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Should Human Rights be understood as universal concepts, or are they culturally relative? Essay Example

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There have been debates on the universality of human rights considering that in the contemporary society, the application of rights cannot be considered as universal. This is because of the escalating nature of torture, oppression, and atrocities committed in different parts of the world. This essay will discuss the use of human rights as political tools in ways that weaken arguments on universality. The essay will use this perspective in analyzing arguments criticizing universal human rights followed by a presentation of alternative conceptions of universal human rights and the identification of development, which will ensure their universal application and respect.

Theoretical approaches

Theoretically, the underlying universal conception asserts the inalienability of human rights, which makes them self-evident and applicable to all human beings (Donnelly, 2003). This argument derives its assertion from John Locke’s understanding of the natural law which maintain that human rights are pre-political hence they are unaffected and immune to alterations necessitated by political or cultural variations. For Donnelly (2003), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights forms the basis of the establishment of a contemporary consensus on international recognition of human rights and indication that human rights are defined by universal values that all nations should adopt.

The theory of cultural relativism is often perceived as the most effective criticism of the universality of human rights. According to Langlois (2009), human rights are a product of western cultures and its application in other cultures can be considered as inappropriate. The western culture and philosophy considers the superiority of the individual in the society and claims supporting universalization of such rights risks the possibility of creating a cultural hegemony. The Asian cultural values are only applicable among the Asians and they focus on economic success and communal ownership to be critical in their culture. The western perspective of human rights and the incompatibility of its imposition is evidence that human rights cannot be applied universally (Freeman, 2011).

According to Ayittey (2011), existing obstacles for the universalization of human rights are claims that it is a new form of imperialism because it is a mask for the advancement of human interests. For example in the years of the Cold War, western nations dismissed human rights by supporting regimes in Kenya, Zaire, and Ethiopia, which were notorious for abuses. It was possible to perceive the concept of human rights as shallow rhetoric meant for the promotion of the interests of the United States in Africa. Furthermore, The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been provided as justification of the fear that human rights a tool for the perpetuation of imperialism (Langlois, 2009). Furthermore, developing countries have continuously argued that the issue of human rights has been used in undermining their sovereignty because it perpetuates the interests the interests of the West.

According to Coyne and Ryan (2003), the double standard policies applied by western states have been the main reason for the persistence of imperialist and cultural relativist arguments. Aid provided by western countries to authoritarian states has contributed to their consolidation of power. These factors have resulted in the reduction of the capacity of the West to engage in effective promotion of human rights. For Ayittey (2011), claims of imperialism have inhibited from engaging in effective criticism of western states. This explains why governments in most developing countries have been adept at suckering in the west to play diplomatic games because anti-imperialists and cultural arguments provide effective cover.

Critique of the theoretical positions

Arguments against universality of human rights are often made by minority groups, which are unrepresentative of the population they purport to represent. Political use of arguments about human rights has made it relatively difficult to engage in effective criticism of atrocious abuse of human rights. Furthermore, there is often lack of political will to enact human rights nit because of their unsuitability for the intended population but because they are politically unacceptable for the leadership. Assertions and promises by dictatorial leaders are accorded much respect and this provides the leaders with the ability to manipulate discussions on human rights leading to the adoption of self-serving positions, which prevent any changes to the status quo (Langlois, 2009).

There are scholars who have argues that an appeal to cultural relativism as in the case of Asian values is similar to the ideological justification of authoritarian regimes (Freeman, 2011). This is because the authoritarian cultural values that define Asian governments appear to stern from the leadership. This explains why Asian history can be perceived as a narrow category of authoritarian values that do not provide room for the rich philosophies that defines the intellectual traditions among Asians. Cultural relativism underrepresents the position of women because it considers the society to be male dominated. This is justification that arguments on cultural relativism of human rights are shallow tools used by those in power to impede effective application of these rights.

Alternative understanding for universal human rights

The arguments appealing for independence, cultural practices, and the deceitful nature of the west have contributed to shielding of human rights abuses from scrutiny. This has resulted in the development of misguided and radical universalism and cultural relativism. The later provides too much potential for abuse considering that those in leadership positions have the authority of dictating the determinant of culture hence hiding abuse of power (Mutua, 2008). Radical universalism can also be perceived as weaker notions for dismissing the entirety of culture. This explains why in understanding different aspects of the application of human rights, self-determination and cultural differences must be taken into consideration if human rights are to be applicable, otherwise they will be rejected as aspect of imperialism (Franck, 2001). This is an indication that a true understanding of the concept of universal application of human rights requires a theoretical foundation that does not embrace radical perceptions.

The universalization of human rights can only be possible when they are compatible with cultural differences. According to Rengger (2011), a fixed approach to universal human rights is deceptive. This is because culture and rights should be mutual constituents of one another. This is because there are no necessary incompatibilities between individual rights and communal values (Freeman, 2011). Globalization has been instrumental in the development of multicultural understanding of human rights with the objective of making the subject universal. However, through human rights movement it has been possible to refocus attention towards economic and social rights that give more legitimacy and relevance to different countries across the world. Universalization of human rights is therefore possible when the subject gains legitimacy through the incorporation of cross-cultural perspectives. According to Ramcharan (2008), existing theoretical perspectives of human rights are not relevant in explaining the wide range promotion of rights in the society today. The collective experience of injustice among members of different societies can be considered as constituting a fruitful foundation of building a theory of rights. This rights theory can be understood from the Kantian perspective in which rights is based on fundamental dignity inherent in human beings without any exceptions. All cultures are characterized with histories of injustices; in such society’s demands for the implementation of human rights from the oppressed individuals often initiate reforms. The presentation of this approach in advocating for human rights makes the universality of human rights possible.

How to universalize human rights

The foundation of the international law gives legitimacy to human rights movement as a tool that can be used in holding governments accountable. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a formation of the influence of non-western nations giving legitimacy to the universal applicability of this document. This has allowed the document to achieve a wider acceptance among different cultures. The formation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) played an essential role in developing the concept of universalization of human rights law. This is because the ICC was able to engage in independent investigations and charging individual for violations of human rights (Plessis, 2008). Nations embrace the ICC through the ratification of the Rome Statute, which is critical in showing the legal and moral acceptance of the ideals propounded by the ICC. The legitimacy of the ICC of founded on the existence a social system that is founded on the respect for the idea of human rights. The ICC enjoys grassroots support in both developed and developing countries (Franck, 2001). Furthermore, the concept of human rights has also been supported by international agreements as the source of universalization of human rights standards that empower civil societies.

The international community, especially the developed countries, can provide positive contributions towards ensuring that respect is accorded to human rights. The end of the Cold War in late 1980s eliminated numerous impediments to the development of more effective polices on human rights, which resulted in the democratization of different countries (Miguel, 2011). Through numerous programs, the international community has been effective in holding governments responsible by monitoring human rights abuses.


Conceiving human rights based on collective histories characterized by injustices against humanity provide a strong explanation for the value of perceiving human rights universally. Furthermore, the damaging and manipulative nature of the mainstream human rights theory makes its important to understand the value of cultural differences in development of a universal approach to human rights. The civil society and the international community play a fundamental role in the promotion and protection of human rights by legitimizing international law, which is important in universalizing human rights.


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