Can human rights be universal and have respect for cultural relativism?
Where after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home –so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory; farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity, without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have the meaning anywhere.
- Eleanor Roosevelt, National Coordinating Committee,
Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary
Human rights are "rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. Proponents of the concept usually assert that everyone is endowed with certain entitlements merely by reason of being human.
Right give expression to how all humans participate fully in civil society. Defining the idealized norms against which a society may be measured. As expression of civic values that operate within any society, rights derives from the marriage of religious, philosophical, and legal principle that address social justice in the context of worldwide struggle to combat oppression and inequity. The do out of an underlying, deep rooted respect for human life, dignity, and diversity.
Right cannot be thought of in isolation from human. They are part of an integrated vision of what it means to participate in diverse human experiences. These run from the most basic interaction with the environment to the ways in which people live day-to –day to catastrophic events like war, genocide or pandemics. Right affect local and intimate human relationship and the global relations that govern the way human capital and energy are exchanged, manipulated, and exploited.
Right typically entails freedoms that make humans seems individual oriented. But they also address the duties and responsibilities that make these freedoms more than simplistic expression of individual self interest. Finding the appropriate balance between individual self interest and broader civic, communitarian interests is the crucial problem at the heart of most human right.
Human Rights have two opposing visions. The first posits a universal, absolute moral structure that underlies all forms of human culture and civil organization from which no one is exempt, and to which no expression are possible. In the universal view there is an unalterable, intrinsic quality of being human that confers unchangeable, fundamental on a person. These rights extend beyond the rights of state to impose legal codes that may contravene universal right principle. Universality is based on the fundamental respect for differential form of being human and is not to be confused with uniformity or plurality- all humans share universal right based on respect for life , which entails respect for the diversity of life.
The second view posits a more relative, fluid conception of rights. It holds that the meaning of a right changes from context to context, and culture to culture. Similar outcomes are deemed important to achieve these rights but taking carefully. There is many distinguish between two visions. This difference is hugely troublesome in terms of how a human right is defined and implemented.
Definition of Human Right
Human Right encompass an array of political, economic and social arenas and, while defining needs, also present a set of individual rights that apply worldwide. The following in a general definition offered by the united nation (1978):
Human rights are those rights, which are inherent in our nature and without which we cannot live as human beings. Human rights and fundamental freedoms allow us to fully develop and use our human qualities, our intelligence, our talents and our conscience and to satisfy our spiritual and other need.
In this definition, inherent right means to allocating resource and construct in policies by which Human Right apply to all people equally and not simply to select individual and groups. By classifying certain rights and freedoms as human rights, all governments recognize the common goal of creating conditions to guarantee those rights and freedoms, despite the intricacies involved in actually ensuring that they are granted.
Another issue related to the definition of human rights is it emphasis on the individual “rights”. To overcome what appears to be a contradiction of human right principles, the logical solution is to accept that everyone shares a common humanity and that, regardless of circumstances, every individual is entitled to live according to basic human right principles.
History of Human Right
The best-known histories of the human rights movement tend to begin with the ancient religions and societies and show the evolution of concepts and institutions of human rights across civilizations. The roots of the notion of Human Rights can be drawn as far back as the Ancients (the role of the individual in the state) but the idea of civil and political rights stems from liberal freedoms advocated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. The concepts of economic, social and cultural Rights can be traced back to Hegel's Elements of the Philosophy of Right The origin of modern positive rights in international law may be traced to the creation of the International Labor Organization in 1919 as a Western response to the socialist ideology of the Russian Revolution of 1917
Universal Declaration of Human Right
A key stating point in understanding human rights in the universal declaration of human right ( United Nation,1948) which has been approved by every member nation of the UN. This declaration, which provides a list of specific human rights, is not legally binding on any nation, but at the very least, a nation’s approval of the declaration indicates its commitment to satisfying the rights specified in the document.
The universal declaration contains three distinct sets of human rights viz.
