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  • Shrishti Kedia

Relativism and Universalism: An Obligatory Tension Within The Human Rights Framework

A commitment to human rights connotes a promise to the claim that human beings have a solitary, worldwide moral society. Everyone holds a fundamental and equal moral acknowledgement for each other and enjoys the same in the eyes of the individuals who embrace and exercise power.[1] Nonetheless, cultural and historical variability is an incontestable fact that is now and again proven through the diversity of moral rules accepted by various social institutions as opposed to universal moral values of a hypothetically standardized society. Cultural relativism is a doctrine that asserts that these cultural variabilities are immune to external criticism, and it derives protection from the notion of communal autonomy and self-determination. Strong cultural relativism holds that cultural rights are the primary and dominant source to determine moral rights. However, the universality of human nature merely serves as a check on the extremities of relativism. Radical relativism (the extreme end of strong cultural relativism) would assent to few fundamental rights with the universal application but allow a wide range of variations for the majority of other rights, resulting in only a slight overlap between universalism and relativism.


The essence of the cultural relativists' arguments lies in the exclusion of non-western people from the international human rights protection system. Relativists of all strands advance various means to defy the dominance of universalism over the non-western population of the world. Some of them are examined below:


Liberal Culturalists


In order to advocate respect for non-western cultures, some supporters try to bring protection for the rights of cultural communities, which includes minority rights and rights of indigenous beings, within the prevailing human rights provisions or to improve human rights foundations to advance their cause. Nevertheless, such activists usually don’t get labelled as “cultural relativists.” That name is generally associated with those who question or attack the human rights framework from their culturalist position or point of view.[2]


Dominance Theorists


Critiques of western dominance within human rights frameworks occasionally use a “dominance theory” through the economic sphere. In the first instance, the economic sphere seems to be the locus of Western dominance and non-Western suppression.[3] In this view, human rights are utilized as a part of the remote strategy of Western states as instruments of neocolonialism and monetary rivalry.[4] The theory further sheds light on the moral component of Western imperialism, since Westerners force their values on the rest of the world through their emphasis on human rights. It is not just that some societies claim to be essentially unable to provide for certain rights to all their citizens, but rather that they see the “universal” origination of human rights as little more than an endeavour to enforce unfamiliar Western values.


Cultural Relativists


The essence of the cultural relativist critique is based on the ‘difference’ argument. In the first step, “Human rights” is established as an idea developed by the dominant western states serving as a convenient cover for questionable political agendas, bringing it under suspicion and causing resistance amongst cultural critics. In the next step, various issues of the non-western states are highlighted and contradicted with those of the western states or the universal concept of Human rights. There are many parameters on which the framework is rejected. The first and foremost is the western influence of human rights and its incompatibility with the cultures of the Non-western societies.


These critics do not discuss how their claims could be answered with a change in the human rights framework. Their argument is genuinely one of exclusion.


Relativity versus Universality: A Perpetual War


The rejection of the idea that human rights have a universal value emanates from the belief shared by cultural relativists that “Human rights are not what they claim to be”. [5] The belief resembles the political thought of ‘cultural hegemony’ by Antonio Gramsci, which talks about the ideological predominance of the dominant class's cultural norms, values, and ideas over the dominated in a civil society. It is through the infusion of one concept of reality throughout the society in all its institutional manifestation, all morals, customs, religious and political ideologies, particularly in their intellectual and moral connotations, that the dominant class obscures the ‘free’ consent of the dominated and becomes the hegemonic class of the civil society.[6] Similarly, cultural relativists view the idea of universal human rights as a hegemonic ideology which westerners, as superstructures, intend to manifest into the non-western societies to standardize a moral code acceptable by all. According to them, human rights result from the privileged and dominant western parts of the world. They are framed in their language, which presents their demands and aspirations. In order to maintain the universality of human rights, the utmost priority is given to the needs and aspirations of the cosmopolitan moral society at the cost of all the other ("lower") moral communities. Although the "rights of man" as initially conceived by the great liberal scholars were not intended to incorporate slaves and native inhabitants of the colonies, even today, the apparent "universal human rights" seems unfamiliar to the non-westerners. [7] Overall, the appeal of human rights is undeniably both global and cosmopolitan.


