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The Clash Of Human Rights Ideas: Between Universalism And Relativism – Analysis

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By Nargiz Hajiyeva*

Human rights from the prism of universalism

After the outbreak of the Second World War, maintaining and in particular, providing a universal set of rules and values of human rights were put forward as one of the basic duties. Universalist approach searches for what is methodical and systematic, tries to enforce the rules, laws, and norms on all of its members so that things can run more resourcefully. In order to promote democracy in terms of human rights should be a pivotal priority of each state. Certainly, the development of a state adequately depends on preserving, and especially the implementation of human rights in civil society. In our current world, human rights are based on two predominant approaches in accordance with regions-East and West, North and South. One of them is universalism, another is cultural relativism. The cutting edge universalism theory of human rights can be founded not only on common law, equity, response to dignity, injustice, and fairness of appreciation, but also capacities of a human being, moral agency, and self-ownership, among other people Universal sets of standards, rules, and values are based on Western countries prospects. The history of universalism can be traced back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948, as a pivotal guide to mankind. As a result, The Declaration expressed a novel denotation to the word “universalism.”

The fundamental values and principles highlighting the concept of human rights are of a universal character. Thus, these values and principles referred to the concept of individual liberty and freedoms, the belief in democracy and political rights, the acknowledgment of social and economic rights. “To a large extent, universality is one of the indispensable descriptions of human rights. From this perspective, human rights are civil rights that apply to all humankind and are therefore referred to universal values and rules. All human beings are the possessor of these civil rights, independent from what they actually do, where they come from, where they reside and from their national citizenship, their community, etc. “The universality of human rights is rooted in and also manipulated by the other characteristics of human rights: human rights are categorical (every human being has these rights, they cannot be denied to anyone), democratic (also called egalitarian-every human being has the same rights), individual (human rights apply to every human being as individual and protect the latter from violations by a collective recognizing at the same time the important role of a collective for the individual, they have their own rights to provide themselves sufficiently in social community, such as freedom of living, speech and etc), fundamental (human rights protect basic and essential elements of human continuation) and indivisible (the whole catalog of human rights must be respected, they are complimentary)”.[1]

It would be necessary to emphasize that promoting democracy, providing human rights, individual liberty, national self-determination, and the other values were noted on Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen-point program. The main crux of universalism is the implementation of universal sets of norms, and values along with not only Western countries, but also Eastern, Asian and The Middle Eastern countries, where cultural relativism (mainly moral relativism) dominates and contains its moral and ethical values over people of these countries. Universal human rights are based on Western ideology. It has been argued that universalism on human rights merely referred to Western Imperialism. It put forward some challenges in accordance with the main priorities and prospects of universal human rights. Unquestionably, we apparently realize that countries who reject the universal sets of standards as a policy of Western countries, form some basic values and ethical values based on cultural relativism. Universalism and cultural relativism cannot coincide with each other in terms of diverse moral and universal values.

In our industrialized world, the universal sets of values cannot be wholly implemented to all countries, because of the fact that strong dominance of primordial cultural and ethical values and standards which bolster their places among people within civil society, at the same time reject the universalism of human rights. On the other hand, cultural relativism cannot be accepted as universal moral values for countries. According to providing human rights, universalism is a pivotal approach that has more opportunities than cultural relativism. But, in more cases, we try to percept the today’s realities of the world. In general, as we understand that providing universal human rights have to base on the basic principles and rules within international law, but cultural relativism cannot refer to the rules and norms of international law, because of having predominant cultural and traditional values and norms within its own system. Thus, a related challenge is that the inspirations of human rights do not aid to solve the most disputable issues of non-Western societies. The extreme of which is that the idea of human rights is in many cases, as opposed to the ideas and values of non-Western countries.

