Universal Human Rights and Cultural Relativism
This situation sharpens a long-standing dilemma: How can universal human rights exist in a culturally diverse world? As the international community becomes increasingly integrated, how can cultural diversity and integrity be respected? Is a global culture inevitable? If so, is the world ready for it? How could a global culture emerge based on and guided by human dignity and tolerance? These are some of the issues, concerns and questions underlying the debate over universal human rights and cultural relativism.
Cultural relativism is the assertion that human values, far from being universal, vary a great deal according to different cultural perspectives. Some would apply this relativism to the promotion, protection, interpretation and application of human rights which could be interpreted differently within different cultural, ethnic and religious traditions. In other words, according to this view, human rights are culturally relative rather than universal.
Taken to its extreme, this relativism would pose a dangerous threat to the effectiveness of international law and the international system of human rights that has been painstakingly contructed over the decades. If cultural tradition alone governs State compliance with international standards, then widespread disregard, abuse and violation of human rights would be given legitimacy.
Accordingly, the promotion and protection of human rights perceived as culturally relative would only be subject to State discretion, rather than international legal imperative. By rejecting or disregarding their legal obligation to promote and protect universal human rights, States advocating cultural relativism could raise their own cultural norms and particularities above international law and standards.