Friday, February 10, 2012

Are human rights culturally specific?


Human rights are a universal, international phenomenon and concern. They are universally understood, leaving considerable space for national, regional, cultural particularity and other forms of diversity and relativity. It is true that Human rights are a global concern, especially between non-western states, due to the fact that they are seen as imperialistic and western ideals. So the main debate on this matter is between the Judaeo- Christian West and the Muslim world.

The Middle East and numerous Asian states have criticized the UN and Western policy for its imposition of Western values. They understand that the root and the philosophical foundations of the human rights are western, meaning in a way that they are opposite values to their own.  Nevertheless we cannot identify one answer, on this matter, which could represent all of the Islamic states. Some seem to be understandable, accepting a dialogue between human rights and Islam. Others are antagonistic towards this relation, understanding that the two are incompatible, since they derive from two different ‘worlds’.
               Although these values were born recently, after World War Two, and by certain states, meaning by certain cultures and ideologies, based on the philosophical, religious and political views of the life they represent; we can today distinguish the existence of human rights in other environments, such as the Islamic one, where we have the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights which, enforced in 1981 and the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, 1990. So we understand that even these states have recognized that these human values are above any cultural reference, or religious cultural authenticity; but they represent the security of the individual by the state, regardless of its ideological cover-up. Through these two declarations, Human Rights are brought closer to the traditions and political ideologies of the East and especially the Islamic culture.


            The important issue here is to understand the universalistic existence of Human Rights. They exist since the beginning of politics. There are different conceptions on this matter hence we acknowledge different attitudes towards human rights. What gave birth to them was the West but it was due to the social, economic and political transformation of modernity.  Virtually all states accept the authority of the Universal Declaration of Human Right; even though many of them violate these rights within their jurisdiction, such as China, which has kept the language of international recognized human rights, seemingly as an inescapable precondition to its fully recognition as a great power.
            The key point that should be considered when referring to human rights and how states and individuals accept them or not, is interpretation. Western religious and philosophical doctrines through most of their history have either rejected or ignored human rights. Today, however, the same institutions endorse them. This is a great example of how ideas and ideologies can adjust to the international political and cultural environment of the age. So ‘Asian values’ and ‘African values’ can modify themselves as did the western ones previously. And this is seen through examples like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, who are modernizing their politics and aspirations, trying to incorporate them into the global political arena. There have been discussions in the international diplomatic field so human rights can work with the Islamic, African and Asian traditions. Difficulties have made this connection quite complicated. One issue is shari’a law which exists and forms many Muslim societies.
            Human rights have a universal value. Moreover, most people, of all cultures, accept some validity for universal criteria: very few people would argue that torture, starvation, slavery are to be treated at the same level as greeting customs and festival arrangements. Humanity is the important factor, not culture. 
            Concluding, we understand that the above presents us the difficulties of accepting the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” by all the states, especially the non-western ones.  However movements of incorporating them in different cultural traditions have been made. Although they were born in the west, they refer to every human. Human rights are above any culture. They exist to protect every human, individually. As stated in the first article of “The International Bill of Human Rights, All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. 

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