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What Extent Are Human Rights Claims Culturally Specific Politics Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The atrocities committed against individuals in events such as slavery, the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the apartheid in South Africa caused the issue of human rights to become a major concern for all nations across the globe, particularly for the western nations. The issue of human rights, however, has its roots in natural law theories of the 17th and 18th centuries and was more firmly established contemporarily in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other covenants, conventions and declarations that were derived from it. At the core of this issue, is the controversy as to whether human rights are universal or culturally relative. Another area of disputation is the efficiency of the international community in the face of cultural practices that serve to discriminate against individuals, such as female genital mutilation, for example. The use of secondary data was applied in carrying out this research to address the above-mentioned issues.

In this essay, I will attempt to find out how can universal human rights exist in a culturally diverse world. As the international community becomes increasingly integrated, how can cultural diversity and integrity are respected? Is the African Union Security Culture effective?

There is no universal consensus on the definition of human rights because although human rights speak to everyone, different cultures have different concepts as to what human rights are and what they really mean.

Universal human rights do not impose one cultural standard, rather one legal standard of minimum protection necessary for human dignity. As a legal standard adopted through the United Nations, universal human rights represent the hard-won consensus of the international community, not the cultural imperialism of any particular region or set of traditions.

Jack Donnelly [2] defines human rights as “a special class of rights, that is, the rights that one has simply because one is a human being. They are thus moral rights of the highest order”. John Humphrey [3] states, “when we speak of human rights […] we usually have in mind certain rights which pertain to individual men and women because they are human beings and for no other reason. While it may not be true that all human beings are born free and equal, they are born with certain rights.” Some of these rights, but not all of them are called human rights. Human rights are those rights without which there can be no human dignity. They derive from the inherent dignity of the human person as mentioned in the preambles to the two United Nations Covenants on human rights. It follows that every one possesses these rights in full equality.

Human rights are intended for everyone, in every culture and are the birthright of every person.

Human rights also hold that every individual has certain rights protecting him or her against the abuse of power by governments.

CULTURAL RIGHTS

Culture [4] can be defined as a shared, learned, symbolic system of values, beliefs and attitudes that shape and influence perception and behaviour. Culture [5] is the totality of knowledge, skills, traditions, and customs, specific to a group of people or a civilization. It is transmitted socially from generation to generation and not by genetic inheritance, and largely determines individual behaviour. It encompasses a very broad aspect of social life: techniques, manners, morals, lifestyle, systems of values, beliefs, religious observances, family organization, etc.

Every human being has the right to culture, including the right to enjoy and develop cultural life and identity. Cultural rights, however, are not unlimited. The right to culture is limited at the point to which it infringes on another human right. No right can be used at the expense or destruction of another, in accordance with international law.

Similarly, cultural rights do not justify torture, murder, genocide, discrimination on grounds of sex, race, language or religion, or violation of any of the other universal human rights and fundamental freedoms established in international law. Any attempts to justify such violations on the basis of culture have no validity under international law.

A Cultural Context

These are some of the issues, concerns and questions underlying the debate over universal human rights and cultural relativism.

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. Taken to its extreme, this relativism would pose a dangerous threat to the effectiveness of international human rights’ laws that has been painstakingly set up with international standards, and consequently widespread disregard, abuse and violation human rights would be given legitimacy.

When a traditional culture does effectively provide protection, then human rights by definition would be compatible, posing no threat to the traditional culture. As such, the traditional culture can absorb and apply human rights, and the governing State should be in a better position not only to ratify, but to effectively and fully implement, the international standards.

Traditional culture is not a substitute for human rights; it is a cultural context in which human rights must be established, integrated, promoted and protected. Human rights must be approached in a way that is meaningful and relevant in diverse cultural contexts.

Rather than limit human rights to suit a given culture, why not draw on traditional cultural values to reinforce the application and relevance of universal human rights? There is an increased need to emphasize the common, core values shared by all cultures: the value of life, social order and protection from arbitrary rule. These basic values are embodied in human rights.

Communitarians argued that rights and justice are culturally specific and cannot be applied across borders. For communitarians, human rights cannot be defined universally because they only have meaning in terms of the social fabric of a particular society and culture that proclaim them and does not apply in the real world. Human rights would be something different in Saudi Arabia compared to the UK. Cosmopolitans see rights to have ‘universal meaning when they are based upon human reason and that universal rights prevail over particular values because they express universal reason.’ [6] 

”Make Peace Happen”

In the last decade, the security culture of the African Union (AU) has developed in some relatively radical ways. There are also new opportunities to advance the responsibility to protect (R2P) agenda adopted by the United Nations General Assembly World Summit in 2005. This agenda commits individual states and the international community to protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. If successfully implemented in Africa, R2P would make a tremendous contribution to promoting stability and peace.

