism, creates a topic that can not be ignored. This paper considers the notion that different cultures should have their own standards of human rights, from a perspective of cultural relativity, and the assertion that morals and ethics remain relative to the cultural context in which they are found.
Beginning with the early records of European explorers, their recollections of experiences, the extraordinary, the quaint and the ‘bizarre’. Depictions of sights such as headhunting, cannibalism, human sacrifice, initiation rites, infanticide, and senilicide, among many others make it easy to catalogue a seemingly infinite variation in human practice and custom, many of which remain confrontational toward personal senses of morality, duty, and ethical conduct. As history recalls, the initial responses of many Europeans was the arrant denial that these people were of the same species, or to insist that they were of a much lower level of development than others. During this period, there was little to no appreciation or understanding of different cultures, customs or ways of life. Post-contact conceptions of humanity remained this way for many years until Western notions of propriety allowed the possibility of such people being conceived as fully human, or at least capable of some form of mental process and reasoning.
Human rights, in its most basic form, is derived from the mere fact of being human. Traditional views hold that such rights are not the result of any single government or legal system, but rather a series of proclaimed, western founded standards, which become a reality when adopted by countries and applied within their existing legal system. The heart of the matter therefore lies in the question being addressed; as mankind has progressed into more recent decades, can identical notions of human rights, assumed by Western societies, be equally applied to other nations, peoples, and cultures with alternate, ethical and moral, understandings and perceptions? Cultural relativists attest that the conventions of human rights are subject to the conditions under which they are exercised and therefore resultant of specific cultural views. Roger Balckburn (2011) extends this argument claiming that notions of universalism are logically based on equality, and that formalized rights of almost all denominations and kind are the inferred expressions of Western values and interests, which are in themselves inherently unequal. With this understanding Otto (1998) argues that while the nature of human rights may be universal, they should also be considered as contextual evolutions of normative empowerments, relative to national and regional idiosyncrasies, within diversified historical, cultural and religious backgrounds. Western society therefore, needs to address the issue pertaining to the perception of the implied right to impose westernized concepts of universal rights on the rest of humanity (Flueh-Lobban, 1995). Regardless of how various notions are examined, there remains no single universality. Independent standards are referenced in regard to particular cultures such that human rights must “take into account the individual member of the social group of which he [or she] is part” (American Anthropologist, 1947).
Although personal viewpoints pertaining to this issue remain diverse, most proponents ascribe to one of three basic groups. Advocates of cultural relativism support varied interpretations of human rights founded on divergent cultural contexts. Alternatively there are those who adhere to the belief that human rights, by its very nature, becomes universal irrespective of cultural context. The third group is comprised of those who advocate a compromise serving to accommodate distinctive cultural context while maintaining selective standards of human rights universality. Regardless of foundational thought, the essence of almost any issue of ethics surrounding human rights, in an ego-centric system where thought surrounds the maximum ‘do onto others as you would have them do onto you’, or its negative, is the rather utilitarinistic doctrine of will provide the greatest benefit for ones-self or the society in which they exist.While the importance of cultural repercussions on human rights is under frequent contention, discussion frequently surrounds the idea, that culture is the primary factor responsible for shaping human thought and behavior.
There are numerous ethical lenses through which the issue of human rights can be analyzed, however for the purposes of this argument the following two fundamentals will suffice. The first, since it has already been noted, utilitarianism, promotes the maximization of ‘utility’, by whatever means this is understood, be it pleasure, happiness, wellbeing, etc. What this translates to is that individuals should conduct themselves in a manner such that the sum total of their positive action outcomes is in excess of any negative outcomes that may have occurred. In this way individuals should strive toward maximizing utility without consideration or thoughts toward honoring or infringing on individuals rights, through the understanding that good exists, in and of itself, prior to issues of rights or duties. Almost directly oppositional, human rights proposes that certain actions can never be done even should they maximize social utility.