In the case of the universality of human rights, there are some challengeable situations along with the implementation and perception of human rights. Since the publication of Pollis and Schwab’s Human Rights: Cultural and Ideological Perspectives in 1979, human rights universalists and cultural relativists have collided in regard to legality and applicability of human rights outside the West within civil society. In their confrontational lead essay, “Human Rights: as Western Construct with Limited Applicability,” the authors argued that “the Western political philosophy upon which the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are based provides only one specific elucidation of human rights, and that this Western notion may not be successfully applied to non-Western areas” due to ideological and cultural differences.[2]

Apart from these, it can be comprehended that Universality of human rights refers to Western cultures, in particular, traditional and moral characters, which can not be implemented to non-Western countries because of having their own cultural and ethical rules and norms. The implementation of universal human rights from the Western perspective to relativist non-Western countries cannot achieve any kind of success in terms of providing human rights sufficiently, because of the fact, universal human rights merely concern on the Western-cultural sets of norms. Thus, in the case of non-Western countries, cultural relativism and universalism can collide with each other in for a range of reasons, for instance, considering moral and ethical standards, attitudes toward human rights, implementation of these rights and etc.

The approach of cultural relativism

Relativism is characterized as a set of views about the connection between morals and culture or humanity. Apart from universalism, cultural relativism is based on morals, ethics, and customs of each human society and differs from one another. Thus, what is the crux of cultural relativism within civil society? Cultural relativism is the vision that all beliefs, traditions, and morals are in respect to the person inside of his own social setting. As such, “right” and “wrong” are society particular; what is viewed as good in one society may be viewed as morally wrong in another, and, since no worldwide standards of morals and ethical behaviors exist, nobody has the privilege to judge another society’s traditions. Moreover, we can not judge someone, or person with his or her cultural values, in particular ethics and morals in society.

Cultural relativism is an aphoristic standard created by Franz Boas and advanced by his successors of human sciences in the 1940s. It was blended with moral relativism during the Meetings of the Commission of Human Rights of the United Countries in setting up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1946-1948.  Thusly, the scholastic marvel of cultural relativism grew synchronously with the conception and development of the universal human rights lawful administration. Actually, discussion, cultural relativism within the order of humanities is a heuristic device reflecting the rule that an individual human’s convictions bode well as far as his own particular society, while moral relativism imitates the rule that all societies and all worth frameworks, while unmistakable, are just as substantial.

In 1887, Franz Boas first ascribed this principle as “… civilization is not something complete but is relative, and our thoughts and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes”, whereby, he formed an adage of anthropological research.[3]

According to some analysts, cultural relativism sees nothing naturally wrong with any cultural appearance. As a consequence, the primordial Mayan practices of self-mutilation and human sacrifice are neither good nor bad; they are simply cultural distinguishing, analogous to the American custom of shooting fireworks on the Fourth of July. Human sacrifice and fireworks -both are merely diverse products of separate socialization. Cultural relativism engenders in each human society differently.[4] Cultural relativity is an irrefutable fact that ethical rules and social institutions produce astounding cultural and historical variability. Cultural relativism is an authoritative opinion that holds that (at any rate some) such contrasts are absolved from legitimate criticism by outsiders, a precept that is firmly bolstered by ideas of mutual independence and self-determination.

Moral judgments, notwithstanding, would appear to be basically widespread, as proposed by Kant’s definite imperative as well as by the common sense difference in the middle of the principled and self-intrigued activity.  The perception of human rights in the modern world from the prism of both universalism and cultural relativism is entirely complicated. At the same time, they showed their assumptions and ideas with a radical approach. In this case, two extreme positions can be considered in each called radical universalism and radical cultural relativism. Radical cultural relativism holds the opinion that culture is the sole wellspring of the legitimacy of ethical rights and rules. Radical universalism emphasized that culture is unimportant to the legitimacy of moral rights and principles, which are universally lawful and valid.      

Furthermore, the main arms of the cultural relativism are typified as strong and weak cultural relativism. How were they considered under the rules of human society? –  Strong cultural relativism refers to culture as a vital source of the legitimacy of ethical rights, in particular, morality and rules. The standards of Universal human rights, however, serve in conjunction with ensuring on potential excesses of relativism. At its utmost extreme, just short of radical relativism, strong cultural relativism would recognize a few basic rights with virtual universal requests, but allow such a wide range of variation for most rights that two entirely reasonable sets might overlap only somewhat. Weak cultural relativism also cites that culture may be an imperative well of the legitimacy of an ethical right and rules.  Universality is at first assumed, however, the relativity of human instinct, groups, and rights serve as to verify on potential abundances of universalism. In some cases, weak cultural relativism would perceive an extensive arrangement of by all appearances universal human rights, but permit intermittent and entirely constrained neighborhood varieties and special cases. [5]