The African Union (AU) has declared 2010 the “African Year of Peace and Security” with its campaign’s slogan “Make Peace Happen.” Turning this statement into reality rests in large part on the members of the AU’s Peace and Security Council, the most important African institution for the day-to-day management of peace and security issues.

Within the AU, support for the responsibility-to-protect principle

emerged from broader concerns with promoting human rights standards on the continent.

‘If a government proves either unable or unwilling to protect its civilians from ‘large scale loss of life’ […] then international society bears a collective responsibility to protect them and can override the sovereignty of the state in question [7] .’

‘Security cultures are patterns of thought and argumentation […] concepts of the role, legitimacy and efficacy of particular approaches to protecting values.” [8] . [9] 

Moreover, security cultures help establish the core assumptions, beliefs and values of decision-makers about how security challenges can and should be dealt with, through the process of socialization.

The African Union’s Constitutive Act pledges respect for human rights and rejects the widespread impunity that has characterized armed conflict and political repression in many African countries. In “grave circumstances” such as occurred during the Rwandan genocide, the Constitutive Act authorizes the African Union to intervene. Leading African states in the African Union have also adopted a New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), a program to lift Africa out of poverty that explicitly recognizes the importance of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law for economic development. NEPAD has also developed its own code of governance and system for “peer review,” but its pledges on human rights remain vague.

“The African Union will only succeed if it replaces the culture of impunity with the culture of accountability.” [10] 

Indeed, the record of the AU was not much more impressive in the field of security-related activities. The organisation was mainly involved in setting norms and standards, but it was never effective in enforcing them. In the few cases of international wars (Somalia/Ethiopia 1977-78 and Eritrea/Ethiopia 1998-2000) the AU played virtually no role.

The AU was also committed to the principle of non-alignment, but the fact that no member state ever joined any formal alliance with outside powers is probably mainly due to the fact that no alliance memberships were ever on offer, and the AU certainly failed in preventing the actual involvement of the great powers in conflicts on the continent.

Without strong and interventionist versions of international distributive justice and measures associated with subsistence, economic and welfare rights, the AU will be powerless.

The constructivist’s approach to analysing regional security dynamics as summarized by Hurrell, “involves a number of central ideas: first, that, in contrast to rationalist theories, we need to pay far more attention to the processes by which both interests and identities are created and evolve, to the ways in which self-images interact with changing material incentives, […] that both interests and identities are shaped by particular histories and cultures, by domestic factors, and by ongoing processes of interaction with others.” [11] 

In order to guarantee human security at the personal, institutional, and structural-cultural levels, power relations and relations of power should be underscored within a socio-cultural context.

In other words, emancipation or sustainable peace-building occurs when one understands the true nature of social-cultural categories such as class, gender, ethnic equality, etc. A great deal of peace-building deals with issues of security within a positivist-rational epistemology.

Human security is therefore a situation or a condition free of injury or threats to an individual’s, or community’s well-being, including freedom from direct physical attacks and psychological integrity. To ensure such security involves the understanding of human security located at the structural, institutional, and personal levels of society.

It involves an attempt to understand human security or insecurity in terms of those who experience them. What motivates the dissatisfied to agitate and their beliefs as marginalized individuals should be seriously taken into account, instead of merely imposing policies on them. Constructivism as an approach is a useful theoretical lens in understanding the true nature of things such as collective violence, class, gender, and racial issues, among others. Within these units emancipation occurs when the accurate picture of the situation is understood. Constructivists operate on the ontological assumption that actors are shaped by the socio-cultural milieu in which they live.

Constructivists try to go beyond the descriptive aspect of a situation to an understanding of the motives of a community in order to explain how they behave and what causes political outcomes. Constructivism is not only limited to the influence of norms and social understandings on different actors (individuals, groups, and states), it also investigates why the norms and inter-subjective beliefs often had different influences on different actors. Many constructivist studies have emphasized the ways in which ideas and norms become more powerful in their effect than conventional conceptions of strong state interests.

In conclusion, this essay has considered many different arguments, cultures in the world are in many cases conflicting and the diversities in the world can make it difficult to have a universal consensus, especially when it comes to personal rights. While it is worth considering the western interpretation of human rights, the human rights doctrine should not have to make allowances for differences in morality. When it considers a right to be fundamental and important, this should mean it is universal. The function of Human rights is to improve the individual’s life and the way it does this is not to make allowances for customs and traditions that should not be considered acceptable. For the time being it is a virtual impossibility to make economic compatibility a reality, as the differing political systems do not allow for this. However this does not mean that human rights in general are not compatible with multiculturalism. We are all humans, with basic wants and needs. Being granted these wants and needs does not take away anything from the differing cultures on the contrary the Human rights protect our right to be different, through cultural identity and religion amongst other rights. The basic rights of humans should not be based on culture but on what improves people’s life in the most effective way. Diversity does not affect human needs, and therefore should not affect, at least at the most fundamental level, the universal doctrine of human rights.

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