The issue of implementing a widely accepted Human Rights policy has become a serious hurdle in recent years for many non Western nations like China Iran and Africa. Over the past couple of decades many nations in Asia Africa and the middle East have found themselves embroiled in human rights violation controversies and have been at the receiving end of Western based criticism for these policies.
(D. Bell 1996), Some have often faced severe financial penalties and boycotts from the Western world which has effected their economic development these controversies have given birth to a new philosophical debate on Universalist stance on human rights versus the relativist stance. The debate centres on the precept of whether the western based human right theories can be implemented in culturally diverse nations at a universal level. The Universalist theory of Human Rights is predominantly derived from Western philosophy and places tremendous importance on the rights of an individual.
This theory has its roots in Greek philosophy, principles of Christianity and the philosophical musings of European Enlightenment thinkers. (D. Bell 1999), The universalist approach to Human Rights propagates that certain basic human rights are inherent to safeguard the existence of every human and can be identified by using either religion nature or reason This theory holds the percept that all individuals should be granted certain rights by the very virtue of their humanity and that these rights cannot be conditioned by gender or national or ethnic origin.
(Donnelly 1999) The Universalist theory also propagates that these rights exist universally across all diversities of culture race and religion and can not be subordinated to another person or an institution ( Cultural relativism on the other hand is based on the notion that there should not be the prevalence of an adherence to specific objective standards by which a person or a nation be judged.
The debate between universalism and relativism was an old one but its extension to the realm of cultural relativism is comparatively new and was influenced by the work of cultural anthropologists who demonstrated that all different cultures are equally worthy and exercise their own views regarding the rights of an individual.. Theories propagating culture relativism holds the view that there is no universal meaning to a moral value and that these values are influenced by culture. The theories also establish that there are profound differences between western legal theories and cultures and those of Africa, Asia, India and Islam.
(E. Charney 1999 ) Theoretically speaking, the debate between universalism and culture fluctuates on a spectrum varying from radical aspects of universalism that propagates strict adherence to certain standards and radical aspects of relativism which holds culture to be the sole source of judging the validity of a moral value. This debate first came to the limelight in the arena of world politics in 1993 during a UN Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna. It was in this conference that a delegation led by China, Syria and Iran officially challenged the universality of Human Rights.
These countries put forward some essential causes for their discontentment with the prevailing practice of adopting universality to Human Rights. This included the central percept that universal theories of Human Rights were not universal at all in their scope and were based on concepts and theories of Western morality. (T. Franck 2001 pg 91), They argued further that these human rights theories should not therefore be imposed as norms on non-western societies in disregard of those societies’ historical and economic development and in disregard of their cultural differences and perceptions of what is right and wrong.
Furthermore they held that such imposition of ones own understanding and cultural interpretation of human rights on another culture without understanding the values of that culture is entirely unjust and reflects an imperialist attitude. The debate between these two perspectives examines the inherent strengths and weaknesses of both stances towards human rights.
However when looking at the merits and de-merits of these two approaches it is essential to stay away from a philosophical discussion of the intrinsic value of each perspective and focus on the practical translation of these two stances and how each of them are used in modern day practice. The greatest strength of universalism is that it institutes a fundamental system of rights that guarantees the protection of individual’s basic freedoms from any government policies that might seek to constrain this to propagate their own doctrines.
Most of the formal legislation on human rights propagates the existence of “negative” rights which seek to limit the interference of government in the lives of individuals and guarantee that an individual has certain basic freedoms that the government cannot infringe upon. Commonly defined these include the freedom to maintain ones privacy, freedom to speak freely without ear of persecution, freedom to hold exercise religious beliefs , freedom to hold and subscribe to opinions that may be political in nature and finally the freedom to associate with anybody that the individual desires to.
Any government policy which seeks to infringe on these beliefs can be deemed unconstitutional and can be revoked by law. (D. Bell 1999), Perhaps the biggest weakness of universalism is that it is rooted and stems from Western belief and practice and works best with political system that are fashioned on western models of democracy and capitalism. ( An-Na’im, 1991 pg 22) There is no disputing the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is tailored and customized by western nations. It included the representation of only four African nations (An Naim 2001 pg 88).
The majority of the drafts of the declaration are written in English. In fact all the legislation on Human Rights including International Bill of Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights heavily derives their content from the work of European Enlightenment philosophers namely Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The belief that there are certain freedoms which the government cannot and shouldn’t interfere with underlies the political system of many modern western countries. It has been the underlying belief of the US Constitution and the US Bill of Rights as well as the French Constitution.
Since the majority of Human rights legislation shares affinity with the believes propagated in the founding principles of many western democracies many believe that there is a close interdependency between instituting universal human right concepts and maintaining Western models of democracy. (M. Winston 2000) This has lead to the widespread Western ethnocentrism when it comes to the application of Human rights principles in countries which harbour different systems of government based on different religious beliefs