Universal Human Rights in a Culturally Diversified World



The  preamble  to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on 10th Dec 1948. This foundation of Human rights emphasizes on inherent dignity & of equal & inalienable rights to all members of the human family internationally.[1] The natural law view as expressed in the  traditional formulations of that approach or by virtue of the natural rights movement, is  that certain  rights exist as a result of higher law than positive or man made law. This right is supposed to govern everyone in time & space.[2] Seventeenth century natural lawyer John  Locke is supposed to have found the existence of such inalienable rights as the rights to life, liberty & property. This inalienable rights to life, property & dignity of a  human  being  is  termed as  human rights  which all indivuals have a right to enjoy from birth irrespective of any gender/ class/race/country/ethnicity/ color  etc. Human  rights are universal for being aspirational goals  at  all  times  &  places for  containing core values  like right to life which are indeed universal. These rights initially started developing in the domestic spheres of different countries which along with time spread internationally.  Human rights law assigns  legal  rights &  duties to  non-state actors under international law & hence forms a part of  the post westphalian  system.  The  safeguards  of  human  rights  are not restricted  to  any  area  or  doesn’t  call  for  different  parameters  in  different  parts  of the  world  depending  on  the  culture  &  tradition  in  that  part  of  the  world.. The 1st generation  of  human  rights  basically  had a  liberal  approach  based  on  the  concepts of  Locke & Rousseau  unlike  that  of  the  3rd generation  approach  by  Marx  which was  based  more on  survival rights like  right to  food  &  shelter  comprising  the basic rights to life of a man rather than right to property or worship. With  the steady unequal economic  development  among  the  countries of  northern &  southern  hemisphere, this trend  of  3rd generation  human  rights  have  become  predominant  where South African  countries  plagued  with  apartheid  concentrate  more  on  economic rights rather  than  cultural  &  social  rights  unlike   North   American   Countries.


Cultural Relativity is an undeniable fact which all moral & social institutions evidence as  an astonishing cultural & historical variability. This doctrine is strongly supported by notions of communal autonomy & self determination. [3] There are two extreme positions of cultural relativism- radical cultural relativism & radical universalism. Radical Cultural Relativism holds that culture is the sole source of validity of moral right or rule while radical universalism holds that culture is irrelevant to the validity of moral rights & rules which are universal. Radical Cultural Relativism can be broadly divided into two branches- strong cultural relativism & weak cultural relativism.  Strong cultural relativism relies  heavily upon culture  as the sole basis on which moral rights should emanate from. Weak cultural relativism  holds  that culture may be an important source of the validity of moral rights or rule. Weak cultural relativism would recognize a comprehensive  prima facie universal human rights & allow only relatively rare & strictly limited local variations & exceptions. Weak Cultural Relativism is just a way short from radical universalism.[4] While discussing cultural relativism the most important controversies arise over practices which are defensible by internal standards  but  unacceptable  by external standards. Now internal judgments are those which asks for whether the basic value framework is defensible  in the framework of  that particular society. An external judgment applies the standard of the evaluator whether the practice can or should be accepted or defended. This internal &  external evaluations matches up with  or further elaborates the distinction between strong & weak cultural relativism. The stronger one’s relativism , the greater one’s reliance on internal evaluations.[5] Relativism rests on moral autonomy & communal  self determination. To rely entirely on internal judgments would make one abrogate his moral responsibilities as a member of cosmopolitan moral community & would demand for application of universal standards in external judgments. The more important a practice within a system the more the force of internal standards which can be over ridden only by  particular  strong judgments.  The choice of internal & external judgments thus is a moral choice.  Strong & weak relativism cannot be solely distinguished by the number of deviations they allow from universal standards, some qualitative measure is also required. Even very weak cultural relativists might allow considerable variation in the form in which most rights are implemented. Particular human rights are like essentially contested concepts in which there is a substantial but rather general consensus of meaning coupled with no less important &  apparently unresolvable conflict of interpretations.  Standard arguments for cultural relativism can be based upon pre colonial  African village, Native American Tribes, & traditional Islamic social systems where the claims for communal self determination are particularly strong. Where there is a thriving indigenous cultural tradition & community arguments of cultural relativism based on the principle of self determination of people offer a strong defense against external interference including disruptions that might be caused by the universal human rights.