Hence, the cultural impacts on human civilization are unalienable, regarding the fact in civil societies had been formed by the effects of various types of moral and ethical powers, in particular, primordial traditions belonged to each human being. Thus, in today’s world, the realities of East and West, North and South are irrefutable. Moreover, there can be slight uncertainty that there are important, structurally determined cultural and in many cases, moral distinctions for example, between the basic “personality and natures “of men and particularly, women in modern western and traditional Islamic or Muslim societies. Thus, human nature formed the basic personality of each human being within his or her civil community.    Relativism centers on the thoughts of moral self-sufficiency and public self-determination.   Regarding cultural relativism, it also establishes the internal and external effects of morality.

The main features of internal evaluations were given by your own society, but the external evaluation focus would seem universal judgments that can be affected by western or other foreign societies. Furthermore, moral judgment by their society is normal and universal for its human nature. Because of the fact that he or she belongs to this civil society which is based on its cultural and moral characteristics and for this reason, moral judgments given by his or her own society center on their genesis and historically specific contingent.  

Pre-colonial African village, Native American tribes, and traditional Islamic or Muslim social community focus on the native morality of cultural relativism. Universal human rights are strange to their community, the reason why, they merely concern on their native traditional values, because of the fact that the communal self-determination, in particular, moral self-sufficiency engenders cultural and social variability of human nature within their own community.[6] Long-established traditional cultures of Africans for example, usually were powerfully constitutional, with compulsory major restrictions on civil society. These kinds of central limitations also deprived them of the main universal and identified norms and values of the contemporary world. Thus, it can lead to strong despotism and violence in this community.    According to cultural relativism, it can be essential to mention some Asian, the Middle Eastern and Latin American countries through considering their own conventional values and morality within the system of human rights.

Regarding Pakistan, the main reference in its National Report is contained in the schooling procedures underlined by the government, in which it proclaims that the “new National Educational modules has tried endeavours to incorporate standards, in particular values of human rights, maintaining assorted qualities and distinction  alongside universal human rights that In the case of Pakistan, CEDAW was unequivocally worried about not only pervasive patriarchal positions and attitudes but  deep-seated conventional and cultural stereotypes related to the roles and responsibilities of women and men in the family, in the place of work and in civil society.[7]

In accordance with cultural values and traditions, in Iraq, young ladies are often deprived of education after 12 to 15 years in provincial areas; however, the country’s educational ministry still remains muted and latent with respect to the procedures of schooling to be taken to set up the compulsory law of education. Apart from this, the “violence against women and girls continues to be one of the critical problems in this region. Women in these areas are undergone some kinds of violence by armed forces, Iraqi policies, and militias. On the other hand, the extensive functionality of the death punishment, torment, and inhuman behaviors and standards are widely practiced in Iraqi prisons, therefore, the severe influences of the myriad breaches of the rules of war by Iraq armed forces, groups, and policies have lingered in civil society for a long time.[8] Thus, in the case of Iraq’s cultural values and morality, it can never be justified in terms of gender equality, because this country only validates itself to engender violence and antagonist actions toward its society, in particular women. Why? – Is the maintenance of human rights composed of these types of behaviors? In this region, promoting antagonist manners and behaviors toward society, rather than upholding universal sets of values and standards of human rights can not give meaningful benefits to this country.

In addition, it should be emphasized that at the same time, Israel articulated its anxieties regarding, severe methods of capital punishment, discrimination, violence, in particular, forced marriages methodically engaged against women and girls.

When it comes to Latin American countries, it can be useful to focus on the traditional manners and roots of Cuba. According to this country, the UN Compilation gives data to form autonomous human rights institutions and associations and boost contributions to the international system. Cuba experiences torture, discrimination, prison circumstances, arbitrary detentions, domestic violence, the conditions of prostitution and other forms of violence against women. In the instance of Cuba, the UN promotes basically substantial reforms on human rights. According to this situation, in 2006, “Cuba tried to mention its motivation in order to support cultural rights and the respect for cultural diversity and the promotion of peace for the satisfaction of all human rights.

