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Human Rights Debate: Universalism Versus Relativism – OpEd


By Dr Gyan Basnet and Mansoor Hassan Albalooshi


Human rights, as fundamental norms of freedom, justice and peace, are no longer just a lawyer’s preserve, and the most remote causes and cases attract references to them. However, the very nature of human rights is not free from controversy and debate, typically between two opposing views: that which regards human rights as a single universal concept as opposed to that which supports cultural relativism. The latter recognises that the world has a rich variety of peoples, cultures, traditions and religions, and that traditional cultural values have a huge impact on a nation’s political, social and economic attitudes and aspirations. This article deals with the core of the debate and then examines whether human rights can be considered as a universal ideal in a diverse society but still show respect for cultural differences.

From the very inception of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international human rights discourse has revolved around one important issue: can the Declaration’s values be truly universal? In the Cold War era, the debate was predominantly between the communist world, which championed economic and social rights, and the Western democracies, which concentrated more on civil and political rights. That debate collapsed with the demise of the Soviet Union, but some of its themes survive still in a different form. Now debate takes place primarily in an economic context between developed and less-developed countries, or alternatively in a religious context between the West and Islam.

Many scholars see human rights as a universal phenomenon, and they regard them as the means to a greater social end: they are, they believe, fundamental and common to all societies. Human rights are part of the inherent dignity of every human being: they belong to all in equal measure because all are human, be they male or female, young or old, rich or poor, atheist or believer. Universalists thus base their understanding of human rights on the liberal tradition that rights accord to the individual a set of minimum standards by virtue of his or her being human – a universal concept in that they reach out to every person alive.

For Cultural Relativists, however, human rights represent values that attach to communities: it is the latter and not the individual that is their intended beneficiary. Relativists hold that because values are culturally specific, human rights should also be culturally oriented. As such they must of necessity reflect cultural, social and ideological diversities thus ruling out any justification for a single universal set of human rights. By definition even the perception of a human rights standard across the nations of the world is a non-starter. They further contest the universality of human rights on the ground that such rights are ‘Western-derived’ and are designed to serve Western interests. Those in the West who promote personal and political freedoms elsewhere in the world often claim merely to be bringing the admirable and traditional values of the West to continents and countries deprived of them. However, Professor Richard Falk remarks that from the early days of the human rights movement, thinking in some leading Western states even favoured the application of external pressure on other states to apply human rights standards. Admittedly, at the time of the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, the power alliances of the West were dominant, and a majority of countries were voiceless and powerless under colonial rule. Today the Relativists would argue that the imperial authority of the past may have declined, but the West can still exert its dominance by disguising its ulterior motives – some questionably legal – while promising the fruits of human rights, e.g. democracy.

In Search of Common Ground

Human rights may be regarded as an absolute universal tool of measurement, but they result from a fusion of historical antecedents where “universality” and “specificity” co-existed without mutual exclusivity. Fundamental values derived from the concepts of justice, human dignity, the right to life and the rights to respect are shared in all societies and by all cultures and traditions. Human rights emerged and developed as foundational norms and normative instruments of justice, peace and tolerance. They were aimed at the strengthening of social integration across a broad diversity of cultures and political environments. We may describe human rights as universal, but in no way can they ignore cultural, social, gender and other considerations. The very quality of human rights lies in their flexibility in the sense that there is no country or society where their norms cannot apply, and there is no subject or social issue that cannot be integrated into them.


Thus, human rights are capable of breaking down cultural barriers and of becoming fully accepted as global norms while at the same time showing respect for different political, social and cultural values. Indeed, respect for multiple identities within different cultures and within different social traditions is already provided for in Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, a major international human rights instrument. In these circumstances, what exactly is meant by culture, or cultural relativism, or even identity? Is there still a meaningful place for these? Are the values of Relativism and the arguments against human rights still relevant? History is witness to the fact that society and its values change over time. Every culture is both a hybrid from the past and a chrysalis for the future. Thus, in today’s world, there is no such thing as a pure culture, but there could easily be one that is human rights based and where moral values, mutual respect and co-operation dictate the principles.

In an age of globalisation, technological advancement and rapid information flow, cultural differences will tend gradually to lose their significance. Human rights can emerge as a replacement culture that is vital to the struggle for social justice and for the furtherance of human dignity. The world has changed and continues to change: there are more important issues to be solved than mere cultural differences. The twentieth century with its history of massacre, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and even holocaust may have passed, but the gap between rich and poor is greater than at any time in human history. Human rights should be recognised as a powerful mechanism for liberating humanity from the tyranny of poverty, and for dispelling distrust between societies and cultures across the international stage. The world, moreover, is in crisis resulting from environmental degradation, global warming, and terrorism. The norms of human rights, as a set of common values and a true achievement of common humanity, should be at the forefront in the bid to counteract the consequences of this crisis and to establish a just society.

Dr Basnet, who holds a Ph.D. and an LL.M degree in International Human Rights law at Lancaster University, U.K, is a Prominent Columnist, Researcher in International Human Rights Law and an Advocate in the Supreme Court Nepal. E-mail: [email protected]

Captain Mansoor Hassan Albalooshi is a Dubai Police Officer and PhD Candidate at Lancaster University Law School in the UK.

2 thoughts on “Human Rights Debate: Universalism Versus Relativism – OpEd

  • February 4, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    The fact of the matter is, the concept is not communities’s rights but human rights. So, I believe that universality should prevail over relativity. However, this does not mean that sound cultural moral norms must be taken to a dumping site. As long as human rights will remain limited, cultural moral norms may as well serve as one of the limiting factors.

  • May 27, 2017 at 9:26 pm

    >This article deals with the core of the debate…

    This only scratched the surface. I thought this was just the Introduction, but then it was over!

    What *is* a human right? Not just the list of the particular posited rights, but what does it mean to say something is a human right?

    What is human dignity? How is it inherent? How can we explain the inherent-ness of human dignity in universalist naturalistic not-necessarily-religious language which must also be accessible and efficient enough to communicate with?

    Are ethics and morals the same kind of thing? I think no.

    What is the relation between State authority, social convention and human rights as ethical responsibilities and as posited law? The UDHR and ECHR prefaces are quite clear on this – they are ethical realist. especially Levinas’ view on the difference between ethics and morals, and that ethic responsibilities precede reason, will and sentiment. Personal ethical responsibilities are ontologically inescapable, as long as we are alive and human beings, according to Levinas.

    Individual human rights are another way of saying we all have ontologically inescapable and infinite personal ethical responsibilities to each other. Because our capacities to respond are finite, we can and should create a representative and coordinating ‘State’ to enable us to organise our responses more efficiently and on a bigger scale more stably. Primarily, the social responsibilities which are for each individual rights are ultimately personal responsibilities of every person to every other person, and only proximately the State administration’s responsibility to perform responses on our behalf.

    States derive their ethical legitimacy from human rights, not the other way around. States have no authority to either create or destroy, grant or withdraw human rights, because the State’s authority is derived and contingent, but human rights are based on the natural realities of inherent human dignity and sociality. It is the State which is a pragmatically useful convention, not that human rights are merely conventional.

    The particular positive law form of human rights recognised and declared in the UDHR and ECHR may be partially culturally relative, but human rights as such – or “the right to have rights” as Arendt called it, is natural and universal.


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