Ø Negative Human Right
Ø Positive Human Right
Ø Collective Human Right
Negative human rights, which follow mainly from the Anglo-American legal tradition, denote actions that a government should not take interference of human life. These are codified in the United States Bill of Rights, the English Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and include freedoms of speech, religion and assembly.
Positive human rights follow mainly from the Rousseauian Continental European legal tradition, denote rights that the state is obliged to protect and provide. Examples of such rights include: the rights to education, to a livelihood, and to legal equality. Positive rights have been codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in many 20th-century constitutions.
A categorization offered by Karel Vasak is the three generations of human rights: first-generation civil and political rights (right to life and political participation), second-generation economic, social and cultural rights (right to subsistence) and third-generation solidarity rights (right to peace, right to clean environment). Out of these generations, the third generation is the most debated and lacks both legal and political recognition. Some theorists discredit these divisions by claiming that rights are interconnected. Arguably, for example, basic education is necessary for the right to political participation.
These rights are called universal Human Right.
Two Classical Position
Human rights are universal
This conception of rights places the protection of the independent individual at the centre, and the individual is assumed to be a self-sufficient entity. It follows that this is the only possible conception of human rights. This set of rights has been determined – either you accept these rights or not. Rights therefore bring with them a degree of finality and imposition.
Human rights are culturally relative
This position advocates that each and every culture has its own notion of human rights and freedoms. Human rights can only exist by reverting back to cultural norms, not looking to external (Western, legal) documents. Each group should look to their own culture to devise and implement their own notion of rights. Employing the universality concept of rights or using the available international instruments is a form of cultural imperialism. These are representations of extreme universality and cultural relativist positions. Each position tries to make its case by indicting the other position. For universality, talking about culture endangers human rights by allowing cultures that have harmful practices to dilute the notion of rights. For a relativist allowing the notion of universalism is accepting alien values and Western imperialism.
Also, “Cultural Relativism maintains that there is an irreducible diversity among cultures is a unique whole with parts so knotted that none of them can be understood or evaluated without reference to the other parts and to the culture whole, the so called pattern of culture.
Universalism vs. Relativism
One of the most pertinent issues of the past years has been the conflict between two different ideologies of human rights on a national scale, universalism, and cultural relativism. Universalism holds that more “primitive” cultures will eventually evolve to have the same system of law and rights as Western cultures. Cultural relativists hold an opposite, but similarly rigid viewpoint, that a traditional culture is unchangeable.
There is no simple alternative to letting individual countries enforce human rights, for a major obstacle to impose a universal enforcement is that of cultural relativism, which makes the application of human rights a balancing act. Contradicting a founding principle that human rights are universal is the fact that individual culture defines their own values and ethics. Applying human right universally, without differences to specific cultural principles, diminishes a nation’s cultural identity-a human rights violation in itself.
In universalism, an individual is a social unit, possessing inalienable rights, and driven by the pursuit of self interest. In the cultural relativist model, a community is the basic social unit. Concepts such as individualism, freedom of choice, and equality are absent. It is recognized that the community always comes first. This doctrine has been exploited by many states, which decry any impositions of western rights as cultural imperialism.
These states ignore that they have adopted the western nation state, and the goal of modernization and economic prosperity. Cultural relativism is in itself a very arbitrary idea, cultures are rarely unified in their viewpoints on different issues, it is always those “who hold the microphone that do not agree”. Whenever one group denies rights to another group within a culture, it is usually for their own benefit. Therefore human rights cannot be truly universal unless they are not bound to cultural decisions that are often not made unanimously, and thus cannot represent every individual that these rights apply to.
Universalism is used by many Western states to negate the validity of more ‘traditional’ systems of law. For example, if a tribe in Africa is ruled by a chieftain and advised by the twelve most senior villagers, is this system any less representative than the supposedly more liberal societies of the West?.
It is not possible to impose a universal system of human rights if the effects of social change stemming from modernization are not understood or worse yet, ignored. In non-Western societies, industrialization, capitalism, and democracy might not have been the eventual outcome of the process of cultural evolution. These ideologies have been shaped and created by Western imperialism, the slave trade, colonialism, modernization, and consumerism. 
