Human Rights, Human Security

Reflections on Human Rights (Part I): The Promises of Universalism and Tyrannies of Relativism?

[Authors note: I invite the readers of my article to suggest creative and strategic ways to reconcile the universal and culturally relative rights in Sri Lankan context.]

“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; but they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.” — G. K. Chesterton

Though Sri Lankans have not been passive victims, our progress toward equal rights is being frustrated by ceaseless international allegations of human rights abuses. The state is preoccupied with defending itself against these charges, and vilifies its accusers as traitors. The two Presidential candidates attribute abuses to each other, and their claims are remarkably similar to the charges of abuses levied against the state.  These controversies over human rights in Sri Lanka have brought the legitimacy of all stakeholders, governmental and non-governmental, into question, and result from the normative, interpretive, and practical limits of the idea of universal human rights: stakeholders have failed to successfully negotiate between universal human rights and the diversity of culturally specific rights.  Thoughtful reflection provides an opportunity to improve their respective interventions, and perhaps for all of us to ensure our vote on the 26th January meaningful. In this five-part series, I reflect on these issues, frame them in terms of a clash between universal and relative perspectives of human rights, elucidating the roles of the state, NGOs, the United Nations, and the media.

Globalization has spread awareness of human rights struggles around the world, and has resulted in normative understanding and achievements that are both spectacularly rich and distressingly impoverished.  The relevance of universal rights in a culturally diverse world is under critical scrutiny. How can cultural diversity and integrity be respected in an increasingly integrated international community? How do we create a global culture that respects dignity and tolerance? Current debates about these issues reveal that the problem goes beyond mere rights violations: the very notion of human rights is threatened.

The cultural relativists’ take on these issues invariably raises profound intellectual, pragmatic and spiritual questions.  They argue that universal rights are unrealistically utopian and that, in theory and practice, universal meta-narratives of human rights undermine the uniqueness of cultures. In philosophical terms, relativists claim that the idea universal rights undermine the relative nature of truth grounded in diverse cultures. They  provide some credible evidence, showing how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has been exploited to facilitate domination of the weak by the powerful, and how it has served the interests of Western imperialism and neocolonialism. However, extreme cultural relativist positions threaten the very foundation of the international system of human rights that has evolved through painstaking discussion and consensus-building over the decades; further, they are detrimental to the very diversity the relativists intend to protect.

I have no quarrel with the argument that defense of cultural diversity is a universal right—but using that right to deny equality is disingenuous and downright criminal. The UDHR promises to avert the tyrannical extreme of cultural relativism by helping people preserve and enjoy their diverse cultures with dignity. Universal and relative rights could be more complementary than antithetical, as long as we do not elevate diversity to the same level as freedom of choice and equality; freedom and equality ought to be the moral foundation of diversity.

Relativist arguments are based on simplistic historical claims and problematic assumptions, and are ultimately intellectually untenable and riddled with contradictions. The way they associate universal rights exclusively with Christianity, Western civilization, and colonialism is particularly problematic, although it is true that the UDHR was strongly influenced by the Judeo-Christian theological position that all humans are created equal in the image of God.  Inequality is not predestined or sanctioned by birth, and there is no reason for anyone to accept it. If humans were created by God, the desire for equality would be evident in all cultures, not only those influenced by Christianity.  This perspective makes some people uncomfortable because it implies tolerance and the struggle for equal rights are not an option, but a mandate.

Judeo-Christian institutions, like those of other world religions, have not been entirely faithful to their theological premise of human rights; they all have a history that does not permit them to be triumphalist. To claim perfection is to overlook another important Judeo-Christian theological premise: humans alienated from God are prone to do both good and evil. Human rights violations are a human rebellion against God, and if humans are to restore their relationship with God, they must pursue equal rights. These theological principles have spread around the globe and played a pivotal role in anti-colonial, anti-slavery, and socialist struggles; the UDHR provided the foundation for many contemporary secular, religious, and ecumenical social movements concerned with rights.

The ecumenical human rights forums (e.g. Center for Society and Religion, Satyodaya, Christian Workers Fellowship, Ecumenical Institute of Colombo, Devasarana Center ) pioneered by Christian clergy in Sri Lanka demonstrate that the notion of universal human rights is shared among all religious groups. These forums provided a place for people from different religious backgrounds to discuss human rights at a time when all other institutions were suppressed by the state. Today the space for such ecumenical movements is severely constrained due to the politicization of religion. On many occasions, ecumenical events concerned with human rights have garnered violent responses. Ecumenism seems to have lost its vitality and become simplistic and opportunistic “religious syncretism” that provides unqualified patronage (i.e. compromise of religious principles for peace and unity without justice and equality) to the religiosity of the politicians.