Secondly in the form of deontological ethics, justifications appear to be more intimately bound to moral theory, and focus on the duties of individuals and communities rather than the consequences of actions. Simply put, the right thing to do is more important than increasing the good in society. This however, in its absolutist form, often accepts horrendous outcomes for the sake of following laws and rules. Take for example the oaths given by the German Schutzstaffel during World War II, “Ich schwöre Dir, Adolf Hitler, als Führer und Kanzler des Deutschen Reiches Treue und Tapferkeit. Wir geloben Dir und den von Dir bestimmten Vorgesetzten Gehorsam bis in den Tod. So wahr mir Gott helfe !” (Lund, 1995 cited Palomino, 2010). Even the ideologies of so called threshold deontological ethics, which allows for the negation of rules after certain levels of consequence have been achieved, proves problematic. Where should such an arbitrary ‘line in the sand’ be drawn? Such a marker of exception must by nature be high, or else little benefit could be achieved through any discussion concerning rules and duties.
Few would disagree with the statement that there is no ‘universal culture’, but it is by the very nature of this anthropocentric world view, affirmed on western, individualistic beliefs of mankind’s primary desire for freedom (Forde, 2014), cultural relativists maintain that there can be no universal human rights. Part of the means to answering the philosophical objections, which claim the nonexistence of anything intrinsically universal, and by consequence, rights and values are determined and confined by cultural perception, can be derived from the worldview of the group who defines it. Such definitions resonate objections that are founded normatively under both historical and cultural circumstance. In many traditionalist cultures it would be possible to present the argument that one person’s rights are another person’s duty, since there is frequently an intrinsic acceptance that each individual remains an innate part of the foundation of the group, family or clan, which successively becomes the basic unit of the tribe, community or society. In such societies, the view of each member is rarely as a self-determining individual, entitled to rights above society, such that any suspension or restriction imposed on their personal rights, while acknowledged as a sacrifice made by the few toward a collective benefit, does not translate to individual losses of protection from social injustices. Such cultural disparities present ramifications which have resulted in developing countries contending that particular aspects of human rights remain irrelevant to their respective societies. Others however, stress the existence of non-Western doctrines, whose principles encompass systems culturally appropriate to these societies, while closely approximating the ideals of western developed understandings of human rights.
Although issues of human rights hold different interpretations dependent on social construct, normative values common to each provide a common human rights vocabulary through which the invocations of distinct parties become articulated. The ratification of international protocols is frequently provided as testimony that such notions are universally shared values, and in turnestablishes governmental mandates which provide validation to the complaints of individual cases and classes. Such models establish legal standards for government oversight, the application of coercive action and as legally codified, non-discriminatory guidelines for appropriate conduct. None of these translate directly as human rights and none of them universal. The assertion made that morals and ethics are relative to the cultural context in which they are found remains true, attesting to the notion that standards of human rights should be established and maintained relative to the perspective of the culture in which they are to be found.
Blackburn, R.L. (2011). Cultural Relativism, Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council. Institut Catala Internacional perla Pau, Barcelona, September 2011.
Donnelly, J. (1984). Cultural relativism and universal human rights, Human rights quarterly, vol 6 no 4.
Fluehr-Lobban, C. (1995). Cultural relativism and universal rights, The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Forde, S. (2014). John Locke and the Natural Law and Natural Rights Tradition. Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism. Online: Retrieved from http://nlnrac.org/early modern/locke/
Galtung, J. (1994). Human Rights in another key. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
Otto, D. (1998). Rethinking the Universality of Human Rights Law. Human Rights Quarterly.
Palomino, M. (2010). Germany and Europe: Germanic Fart: from Tacitus to Hitler’s ruin – from 15th to 20th century. Online: Retrieved from http://geschichteinchronologie.ch/eu/3R/GERMANENFURZ-ENGL.html
Statement on Human rights of the American Anthropological Association: American Anthropologist, New Series vol. 49 no.4 pt. 1 (1947)
United Nations Human Rights. (1993) Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, Adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna on 25 June 1993. Online: Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/vienna.aspx
 English: “I vow to you, Adolf Hitler, as Führer and chancellor of the German Reich loyalty and bravery. I vow to you and to the leaders that you set for me, absolute allegiance until death. So help me God!”