Is Culture a Barrier to Human Rights? (Inter-American Viewpoint)

By Granato, Matt J. | Americas (English Edition), January-February 2003 | Go to article overview

Is Culture a Barrier to Human Rights? (Inter-American Viewpoint)


Granato, Matt J., Americas (English Edition)


Cultural diversity and its effects on the application of law are a topic of heated debate, not only in the field of human rights but also in public international law. In the realm of human rights, the fact that the concept of these rights was first developed in the West, and that it was mainly in the West where the various treaties and conventions were drafted, left many cultural identities out of the process of norm creation. This contributed to undermining the legitimacy of human rights outside the West. Universal protection is thus problematic, but this is not to say that the very notion of human rights is not universal.

The idea of human rights can be traced to the beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment in the late seventeenth century, when it was argued that men possessed natural rights, which derived from the concept of natural law. The English philosopher John Locke argued that certain rights belong to men by virtue of their being human and because these rights existed in the state of nature before humankind entered civil society. These were the rights to life, liberty, and property. When humans entered civil society these rights were not themselves surrendered, but the power to enforce them was deposited in the state, and the state's failure to secure them gave men the right to revolution. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson put Locke's ideas into the American Declaration of Independence, stating that "all men are created equal" and that they hold certain inalienable rights such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

However, the idea of human rights as known today did not come into its own until after World War II, following the defeat and collapse of Nazi Germany and the discovery of the atrocities carried out by that regime. By the end of the 1940s the world comprised a handful of independent nations--mainly European and North and Latin American, and the Communist nations. Africa and Asia were still colonial dependencies that had no voice in the decision-making process following World War II. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948, forty-eight states voted in favor and eight abstained. The abstentions included the Soviet bloc, which opposed the idea of exporting American values (in their opinion reflected in the Declaration), and Saudi Arabia, which did not agree with the provision concerning freedom of religion, including the right to choose and change one's religion.

However, I am reluctant to believe that the UDHR and the two covenants that followed, in the drafting of which a much larger number of states took part, are merely reflections of Western values with no universal application. I would argue that the neglect of and disrespect for human rights has more to do with political and economic considerations, and with the conservation of the status quo, than with cultural values, both in and outside the West.

The thousands of communal life-styles and the various ways of organizing society around the world have led to the suggestion that the concept of human rights has no universal application. This view is held by those who do not want to impose their own values on other cultures in order to prevent alienating and isolating those nations and regimes outside the West, with which they want to build solid relations, either for trade or for security purposes. At the same time, violators of human rights advance this same thesis, sometimes accompanied by the words "cultural imperialism," to find an excuse for their deeds.

In efforts to categorize humanity, one possible set of categories is its different cultures, or cultural identities. Nonetheless, individuals are born human before they are inserted into a particular culture. The culture they are born into might be a decisive factor in determining their beliefs, personalities, language, tastes--even, in some cases, their physical features--but culture does not play any role in defining them as humans. …

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