Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

Human Rights and Ethnocultural Justice

Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

Human Rights and Ethnocultural Justice

Article excerpt


Defenders of human rights often argue that human rights are a shield which protects the weak (individual citizens) from the strong (coercive states). Yet many critics would contend that human rights are a weapon of the strong (Western, bourgeois society) against the weak (non-white, Third World societies and cultures). As Shelley Wright states: (1)

   Any claim that human rights are 'universal and indivisible'
   must be prepared to answer the assertion of many Third World,
   non-white and/or feminist international scholars that human
   rights have a very specific history with particular ties to
   the politics, economics and social psychology of a white,
   Euro-centric, male, bourgeois culture that may have little
   relevance to the needs of people who do not fit within this
   description. Indeed, some commentators would go further and
   say that human rights are a direct outgrowth of the capitalist,
   colonialist history of post-medieval Europe and that they are
   part of the export of oppressive and, in some cases, genocidal
   policies of European colonists.

My aim in this paper is not to resolve this dispute, but rather to situate it within the broader context of justice between ethnocultural groups. I will suggest that the value and impact of human rights depend, at least in part, on how these larger issues of ethnocultural justice are addressed. I hope, in the process, to show that there is a certain amount of truth in both these conflicting views.

On the one hand, I argue that respect for human rights is not sufficient to ensure ethnocultural justice, and that where ethnocultural justice is absent, the rhetoric and practice of human rights may actually worsen the situation. In this respect, I agree with those critics of human rights doctrines who see such rights as having contributed to the unjust colonization of minority or non-Western peoples.

However, I do not oppose the idea of "universal and indivisible" human rights. On the contrary, where the larger conditions of ethnocultural justice are met, it is entirely appropriate to demand respect for human rights. Where the relationships between ethnocultural groups are more or less just, indifference to human rights will simply leave the weak vulnerable to the whims of the powerful within their own communities. In this respect, I agree with advocates of human rights, who see such rights as necessary to defend individuals from the abuse of political power.

On my view, then, the impact of human rights depends on the extent to which other principles of ethnocultural justice are met. Unfortunately, these larger issues of ethnocultural justice are often neglected in the debate over the transnational application of human rights which, instead, typically focuses on the intrinsic merits or universal applicability of Western "individualism." Critics often say that human rights theory treats individuals as "context free," and that this "abstract" or "atomistic" view of human beings is either inherently inadequate or, at any rate, inappropriate for more "communal" non-Western societies. Advocates of human rights respond that Western notions of individualism are not "atomistic" and, moreover, that there are important similarities of needs and vulnerabilities between peoples around the world which justify common principles of human rights.

We are all familiar with this debate, but I suggest that the debate may be misplaced, or at least premature. We should not assume that different conceptions of "individualism" are at the root of the problem. The problem may not lie with "individualism," or with "human rights" as such, but rather with the broader context of ethnocultural relations within which issues of human rights are debated.

Put another way, whenever members of a group object to the transnational application of human rights, we should not jump to the conclusion that the source of opposition is some conflict between (communalist) local practices, established for religious, cultural or linguistic reasons, and (individualistic) human rights norms. …

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