However, a cultural relativist criticism of human rights faces certain logical contradictions. If human rights are based on human nature, i.e. rights acquired by simply being a human, and human nature is universal, how can such rights be relative? The simple answer to this conundrum is that human nature, in its essence, may be culturally relative. Culture has a significant influence over an individual’s personality and can predominate certain personality types in different cultures. Therefore, human nature is a product of the natural and social aspects of a human being’s life. This cultural variability of human nature necessitates the incorporation of cross-cultural variations within the human rights framework.


In reality, radical cultural relativism is morally indefensible today. Today there is a near-universal international agreement, at least in theory, although often not in practice, that certain things cannot legitimately be done to human beings. Considering the westernization and modernization of traditional communities, the traditional approaches of guaranteeing human dignity seem unsuitable and traditional limits over political powers seem increasingly incompetent.[8] Thus, absolute acceptance of some fundamental human rights is necessary. This does not mean that there cannot be any deviations from ‘universal’ human rights because of cultural differences. However, suppose cultural relativism is to function as a guarantee of local self-determination. In that case, there must be a strong and authentic cultural basis and the presence of alternative mechanisms guaranteeing basic human dignity in order for such deviations to be justified. In most instances, radical or unrestricted relativism is as inappropriate as unrestricted universalism and therefore, some intermediate position is required.[9]


Criticism and the Requirement of Resolution


The aspects of human rights that are frequently addressed as Western are its independence, relevance, and the idea of rights itself.[10] From about every non-Western culture comes the contention that they do not characterize themselves, in any case, autonomous individuals, yet rather encounter themselves as having an "endorsed status" as individuals from a more extensive community or group. One aphorism of cultural relativism is the claim that judgments of behaviour or circumstances do not bode well outside the culture in which they happen. The idea of rights itself is considered normal for a general public that thinks in terms of atomized people and theoretical thoughts.


As for the demands for change of the human rights framework, the communitarian evaluation proposes that more consideration should be paid to communal rights and impediments to individual rights for communal interests. One of the methods for developing such restrictions is to fixate them on the ideas of commitments and duties.


Finally, the idea that a foundation and a periphery in human rights are also relevant in this debate. Essentially, the foundation is crucial and universal, while the periphery should allow social varieties. This model would contend that the list of universal human rights that cannot be challenged anywhere be decreased, and some room for cultural discretion must be left. The foundation/periphery model can likewise be connected to each right individually to determine the essential elements that must be ensured. Other elements are afforded discretion and scope for logical variety in how the right is understood and enforced by different cultures. [11]

[1]Andrew Fagan, ‘Escaping the Cultural Context of human rights’ (2006) 6 Human Rights and Human Welfare 193 [2] Eva Brems, ‘Enemies or Allies? Feminism and Cultural Relativism as Dissident Voices in Human Rights.’ (2015) 19(1) Human Rights Quarterly 136 [3] Ibid [4] Shashi Tharoor, ‘The Universality of Human Rights and their Relevance to the developing countries’ (1990) 59(1) Nordic Journal of International Law 139 [5] Jack Donnelly, ‘Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights’ (1984) 6(4) Human Rights Quarterly 440 [6] Joseph A. Woolcock, ‘Politics, Ideology and Hegemony in Gramsci’s Theory’ (1985) 34(3) Social and Economic Studies 199 [7] See Brems, supra note ii [8] See Donnelly, supra note v [9] Ibid [10] See Brems, supra note ii [11] See Tharoor, supra note iv



Shristhi Kedia holds an LL.B. from ILS Law College and a Postgraduate Diploma in Human Rights, Humanitarian Law and Refugee Law from the Indian Society of International Law. Her fields of interest are primarily Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.



Image Source: Credits to Mikail Ciftci