In the left- right/ north-south debate that permeates today’s ideological exchanges, cultural absolutists specifically argue that culture is more important than the internationally accepted principles of human rights.[6] The absolutists argue against human rights saying they are western in origin & cause harm to indigenous culture but in the true sense human rights doesn’t limit its applicability. Human rights challenge all cultures although several focus on western efforts to impose western values on the south , it is important to note that several also notice the failure of western countries to take certain human rights more seriously. Countries from the northern hemisphere resist most when any of the rights infringe their culture. Ex- United States, the most westernized & imperialistic country generally remains hostile to the human rights movement as articulated by recent international developments. Culture matters for several reasons as being highlighted by cultural view of human rights & its implementation. If human rights calls for abolishing cultural identities, it may mean a end to the practicing culture of a group since culture construct questioned practices as central to cultural conceptions of human development, cultural participation & cultural life.[7] Much as several propose that human rights have the capability to erase cultural diversity.  Human beings live through their culture & universal human rights also guarantees cultural rights to indivuals. Human rights must take full account of indivuals as members of social group. If we look at the various kinds of violence we’ll notice the predominance of culture & how even human rights is culturally rooted in some parts. The case of female genital mutilations in Africa & elsewhere. Governments do not promote these violations, instead they try to stop them by promotion of education harping on their detrimental health consequences. Nevertheless there is a strong sentiment among both women & men on these operations although now its being opposed by some feminists. Child betrothal is a violation of an international human rights norm but still its being accepted in many cultures. Even freedom of speech in the form of blasphemy or pornography is offensive among many cultural sentiments though no matter whether the govt. permits or prohibits them.[8] Women’s subordination as a group to men in respect of political, physical & economic power over women has been challenged by the 2nd wave of feminism from 1970s in N. America & no longer believe that women ought to be differentiated from men & wives should be subordinate to the husbands, nor do they hold that women’s divine purpose in life is to bear children. Not only U.SA, African Countries & even feminists from India are challenging these age old cultural norms of the society.  Homosexuality is another problem in United States where it is still not accepted as a cultural norm. Very few states in the United States safeguard the rights of homosexuals  against discrimination  in areas  of employment or housing. Homosexuals in Canada are  admitted  in the military but  gay marriage is yet not accepted. Strong cultural beliefs on heterosexuality & the sacred bonding of a man &  a woman in a family life makes difficult for homosexuals to get all the human rights protection they seek. Many critics find human rights to be overtly indivualistic & in the Northern countries human rights do not safeguard economic rights. Since the whites in the United States had always been privileged in respect of resources, so it is determined that all indivuals should be capable enough to earn his/her own living. One who is poor, is one at his own cost. United States has the worst record of provision  for  economic rights among all western states. It doesn’t have either right to health/ food/shelter. T   he culturally ingrained belief that African Americans are inferior people not deserving the respect of the whites needs to be ruptured. In 1997, August, an 18yr old woman was burned to  death in Germany by her father because she didn’t marry a man of her father’s choice. The court gave a reduced sentence stating that the father was merely exercising his culture & religion.[9] In Iran women & girls are  forcibly veiled  under the threat of imprisonment & lashes & cultural relativists say that this is done complying with the cultural norms of the land. Cultural relativism legalizes savagery & says that rights of a person depends on his nationality. Its says that rights of people in Afganisthan, Iran , Iraq or African countries is different from that those enjoyed by people of United States. [10]