The idea that universal rights are detrimental to cultural diversity is born out of a naïve notion of culture. Different cultures do have different traditions of human rights, and changing those traditions could undermine the reproduction and continuity of a particular culture. However, cultures are not static and uniform, but dynamic and hybrid: they continue to evolve and change in response to both external pressures and internal struggles.

Cultural relativists derive their political legitimacy from ignoring and suppressing similarities in  human rights norms, values, and practices, creating a simplistic barrier between Western and non-Western cultures, and overlooking the interactions between these cultures before and after colonial rule. When pushed to an extreme, cultural relativism makes it difficult to assign responsibility for right and wrong behavior, and excludes common measures of comparison of right and wrong between cultures. But cultural relativists use universal standards when they defend their claims by saying that “others are worse than us and they have no moral right to tell us what to do.” The fixation with celebrating the ‘difference’ reveals the contradictions in cultural relativist’s claims and misleads their followers believing that they represent them.

The boundaries ‘culture’ (or unit of their analysis e.g. family, tribe, community, nation, region) they safeguard are fuzzy and often predicated on denying equality to those outside of it.  Marginalized people within the culture may not question inequalities when they are taught to think of them as normal and sanctioned by their religion and culture. With exposure to the concept of universal human rights, however, they become critical of the conditions under which they live. They invite foreign assistance and do not see it as having a negative impact on their culture. In response, elites cultivate their own outlook as native and indigenous while suppressing demands for change; these elites have usually abandoned the local culture and traditions they claim to protect and gained status and power from the very Westernisms they claim to reject.

Protests against Western culture allow these elites to both monopolize benefits and deny them, and to transfer their costs to the masses. When the masses accept the elites as the true guardians of culture, the “Other” is blamed for inequalities. Cultural relativism constructs the “Other” as the enemy and justifies violence against them when it is perpetrated in the name of culture. Victims of such violence (and sometimes those responsible for it) are often forced to seek refuge in foreign cultures.

Relativists create barriers between themselves and others when they claim that the only universal principle is that each culture is free to believe whatever it wishes. They also institutionalize barriers to self-criticism and change within the culture. Despite the hypocrisies of Western involvement in human rights, today Western countries provide space for critical scrutiny of religion and history, and they are sometimes willing to change traditional beliefs when such beliefs undermine equal rights. In contrast, in most post-colonial societies, criticizing religion or history is considered threatening and unpatriotic, and can lead to violent retaliation; critics often take refuge in the West.

Moreover, the Western/non-Western dichotomy is simplistic in the extreme. Relativists underplay the fact that the basic ideals expressed in the UDHR are shared by a majority of cultures, and ignore the reality that the UDHR was formulated out of the West’s criticism of its own colonialism, imperialism, and abuses of state power (e.g. the Holocaust). The Western/non-Western split has an ideological function, and becomes politically potent when associated with memories of colonialism and imperialism. Extreme formulations of the meanings of these forces are simplistic and reactive; it is also simplistic and only partly correct to claim capitalism and “development” as purely Western constructs and associate them with Western civilization. Although there are good arguments for keeping memories of past injustices alive, they are invoked to empower the state as the sole guardian of human rights, shield it from public criticism, and deprive locals of external assistance in their struggles against the state.

The contradictions presented by these defenders of culture and tradition cannot be hidden forever.  As war euphoria subsides, the public has realized that cover-ups and opposition to investigations in the name of defending the national culture against terrorism and Western intrusions do not absolve the rulers of their crimes. As the crisis of the ruling bloc deepens, those who once protested foreign investigations into human rights abuses now accuse each other of the same abuses, corruption, being agents of foreign conspiracies, nepotism, etc. Patriots are arrested and publicly ridiculed, and become effectively “ex-patriots,” baffling the public.  The association of universal human rights with Western civilization is not a genuine argument against these rights: it is a hypocritical distraction that allows the ruling bloc to avoid indicting its own culture for human rights violations. It does no harm to the West, but harms the country’s own citizens.

People are beginning to realize that the underlying causes of human rights abuses go beyond exploitation and maltreatment by the West. Many authors have noted that relativism encourages non-Western people to develop a parasitically reactive/defensive self-identity as the “Other,” which in turn influences non-Western fundamentalist movements that are opposed to universal human rights. This self-identity, although born out of the desire to escape the humiliation of colonialism, has led to deprivation of rights within non-Western societies and unfruitful confrontations between these societies and the West. These reactive identities are hostages of the negative memories of the past (e.g., colonialism). By breeding anger, violence, vindictiveness, and apathy, they stifle self-criticism and freedom.