However, Cuba stands in the same position in order to maintain conventional rights and international-third generation values and standards in human rights issues.”[9] Hence, basic cultural differences cannot justify the universal values and standards of human rights. In most cases, cultural relativism leads to the conditions of despotism and antagonism, in Asian, the Middle Eastern and some parts of Latin American countries, through these methods, it can not maintain human rights within society. If cultural relativism merely focuses on strong authentic moral and ethical basis rather than supporting the alternative methods of providing human rights universally, these types of roots can lead to colossal gaps between Eastern and Western societies in the contemporary world order. Eventually, we tend to realize that reciprocal respect and understanding between people can cause the inclusive implementation of human rights from both universalism and relativism perspective in civil society. Through reaching to reconciliation processes of the two main approaches of human rights, our civil society can create relative universal sets of values and behaviors by taking into account both relativism and universalism.

We try to comprehend that many Eastern and Asian countries will not justify the strong universal basis and sets of human rights in future life expectancy. Regarding the fact that their community, in particular, each human being depends on the authentic self-governing rules, traditional set of values and basis. Transmitting from these kinds of values into the burly standards of human rights can be arduous for them that how can they behaved under the rules of these common standards. Universalism is not about everything for them, but at the same time, if universal sets of values can be implemented in some Eastern and Asian countries, firstly, their social communities have to eager to alter their customary ethical and moral natures into the central standards of human rights take on universal nature of human rights.

*About the author: Ms. Nargiz Hajiyeva is an independent researcher from Azerbaijan. She is an honored graduate student of Vytautas Magnus University and Institute D’etudes de Politique de Grenoble, Sciences PO. She got a Bachelor degree with the distinction diploma at Baku State University from International Relations and Diplomacy programme. Her main research fields concern on international security and foreign policy issues, energy security, cultural and political history, global political economy and international public law. She worked as an independent researcher at Corvinus University of Budapest, Cold War History Research Center. She is a successful participator of International Student Essay Contest, Stimson Institute, titled “how to prevent the proliferation of the world’s most dangerous weapons”, held by Harvard University, Harvard Kennedy School and an honored alumnus of European Academy of Diplomacy in Warsaw Poland. Between 2014 and 2015, she worked as a Chief Adviser and First Responsible Chairman in International and Legal Affairs at the Executive Power of Ganja. At that time, she was defined to the position of Chief Economist at the Heydar Aliyev Center. In 2017, Ms. Hajiyeva has worked as an independent diplomatic researcher at International Relations Institute of Prague under the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Czech Republic. Currently, she is pursuing her doctoral studies in Political Sciences and International Relations programme in Istanbul, Turkey.

Source: This article was published by Modern Diplomacy

[1] Universality of Human Rights,  Dr. Peter Kirchschlaeger, Co-Director of the Centre of Human Rights Education, University of Teacher Education of Central Switzerland – Lucerne, http://www.theewc.org/uploads/files/Universality%20of%20Human%20Rights%20by%20Peter%20Kirchschlaeger2.pdf

[2] Michael Goodhart*, Human Rights Quarterly 25 (2003) 935–964 © 2003 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Origins and Universality in the Human Rights Debates: Cultural Essentialism and the Challenge of Globalization, pp 4-5, http://hmb.utoronto.ca/HMB303H/weekly_supp/week-02/Goodhart_Cultural_Essentialism.pdf.

[3] Franz Boas 1887 “Museums of Ethnology and their classification” Science 9: 589

[4] http://www.gotquestions.org/cultural-relativism.html , what is cultural relativism?

[5] Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights Author(s): Jack Donnelly Source: Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Nov., 1984), pp. 400-419 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/762182.

[6] Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights Author(s): Jack Donnelly Source: Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Nov., 1984), pp. 406-414 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/762182.

[7] http://www.univie.ac.at/bimtor/dateien/pakistan_upr_2008_info.pdf, Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review Second session Geneva, A/HRC/WG.6/2/PAK/1 of 14 April 2008, Para. 74.

[8] A/HRC/WG.6/7/IRQ/3 1, http://www.univie.ac.at/bimtor/dateien/iraq_upr_2010_summary.pdf,  Human Rights Council, Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review Seventh session Geneva, 8-19 February 2010;

[9] A/HRC/WG.6/4/CUB/1 4 November 2008, http://www.univie.ac.at/bimtor/dateien/cuba_upr_2008_report.pdf  Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review Fourth session, Geneva, 2-13 February 2009.

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