Must universality of human rights give in to cultural pluralism?

by: in Law
Universality blog Human rights

Over the past decades, universality as the cornerstone of human rights has been constantly challenged by non-western societies. Legitimacy and western political hegemony intent are the underlying grounds. In the battle between universality and cultural relativism, which one should prevail?

Universality stems from the perception that human rights are inherent to human dignity, i.e., since they originate in the condition of being a human person they apply to everyone everywhere, regardless of location, ideology, culture and so forth. In this context, the UDHR deems universality as an aspiration for ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations’, which entails the belief that human rights shall be realised ‘without distinction of any kind’ (cf. Article 2). The principle of non-discrimination is therefore a corollary of human dignity - if ‘all human beings are born equal in dignity’ (cf. Article 1), they should enjoy equal rights - hence universality of human rights, solely determined by human dignity.

In this connection, legitimacy of human rights has been called into question due to its inspirational roots in western values and “lessons learned”. These critiques claim the lack of recognition of non-western values within the human rights system, thereby making human rights unsuitable to these societies. In addition, it is argued that human rights are an imposed alien concept masking a western political hegemony objective, designed to favour liberal democracies instead of respecting different governing systems. Lastly, the cultural relativism discourse culminates with the claim that human rights standards, as conceived in western states, are intrinsically undermining regional identity.

However, universality must not be regarded as an imposition of certain conducts for realising human rights, ultimately oppressing non-western societies. Rather, universality is the aim which all governments should strive for: the promotion of human dignity, which is in turn common to all states regardless of which approach is taken. It is true that universality of human rights was occasionally used under not-so-dignified pretexts, but on the other hand it cannot be maintained that its purpose became its own distortion – fostering political models instead of human dignity.

Besides, culture is a dynamic reality – it evolves through people, rather than it is a strict set of values imposed on people. Therefore, culture cannot be invoked as a justification for practices which consist of violations of human rights. Conversely, it shall treasure a people’s identity and never exist at the expense of human dignity.

Accordingly, the realisation of human rights need not to be a unipolar concept. Every society must pursue its political choices while accommodating human rights standards. In this context, culture shall provide the setting in which human dignity (as the universal value) has to be interpreted and integrated. To this end a bottom-up approach based on a constructive dialogue between different cultures aimed at raising awareness on how human rights are being dealt with in other contexts must be promoted, coupled with a dialogue within the members of a community to foster the inclusion of experiences of its members in shaping culture to accommodate human dignity in policy-making.

It is thereby paramount to have an effective system of human rights protection in place, designed in accordance with the characteristics of the society it intends to serve and able to foster an adequate setting for an individual to accomplish personal realisation. Consequently, human-rights can be regionally-flavoured, but culture shall not be used as a ground to justify the lack of protection within that region.

A case in point is the practice of Ubuntu in South Africa as a restorative justice mechanism, as opposed to an ordinary lawsuit in retributive systems. As long as victims are given the chance to seek for effective remedy, regardless of the shape it takes, human rights are being protected.

Above all, universality can be accomplished if states adopt a human rights culture by placing human dignity as the crosscutting pillar between regions, thus reconciling culture with the substance of human rights. In doing so, universality does not conflict with culture - if humans make culture, then human dignity must be the universal benchmark for all cultures.

  This blog was written by Rita Raposo Telo Major, she won the first prize with her blog,
 in a student blog competition organized by the Maastricht Centre for Human Rights.

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