Around two years ago I wrote an essay Human Rights and Cultural Relativism and I wanted to write up some follow up observations on the issue of ‘universality’ and ‘culture relativism’ since I’ve been reading Geoffrey Robertson’s Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice.
Robertson’s book provides a history of the development of human rights from the Magna Carta to contemporary international treaties and supernational institutions. In the course of this history he frequently comments on issues of cultural relativity and how Authoritarian regimes in Africa, Asia and the Middle East – not to mention democratic Western states - have appealed to distinct cultural and religious traditions to excuse the violation of human rights. This trend is exemplified, most shockingly, by recent attempts to enact anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda, that seem to come straight out of the book of Leviticus, a piece of scripture that literally proscribes the death-penalty for homosexual activity. Advocates have justified the proposed law on the basis of a distinct African culture and set of sexual mores.
When I wrote the original essay, organized around the question of whether human rights could be described as a ‘Western’ construct, I focused on the development of civil and political rights in the 17th and 18th century Europe and North America and how the same treats to human dignity embodied in the nation-state and capitalism that had inspired the conception of inalienable rights had reached a level of global ubiquity that necessitated the universal application of human rights to combat those same treats. I concluded that whilst human rights had their origin in Western thought and were necessitated by the social and political forces of Western modernity, the extension of those same forces gave human rights a kind of functional universality that didn’t require the acceptance of a theory of universal human nature, that is, the acceptance of a particular theory of ontological or anthropological universals to underpin human rights claims. I still maintain that this is more or less the case.
Despite this, there have been objections to universal human rights based on the notion that human rights are falsely cosmopolitan and embody Western cultural values. In my essay I suggested that non-western human rights organization that highlight the abuse of human rights by Western powers signaled the appeal of human rights beyond the supposed European and North American spheres of ethnocentrism.
Yet in the mid-1990s the notion that Asia had a unique set of “Asian values” that are not equivalent to the ‘Western values’ of human rights came to the fore supported by the leaders of several Asian authoritarian governments. It was said that Asia’s cultural affinity with ‘collectivism’ as opposed to the West’s ‘individualism’ meant that social harmony was prioritized over the rights and dignity of the individual that are central to human rights. Since the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 the economic success of these governments declined, which has seen a backlash from human rights activists and movement towards more democratic governments that honour human rights that would seem to undermine the notion of 'Asian values'.
Robertson draws on an interesting historical episode to subvert the notion that human rights are an exclusively Western preoccupation -without denying of course that, yes, some cultural traditions are incompatible with human rights - namely the drafting process for the Universal Declaration of Human rights. Although decolonization had only just commenced during the drafting process of the Declaration significant contribution were made by non-western countries. At the time, the general assembly consisted of 56 state of which 14 states were from Asia, 20 from Latin America and 4 from Africa. Though the liberal states of Western Europe and the U.S.A. had originally advocated the inclusion of only civil and political rights in the Declaration, a coalition of developing nations supported first by Australia among Western nations pushed for the inclusion of social, economic and cultural rights. These are 'second generation rights' informed by social democratic and socialist ideas, that move the conception of human rights beyond those rights envisioned by classical liberals. In Isaiah Berlin's terms, this was a movement from the inclusion of rights defined by negative liberty, freedom from interference, to the inclusion of rights based on positive liberty or freedom to self-realization. Thus, from the important contributions of non-western countries to the founding document of contemporary human rights Robertson concluded:
[t]here is little historical merit in the criticism raised decades later, that the Universal Declaration embodies only liberal Western values. On the contrary, it vouchsafed economic, social and cultural rights of enormous importance to developing countries.
The conception of human rights offered in the Universal Declaration is not the exclusive product of Western states and their values; but includes the contribution of several non-western states which campaigned for and attained an expansion of the concept of human rights beyond the civil and political rights of classical liberalism. This seems to weaken recent arguments that human rights are distinctly Western and are therefore not applicable to non-western societies.
Written by Mathew Toll.