Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique

Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique

Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique

Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique

Synopsis

In 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and with it a torrent of norms, processes, and institutions to define, promote, and protect human rights. Today virtually every cause seeks to cloak itself in the righteous language of rights. But even so, this universal reliance on the rights idiom has not succeeded in creating common ground and deep agreement on the scope, content, and philosophical bases for human rights. Makau Mutua argues that the human rights enterprise mistakenly presents itself as a final inflexible truth, a glimpse of eternity without which human civilization is not possible. Mutua contends that in fact the human rights corpus, though well meaning, is a Eurocentric formula for the reconstruction of non-Western societies and peoples through a set of culturally-biased norms and practices that inhere in liberal thought and philosophy. Mutua argues that if the human rights movement is to succeed, it must be relocated from the historical continuum of Eurocentrism as a civilizing crusade and as an attack on non-European peoples. Only genuine multiculturalization of human rights can make it truly universal. Thus the indigenous, non-European traditions of Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas must be deployed to deconstruct--and to reconstruct--a universal bundle of rights that all human societies can claim as theirs.

Excerpt

I have always found human suffering unacceptable. But I did not name my struggles against deprivation, dehumanization, and oppression a fight for human rights. For me it was the injunction for persons and groups with a conscience. As human beings we are—in a manner of speaking—called on the one hand to resist human degradation in all its forms and manifestations. On the other hand, we are symbiotically required to fight to advance the frontiers of human dignity. The scope of human dignity has for me always been as broad as the human condition. It is not just about humans as political and economic beings. These dimensions are, of course, foundational and basic, but I have always believed that we are much more than the total sum of economic denominations and political calculations. Histories, cultures, and traditions constitute spiritual cosmologies for every people, and every individual who is a member of that people.

It is true that no culture is monolithic but that all are dynamic and internally discontinuous. Internal desensus is a hallmark of all cultures. But that truth does not diminish the distinctive nature of each individual culture or negate the fact that each culture represents the accumulated wisdom of a people and its individual members. Nor does it do away with the description of culture as an ethnographic fingerprint. What these truths evidence is the difficulty of making cross-cultural judgments about norms of social, political, economic, cultural, and spiritual behavior for individuals and societies. Attempts to construct universalist creeds and doctrines— or to present a particular creed or doctrine as universal—run the risk of destroying or decimating dissimilar universes. The claim of a universalist warrant is an extremely tricky proposition, if not altogether impossible. That is why attempts at creating an international consensus on what constitutes human dignity must be approached with nuance, open-mindedness, and the complexity that it deserves.

That is why I wrote this book. I wanted to explain why I believe that the human rights corpus should be treated as an experimental paradigm, a work in progress, and not a final inflexible truth. It is important that the human rights movement be fully exposed so that its underbelly can be crit-

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