Human Rights and the Culture Wars: Globalization and the Universality of Human Rights

By Howard, Rhoda E. | International Journal, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Human Rights and the Culture Wars: Globalization and the Universality of Human Rights


Howard, Rhoda E., International Journal


Globalization theory is posing a new challenge to the view that human rights are universal in principle and ought to be so in practice. The challenge comes from some of its analyses of global change which reinforce the view that human rights are an important part of the 'culture wars,' a Western cultural imposition on other parts of the world.

Globalization theory focusses on quantitative and qualitative changes in communications, technology, and the market that are creating a new, closer, global world in the twenty-first century. One aspect of this change is purported to be the universalization of (Western) culture and, within it, the universalization of human rights. Some commentators, such as Malcolm Waters, are optimistic that these changes will create a freer and more open world than the nineteenth and twentieth century closed state system.(f.1) Others such as Paul Kennedy and Benjamin Barber worry that globalization will result in 'Jihad vs McWorld,' a fundamentalist cultural reaction against the spread of Western social norms, including the norms of human rights.(f.2)

There is a real danger that culturalist social movements will have increasing influence in the twenty-first century. They may well join with authoritarian governments of various kinds to suppress the human rights movement as an inauthentic, non-indigenous, 'Western' cultural imposition. To argue this point, it is necessary to review a series of debates about human rights that have been occurring since the 1970s. In discussing these debates, I will refer to culturalist reaction because it is a more descriptive and less polemical term than fundamentalism or Barber's jihad. In the end, the culturalist reaction against the West could be one factor in a 21st-century war.

A standard definition of human rights is that they are rights possessed by all biological human beings, merely by virtue of being human. They are equal for all: all human beings are of equal moral worth and deserve the same protections. Human rights do not depend upon a particular social status (such as male or female, upper or lower caste). They are individual rights, independent of group membership and held primarily against the state. But they are also held against society or even against the family, as in the case of women's and children's rights. Nor do they have to be earned, although they can be limited under certain legally defined circumstances (for example, if the country in which the rights' holder lives is at war). Human rights are a 'trump': they trump any other claims that can be made.

Human rights are often described as belonging to three 'generations.' The first generation includes civil and political rights such as the right to a fair trial or the right to vote. The second generation includes economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the right to work or the right to eat. The third generation is dubbed 'collective' rights and includes, inter alia, the right to self-determination and the right to development; both rights, it is thought, that can be enjoyed only by groups, not by individuals.

The three-generation division of rights is dangerously facile. It makes, roughly, the following equivalencies. Civil-political rights are rooted in Western history and are based on claims by the selfish individual against the community. Furthermore, they are 'negative': all they require is state abstinence from certain actions (such as torturing citizens) to be implemented. Economic, social, and cultural rights were introduced by the socialist world and require positive action to be implemented; for example, the redistribution of food. Collective rights were introduced by the developing world; they also require positive state action. Economic, social, and cultural rights and collective rights both show a respect for the collectivity and community not found in the individualist Western approach to rights.

All of these assumptions are questionable. Civil and political rights do require positive action; for example, to set up fair, effective police forces. …

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