The origins of the concept of human rights lie in ancient Greece and Rome, and then passed into Christian thinking. Since the Holocaust, human rights have increasingly emerged as an international norm. Especially after the Second World War, the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime against humanity led the international community to examine the idea of human rights and promoted it into the global scene (Rhonda & Julie, 2007). Soon after, the United Nations formulated its Universal Declaration of human rights, called upon the worldwide states and their governments to adhere to it in 1948. With the validation of this declaration, human rights violations would be convicted by the international law. The concept of human rights has been widely realized and accepted at that time, and been even more universally since the increasing of globalization. However, there have been some cultural relativists who represent specific region, such as Asian, African and Islamic, began to argue that human rights should not always be universal and permanently valid few decades later. They argued that universality of human rights does not exist and should not be applied to their communities. Thus, hot debates between the universalism and cultural relativism of human rights have been arisen. Whether human rights must always be universal, incontrovertible, and permanently valid or is the notion of human rights merely a construct of modern Western culture will be discussed in this essay.
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Human rights, literally, are rights belong to every person simply because they are human beings, must always be universal. Jack (2003) claims it is the moral universality of human rights. It states clearly in the article 2 of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights (1948), ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedom set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.’ On the other hand, cultural relativism advocates that culture and traditions of the society take precedence over the rights of the individual within particular region. But actually, universalism suggests that humanity comes before culture and traditions. People are humans first and belong to cultures second (Rhonda & Julie, 2007). No one can say that because someone belongs to one specific culture, therefore, he/she should not be considered as a human. People believe in one religion have to share the duties, be respect to and follow the certain rules within, but at the same time, they should have the human rights ensured by that religion. Same emphasis should be put on both duty and right. Any religion should not deprive the rights of its followers. In addition, expect Islam, most the religions believe that human have been created equally, everyone should have the same rights. As long as people are human beings, regardless of any country, culture and religion they belong to, the human rights entitled to them must always be universal.
Human rights are almost universally accepted, at least the concept of it. All states regularly proclaim human rights norms, and charges of human rights violations are among the strongest complaints that can be made in international relations. Evidence showed that three quarters of the world’s states have undertaken international legal obligations to implement theses rights by becoming parties to the International Human Rights Covenants, and almost all other nations have expressed approval of and commitment to their content. In 1948, the United Nations Universal Declaration of human rights was passed by no against votes. Since human rights are widely be accepted, it should be considered as universal, and this argument support by Jack (2003). He concludes it as the international normative universality of human rights.
Nevertheless, some cultural relativists nowadays regard the notion of human rights is the construct of western countries, and go further to blame that the concept of human rights is really a cover for interventionism in the affairs of the developing world, and that human rights are merely an instrument of Western political neocolonialism. However, those relativists do not account for the fact that the Universal Declaration of human rights was drafted by people from many different cultures and traditions, including a US Roman Catholic, a Chinese Confucian philosopher, a French zionist and a representative from the Arab League, amongst others, and drew upon advice from thinkers such as Mahatma Gandhi (Olivia & Paul, 2007). In addition, even though the idea of individual rights was of Western origin, it was the non-Western countries that pushed for the adoption of the Declaration, against some reluctance of the Western governments (Lauren, 1998). Leaders and philosophers from Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East joined Western intellectuals and activists in support of human rights (Glendon, 2001). Those evidences show that the notion of human rights is not merely a construct of modern Western culture. Though human rights were introduced by western countries initially, it was widely acknowledged and supported by Eastern nations afterwards. Human rights is the common view of both the western and the eastern countries, and it is both of them then work together to promote the universality of human rights.
While cultural relativists regard the notion of human rights has been used by western countries as the tool to intervene those developing countries, to the same extent, the cultural relativism of human rights also can be consider as an excuse used by those specific countries to evade the censure if they violate human rights. The cultural relativist represent Asian region claim that, opposite to western’s focus on the role of individual, Asian countries emphasis on family, community and respect for authority, which are collective societies. Pollis & Schwab (1979) point out that human rights are less important than economic development and the formation of nation-states as some Asian countries declare. However, evidence show that human rights abuse neither strengthened nation-states nor accelerated economic development (Pollis, 1996). By ignoring human rights, such leaders condemned the majority of Africans to hunger and dependence on international humanitarian aid. In Asian values, the first priority has been given to social and economic rights than political rights. But, Kurczewski (1993) convinces that the lack of rights was actually a significant cause of the deepening economic crisis in Poland. He also says that, without civil and political rights there can be no social or economic progress. Thus, those Asian countries should not use their cultural relativism on human rights to against the universality of it, as what they claim is actually not true in reality.
Those cultural relativisms on human rights among Asian countries claim that, because of the different national situations they have, such as different levels and styles of economic development and different patterns of political evolution, therefore human rights should not be always universal. In other words, they actually do believe that the concept of human rights itself is universal, as some of them have been adhered to the United Nations Universal Declaration of human rights and the International Human Rights Covenants years ago. What they argue is, whether the implement of human rights should be universal. They may feel like it is not easy to guarantee the human rights in practice. At least it is reasonable for them to argue about it in their perspectives. However, one of the specific religious group which is Islam somewhat seems has no position to stand out and argue that human rights are not universal. The Islamic religion is problematic itself. There is actually gender inequality among Muslims, very strong discrimination towards women in their community. Women have no rights to be what they want to be and to do want they want to do, even can not go outside by themselves without men. In Islam, women have long been considered as men’s’ property. It is not convincing, as those people do violate human rights in some extent, and then to argue that human rights are not universal. In addition, as Wiktor (2005) argues that the supporters of cultural relativism only tended to represent the viewpoint of those in power who violate the rights of their citizens and followers rather than the perspective of the victims, so it is actually worth nothing.
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As the world keeps becoming more globalised in recent decades, human rights are actually better known and more widely accepted than before. Human rights were acknowledged in the constitutions and statutes of many new democracies in the 1990s. The finally declaration of the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 announced that “all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent, and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing and with the same emphasis.” (Human Right Solidarity, 1995). Those facts show that the universality of human rights has been emphasized again and again by the international community. Human rights are incontrovertible, and time changing dose not influence its permanent validation.
Although the argument between universalism and cultural relativism on human rights is far from complete, it is an academic discussion in that all international human rights instruments adhere to the principle that human rights are universally applicable. The moral universality and international normative universality of human rights is incontrovertible. The existence of the United Nations Universal Declaration of human rights and the International Human Rights Covenants also prove the universality of human rights to a higher degree. Through the concept of human rights was original in Western countries, it should not be considered as merely a construct of Western cultures. Human rights have actually been universally acknowledged and accepted by almost all the nations around the world. For those cultural relativists who represent specific values, their arguments could be recognized as the different interpretation of human rights on the basis of culture, but those arguments should be used to against the universality of human rights. In conclusion, human rights should always be universal, incontrovertible, and permanently valid, at least in theory. Further emphasis should be putted on the implement of human rights to make sure its universality in practice, and to ensure the universality of human rights in both theory and practice.
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