Cultural relativism contends that no one culture possesses a more correct value system than any other. "There is no one standard set of morals," Sullivan (2006) argues, which one can use as a base to: "objectively judge all cultures, so comparing morality between cultures -- which retain independent and distinct histories and influences -- is basically futile" (¶ 9).
As the movement is rooted in the world community's response to the excesses inflicted upon humanity by the Nazi and Fascist regimes during the Second World War, the founders of the United Nations ensured that the Charter would reflect the close relationship between international peace and security and international human rights. Thus, the first two goals embodied in the Preamble of the U.N. Charter are: "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" and "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, the dignity and worth of the human person, [and] in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small...." Article 1 of the Charter lists among the purposes of the U.N. "[t]o achieve international co-operation in... promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion." (2) Nanda 2007 II ¶ 1)
Portrayals of Human Rights Violations
In" Globalization and Human Trafficking," Jones, Engstrom, Hilliard, and Diaz (2007) purport that human trafficking mirrors one particularly repugnant portrayal of human rights violations. They contend that human trafficking could be perceived as one of globalization's dark sides. When humans are sold for prostitution, to work in sweatshops, completing labor projects, to beg on streets, for completing domestic work, for marriage, for adoption, "agricultural work, construction, armed conflicts (child soldiers), and other forms of exploitive labor or services" (¶ 3), albeit these actions constitute the violation of universal human rights.
The following Daily Nebraskan newspaper article relating a recent case in an Atlanta, Georgia courthouse reveals some of the challenges the contemporary global cultural divide presents regarding human rights violations.
On Nov. 1, Khalid Adem, an Ethiopian immigrant, was sentenced to 10 years in a Georgian prison for aggravated battery and cruelty to children. By the listed charges, it would seem that he repeatedly beat his little girl, now 7.
In reality, prosecutors said Adem used scissors to remove his daughter's clitoris. And while Georgia recently passed an anti-mutilation law -- pushed through with the help of the girl's mother -- that law wasn't on the books when the mutilation occurred.
Adem said that he never circumcised his daughter, and that he grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, and he considers the practice to be more common in rural areas.
While he hasn't admitted guilt, Adem's case highlights one of the world's most culturally divisive practices, a topic of great debate within the human rights community.
Female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting or sometimes female circumcision, comes in numerous variations, but often involves cutting the clitoris from the female, usually young girls. This has various cultural justifications and implications, but is often intended as sexual damage-control.
Since the clitoris contains thousands of nerve endings, removing it can serve to moderate or completely dissolve a woman's ability to experience sexual stimulation. This quells promiscuity and removes physical temptation, sometimes with intent to keep women "pure" until marriage. Hence, those on the receiving end of this brutal procedure tend to be young.
As the Daily Nebraskan's audience is almost exclusively Western, it's safe to suggest that readers are either still cringing or are now just plain disgusted. That's because of our upbringing. An act as brutal as FGM -- often performed with unsanitary and primitive objects like broken bottles, sticks or sharp rocks -- can seem barbaric to those of us in the West.
Cultural anthropologists can explain this with the theory of cultural relativism. The idea is that no culture is inherently superior to another, no value system more correct. There is no one standard set of morals by which we can objectively judge all cultures, so comparing morality between cultures -- which retain independent and distinct histories and influences -- is basically futile.
This stands in stark contrast to the theory of moral universalism, which suggests that there are at least some moral standards by which all cultures and value systems may be judged. Murder, maybe they'll say, or rape shan't ever be justified with cultural arguments. Moral universalists look for values found consistently across cultures and identify them.
The theory of human rights takes principle from cultural relativism, but finally rests on the law of universalism. Human rights, simply by their nature, are universal. They do not rely on geography or political system for existence -- they do, however, rely on governments and activists to promote and protect them. Just because a government does not recognize or protect a particular right does not mean the people are not entitled to it. (Sullivan 2006)
Sullivan (2006) purports that "...cutting a young girl's clitoris will always be a repugnant act, whether in Ethiopia or Georgia. Cultural practices can be altered to include universal human rights and still honor tradition and local values. Human rights can never bow to culture alone" (¶18).
In the article, "Universal human rights and cultural diversity," a review of the book, a Review of Human Rights: New Perspectives, New Realities, edited by Adamantia Pollis and Peter Schwab, Hilde Hey (2001), a political scientist who holds a Ph.D. from the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, notes the progression of the contemporary controversy regarding human rights being deemed as universal or culturally relative. In 1947, Hey (2001 p, 17) recounts the Commission on Human Rights consideration of proposals to formulate a declaration on basic human rights. At this time, the American Anthropological Association argued that: "ideas about rights and wrongs and good and evil that exist in one society are incompatible with the ideas of rights and wrongs and good and evil in many other societies" (p. 17). Since the advent of this particular contention, however, the gap between those who advocate for universality and the individuals who proclaim the virtues of cultural relativism has narrowed. During 1993, the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action at the World Conference on Human Rights, initiated the integration of culture into the universality of human rights. Hey (2001 p, 17) points out that the fifth paragraph of the Vienna Declaration reads:
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. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms United Nations 1993(Hey (2001 p, 17)
Non-Universal or Universal Human Rights?
My country is the world;
my countrymen are mankind"
William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) (Bartlett 2000).
Garrison (Bartlett 2000), similar to Socrates, "said he was not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world."
During this chapter of this researcher considers components that contribute to the determination of whether a human right constitutes a non-universal or universal human right?
The "Cultural Critique."
Li, Xiaorong (2007) a research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, author of numerous articles on international justice, human rights, ethics and democratization, also authored the book Ethics, Human Rights and Culture. In what she labels the "cultural critique," published as "A cultural critique of cultural relativism.(Part III: Rethinking Culture: Globalization and the Challenges of Interculturality)," Xiaorong discusses contemporary debates denoting "the troubled relationship between culture, on the one hand, and the claim to universal moral principles, on the other"(Introduction ¶ 1) She specifically explores controversies, targeting truth-seeking labors to guard these universal principles. Xiaorong (2007) purports that when one carefully dissects traditional perceptions relating to culture, he/she begins to better comprehend particular misunderstandings that, in the past, proffered ammunition to cultural relativism. In addition, scrutinizing general conceptions regarding culture contributes to strengthening rational objections to normative cultural relativism.
The following chart (1) describes a number of fundamental rights the United Nations Population Fund UNFPA strives to ensure, along with some interventions this group initiates.
Right to life and survival
UDHR, article 3
ICCPR, article 6
CRC, article 6
Prevent avoidable maternal deaths
End pre-natal sex selection and female infanticide
Screen for cancers that can be detected early and treated.
Ensure access to dual-protection contraceptive methods
Right to liberty and security of the person
UDHR, article 25
ICESCR, article 12
CEDAW. Articles 11, 12 and 14
Eliminate female genital cutting
Encourage clients to make independent reproductive health decisions