From the perspective of equal human rights, multiculturalism should not be confused with “monoculturalism,” where different cultures coexist and people in them passively (or forced to) accept conflicting identities while being denied equality and justice. “Multiculturalism” can serve as an excuse for dominant cultures to oppress the weak. The assessment of culture from the perspective of the state ignores the increasing numbers of people around the world (“epistemic communities”) who share similar concerns about human rights. These groups are not beholden to the dictates of state politics; they play an important role in safeguarding human rights worldwide as states align with ethnonationalist religious groups and neoliberal economic interests. Political opposition parties rely on the assistance of the international community to stop human rights abuses in their countries, but once they are in power, they condemn this as unwelcome “Western interference” and vow to defeat it at any cost. Criminalization of transcultural human rights actors is an opportunistic political project that shields the state from public scrutiny of its less defensible actions.

Relativist critics take the meaning of the West as given and treat it as a homogeneous category whose characteristics are selectively fixed in time and place. Then this static (and ahistoric) creation is juxtaposed against the glorious and harmonious civilizations of non-Western countries, which were only corrupted by Western interventions. Their claims about the “Westernization of human rights” and their demands for non-Western approaches to human rights in many situations are convenient constructs serving the interests of those who protest against Western culture while benefiting from it. In short, they explain human agency in post-colonial societies purely as subordinated to Western culture, as though subalterns and their masters cannot speak for themselves.

If human rights are a product of human nature, then it is reasonable to assume that different notions of rights follow from different kinds of human nature. But if there are inequalities of rights, they all cannot have the same value. If committed to protecting freedoms relativists cannot justify the demands for unqualified acceptance of and obedience to the dictates of an inherited culture. Being born into a given cultural tradition does not make us free, because within that culture we may have no freedom of choice. The true test of individual freedom is our ability to move in and out of our cultural context, which we can do when we have the freedom to consider all the alternatives. If freedom is the underlying goal of multiculturalism, then it cannot privilege the inherited traditions of the culture into which one is born or socialized.

However, the freedom to move in and out of one’s cultural context should be combined with a responsible exercise of choice. Humans are social, relational beings—we cannot exist without connections to fellow human beings and to the environment. Our individual actions involve others, and they can have far-reaching consequences that others may not like. If I may use a theological principle, “responsible use of choice” means loving your neighbor as you love yourself. It also means treating your friend and foe as equals, which is simple because, in G. K. Chesterton’s words, “generally they both are human.”

I do not uncritically extol universalists, who share a deep flaw with  relativists when they separate economic freedoms from other social, cultural, and political freedoms. International rights conventions concern themselves with political equality and ignore economic equality. In “capitalist democracies” (which may be an oxymoron), guarantees of formal political equality are undermined by substantive economic inequality, since capitalist development is predicated on dispossession and economic inequality. A universal franchise may nominally create equality among all voting citizens, but fail to resolve inequities in distribution of wealth or power. The capitalist system exploits both universalists’ and relativists’ perspectives of human rights to privatize its benefits to the minority and socialize its costs to the majority, and localizing the conflict between universal and relative rights within a nation-state deflects direct protest against capitalism’s own role in undermining human rights.

Humanity’s ability to create and preserve a rich cultural diversity in which all can live with dignity will depend on whether it can simultaneously safeguard economic and political equality. We are left with this question: If the notion of universal human rights is common sense in most cultures, why is it so difficult to implement? The answer is that human rights, in the final analysis, are a deeply spiritual matter involving our identity and our relations with other humans and with the world as a whole. Laws alone cannot grant them, because laws cannot overcome human weaknesses.

As the book of Romans says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” Human weakness precedes law (as described by the Ten Commandments in Christianity and the Five Precepts in Buddhism), and righteous laws can be corrupted by human weakness. The book of Romans also notes that the ‘power of the law was not such (and that by reason of the corruption of our nature) that it could make humans pure and perfect, and because it rather kindled the flame of sin than put it out and extinguish it.’  What completes the law is love, as love is the “fulfillment of law.”

Although the issue of human rights is a spiritual one, the ability of religion to minimize the excesses of both the universal and relativist perspectives is limited when religions are uncritically and incorrectly associated with a particular culture, land, civilization, and political and economic system. The failure of religion to completely break these ties is what makes universal rights indispensable. The concept may be idealistic, dogmatic, and utopian, but human society cannot function without utopian ideals and dogmas; society evolves as it struggles to realize them. Idealism is not impractical, but, to again quote Chesterton, “idealism is only considering everything in its practical essence.” When skepticism is pushed to its extreme, it becomes vulgar nihilism. All religions have similarly unattainable ideals, but we spend our lives in pursuit of them. The rights we enjoy in our society today are a result of people taking risks and patiently pursuing these ideals, rather than dismissing them.

I find that the cultural relativists are far more dogmatic and also more utopian than the universalists. The former base their ideas on unrealistic assumptions about human nature. In contrast, proponents of universal rights take a more modest approach, recognizing that the path to achieving their ideas is long, difficult, and risky because human beings are capable of doing both good and evil.

(Next article: Human rights and Sovereignty)