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HD China: Relativism v. Universalism

April 22, 2011

文化. wénhuà. culture.

[readers note: this post is part of a series. To read earlier versions, or get some background, please see: what is HD Chinaintroemergence of the webinternational lawliu xiaobopeoples activism, gradual change]

Cultural Relativism

So what happens when an apparent gap exists between this Universalist legalism and reality?  From an observational standpoint, this seems to revive a theme that surfaced in the NWICO debate— where the West rallied around the principle of “free-flow of information” and the Eastern bloc iterated the need for state control.  These fundamental differences in ideologies cannot be ignored.  The apparent dichotomy attaches itself to larger elements often associated with international law—such as the areas of universalism and cultural relativism.

Essentially, Universalists insist that human rights derive from our common humanity and so should apply equally to all.  Relativists deny that human rights can or should be universal.  Instead, they argue, human rights norms must be adapted to reflect wide variations in culture, beliefs, and economic and political circumstances.

The question of the universality of human rights was raised during the drafting of the Universal declaration of Human Rights, which claims to set a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” In 1947, the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association sent a long memorandum to the UN Human Rights commission staying that “standards are relative to the culture from which they derive.”  The memorandum argued that individuals from the moment of birth have their thoughts, hopes, aspirations, and values shaped by the customs of the group of which they become a member, and that there is no scientifically validated technique for qualitatively evaluating different cultures.  The memorandum also emphasized “what is held to be a human right in one society may be regarded as anti-social by another people, or by the same people in a different period of their history.” [i]

The memorandum therefore questioned whether the Universal Declaration could be anything other than “a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America.”

Rosalyn Higgins, a former judge of the International Court of Justice, articulated a response to this concern [ii]:

This is a point advanced mostly by states, and by liberal scholars anxious not to impose the Western view of things on others.  It is rarely advanced by the oppressed, who are only too anxious to benefit from perceived universal standards.  Individuals everywhere want the same essential things: to have sufficient food and shelter; to be able to speak freely; to practise their own religion or to abstain from religious belief; to feel that their person is not threatened by the state; to know that they will not be tortured, or detained without charge, and that, if charged, they will have a fair trial.  I believe there is nothing in these aspirations that is dependent upon culture, or religion, or stage of development.“


[i] supra, n. 6, at page 479

[ii] Rosalyn Higgins, Problems and Process:  International Law and How we Use it (1994)

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