Another difference between universalism and relativism is to consider a range of universal rights but with cultural, historical, political, and economical factors leading different right to the forefront in different places and at different time. For example, the right to freedom to speech might be regarded as universal right, but in some culture tradition it is relatively unimportant for most people, whereas other tradition it may provide the very basis of the political system.
Thus, although human right seen as universal, their significant will vary with the context.
Beyond the differences of universalism and relativism
Cultural context must be more carefully considered before making any strong statement about the application of human right concept. But this is only first step to analyzing to the problem of universalism and relativism. Breaking down the universal/relative dualism suggests that it is not a case of “either/or” but rather of thinking about ways that we can consider them a case of “both/and”. There are several ways that might be achieved:
The first ways that there is need to make two categories of human rights: one for universally applicable rights and the other for right in specific context. In universally human right like right to education, right to health and right to dignity etc declared to be universal while other rights would then be understood as varying from one culture context to another.
The second ways is to consider the relationship between rights and need. It is commonly assumed that there are universal human needs from which we can derive ideas of human right. This provides a useful way of thinking about universalism/relativism while assuming human rights are universal, needs derived from these rights will vary with cultural context. The universal right to education, for example, varies with educational needs, in one context it might mean teachers and school building, in another it is access to radios or computers, and in still another it may be educational material for families. We can understand human rights and human needs, then, as representing the two aspects of universalism/relativism: right are universal, but they give rise to very differently culturally determined needs.
A third ways of thinking about the universalism/relativism dilemma is to realize that human rights are universal aspiration, not empirical universals; human rights do not exist in an objective positive sense. They are constructed to represent our ideas about the important feature that make us “human” and that we have in common with humanity. In this condition human right are not static, this is not like to handed down their rights. Human rights will be acceptable by the entire person along with their will to accept.
A fourth ways is that the universalism and relativism not a dichotomy but as mutually interdependent, and to realize that we need both universal and specific in order to make sense of what is meant by human right. We need to understand that each needs the other, and that the two belong together. We understand both the concept in broader sense and to explore both the universal and contextual aspect of all human rights. So these are the ways which give broader idea to understand these concepts.
There is much diversity between the universalism and relativism. There is greater challenge to compromise between these ideas. Human rights when understood from which a modernistic perspective, is confronted by the same difficulty, in that anything other that the uniformity of an imposed universalism leads to value judgment about different culture perspective.
There is no possibility to apply all the human rights universally because every society have their different context and different culture like America gives her citizens the right to speech and expression while this right is not provided by the Chinese government. There are differences in human rights in every society’s perspective. So in my view, the human rights are not universally applicable but they are partly applicable. They declare those rights which are common in all the societies like the right to health, education and other rights are not universal and their applicability is handed over to the respective societies.
 P.N.1, Reichert Elisabeth, Challenges in Human Rights: A Social Work Perspective, Rawat Publications
 P.N.1, Fischlin Daniel and Nandorfy Martha, The Concise Guide to Global Human Right, Oxford University Press
 P.N.2, Fischlin Daniel and Nandorfy Martha, The Concise Guide to Global Human Right, Oxford University Press
 P.N.6 Reichert Elisabeth, Challenges in Human Rights: A Social Work Perspective, Rawat Publications
 http://www.spiritus-temporis.com/human-rights/types-of-human-rights.html on July,19,2010.
 http://www.spiritus-temporis.com/human-rights/types-of-human-rights.html on July 19,2010
 http://www.equitas.org/english/programs/downloads/ihrtp-proceedings/25th/Eng_Universalism-and-Cultural-R.pdf on July 22,2010
 P.N.11 reichert Elisabeth, Challenges in Human Rights: A Social Work Perspective, Rawat Publications
 http://library.thinkquest.org/C0126065/issuniversalism.html on July 22,2010.
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