Universalism and the West

By Daum, Werner | Harvard International Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Universalism and the West


Daum, Werner, Harvard International Review


An Agenda for Understanding

On August 20,1998, the United States attacked the Al-Shifa (Health,) Company, a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan. The nighttime strike completely destroyed the factory, killing the night watchman and his family. The US government offered three justifications for the attack: the "facility" was heavily guarded by the military; it was owned by Osama bin Laden, or by the "fundamentalist" government of Sudan, or by a frontman for these; and it had started to produce precursors to chemical weapons (CW).

The next day, when journalists flocked to Al-Shifa, they found no indication that it was a military facility. Neighbors had never seen any military personnel there. The factory had been open to visitors. Western businessmen, wishing to sell pharmaceutical equipment, had been free to tour the insides of the factory at will.

Within a few days it was determined that the factory belonged to a private businessman who was not a fundamentalist. On the contrary, he was found to be a prominent opposition figure who had financed a newsletter in exile, and who even had on his payroll an old schoolmate of his who was a leader of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement. The factory had even been partly financed with an official international-development loan.

Normally, it would be almost impossible to disprove allegations of CW-precursor production, but in this case a witness stepped forward. At a press conference, the owner's lawyer declared that he had handled his client's purchase of the factory some months earlier and that he had personally checked every detail. He could testify that there was nothing related to CW in the factory, but that it genuinely was a pharmaceutical plant. And who was this lawyer? Ghazi Sulayman, Sudan's most respected human-rights advocate, who had been imprisoned several times for his advocacy work against the government. Even US officials had publicly praised him for his unfaltering commitment to democracy and human rights. There could not have been a more credible witness.

It is difficult to assess how many people in this poor African country died as a consequence of the destruction of the Al-Shifa factory, but several tens of thousands seems a reasonable guess. The factory produced some of the basic medicines on the World Health Organization list, covering 20 to 60 percent of Sudan's market and 100 percent of the market for intravenous liquids. It took more than three months for these products to be replaced with imports. It was, naturally, the poor and the vulnerable who would suffer from the plant's destruction, not the rich.

Universalism vs. Relativism

This article is about human rights, or rather the way the West uses the idea of human rights in foreign policy. The underlying issue, however, is not human rights, but politics. The discussion is usually framed in terms of universalism vs. cultural relativism, an antithesis of massive ideological weight.

The debate opened in 1979 with the stunning research of Adamantia Pollis and Peter Schwab in Human Right: A Western Construct with Limited Applicability. The book spelled out what many in the human-rights field had felt, albeit vaguely, and provided the tools for an intellectual analysis of this uneasiness. The book has become even more influential since 1990. Pollis and Schwab have continued to enrich and direct the debate--however, certainly to their credit, in a volume published in 2000, they have extensively rethought and modified their previous positions. Although they feel that their previous thesis is still correct, they now feel that "modernization" has encompassed so much of the world that distinctive cultures have more or less disappeared and have become integrated in the mainstream; countries can therefore no longer claim the right to be judged by a different set of human-rights criteria.

The other dominant personality in the academic debate is Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na'im. …

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