With increase in globalization, there has been mixing of masses & people from different cultural groups voluntarily or involuntarily by the increasing integration of markets, the emergence of new regional political alliances, & remarkable advances in telecommunications, biotechnology & transportation that promoted unprecedented demographic shifts.  Herein the question arises how come human rights be maintained in a culturally diverse society & how come cultural diversity & integrity be maintained. Cultural relativism is the assertion that human values, far from being universal, vary a great deal according to different cultural perspectives. Some would apply this relativism to the promotion, protection, interpretation and application of human rights which could be interpreted differently within different cultural, ethnic and religious traditions. In other words, according to this view, human rights are culturally relative rather than universal.[11] Taken to extreme, cultural relativism might pose a problem for the effectiveness of international law & international system of human rights. If traditional norms alone governs then abuse & violation of human rights will become rampant. Human rights as proclaimed in the charter tells that human rights are for all without any discrimination. They are natural born rights for all human beings & not privileges. The flexibility of human rights to be relevant to diverse cultures is facilitated by the establishment of minimum standards and the incorporation of cultural rights.[12] Human rights lays down respect for & protection of  cultural diversity & integrity through the cultural rights established in human rights law. These include Bill of Rights, The Convention on the Rights of the Child, International Convention on all forms of  elimination of racial Discrimination, The Declaration of Race & Racial Prejudice, Declaration on the right of Development, ILO Convention No. 169 on the rights of Indigenous & Tribal people etc. Human rights which relate to cultural diversity and integrity encompass a wide range of protections, including: the right to cultural participation; the right to enjoy the arts; conservation, development and diffusion of culture; protection of cultural heritage; freedom for creative activity; protection of persons belonging to ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities; freedom of assembly and association; the right to education; freedom of thought, conscience or religion; freedom of opinion and expression; and the principle of non-discrimination. [13] Human rights safeguards cultural rights to the extent that it doesn’t infringe upon another human  right. Claiming cultural relativism & practicing a culture at the cost of another right is an abuse of that culture. There are legitimate & substantive limitations on  Cultural rights  now. Ex- No one  can legitimately carry on slavery even if it might just be legitimate in his/her culture. Similarly cultural rights guaranteed under human rights do not support torture, murder, genocide, discrimination on grounds of sex/race/color/ language/religion or violation of any other human rights or fundamental freedom established in international law.[14]


Weak cultural relativism is the answer in today’s diversified world. Cultural traditions do hold importance but it shouldn’t be implemented at the cost of another human right. Human nature is distinct from each other & a person acquires his/her identity from the ethnic/cultural group he comes from. So denying that culture would be denying the existence of the people belonging to that culture. Each culture has its own unique features, like when a family chooses a bride they look at the height, weight , skin color or any other features which is pertinent in their culture which might just be different from any other culture. Culture gives a man his identity, so safeguarding that culture is important but that cultural practice might not harm anyone else. Human rights provides for right to life which shows that there lies an immediate duty not to harm anyone. So any culture which calls for harming others should be struck out. Human Rights are universal & they are for all indivuals equally throughout the world. So each & every indivual has the right to human rights  & they can also carry on with their cultures but not at the cost of violation of another right.


Shaw. N. Malcolm, International law , 5th edition, Cambridge University Press

Howard . E. Rhoda, Are Human Rights Universal, 1999, American Bar Association

Namazie Maryam, Cultural Relativism- This Era’s Fasicism, 1998, Nov

Shenker-Ayton Diana, The Challenge of Human Rights & Cultural Diversity, United Nations Background Note.

Donnelly Jack, Cultural Relativism & Universal Human Rights, Human Rights Quaterly

Dr Rahman I.A., Universality & Cultural Relativism, 2003, June

Obaid El Ahmed Obaid El, Universalism & Cultural Relativism, 2004, June

Brown Harvey Richard & Levine- Bjawi Laure, Cultural Relativism & Universal Human Rights: Contributions from the Social Science of the Middle East.

Franck. M. Thomas, Are Human Rights Universal

Stone Last Suzanne, Comment: Cultural Pluralism, Nationalism & Universal Rights, Heinonline

[1] Malcolm. N. Shaw, International law , 5th edition,  pg- 247,Cambridge University Press

[2] Ibid 1, pg- 248

[3] Jack Donnelly, Cultural Relativism & Universal Human Rights, Human Rights Quaterly

[4] Ibid 3

[5] Jack Donnelly, Cultural Relativism & Universal Human Rights, Human Rights Quaterly

[6] Rhoda. E. Howard, Are Human Rights Universal, 1999, American Bar Association

[7] Ibid 6

[8] Rhoda. E. Howard, Are Human Rights Universal, 1999, American Bar Association

[9] Maryam Namanzie, Cultural Relativism- This Era’s Fasicism, 1998, Nov

[10] Ibid 9

[11] Diana Ayton Shenker, The Challenge of Human Rights & Cultural Diversity

[12] Ibid 11

[13] Diana Ayton Shenker, The Challenge of Human Rights & Cultural Diversity

[14] Ibid 13

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