We witness many cases of human rights violations all over the world; some people are afraid of being killed for their race or religion, girls are married off when they are too young to get married, and a lot of children have no choice but to work to survive. One might wonder, however, what human rights are in the first place. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948 as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. While some people tend to judge if human rights are violated based on UDHR, others argue that there are sometimes conflicts between the declaration and religion, and there could not be universal human rights. In order to discuss this issue, they need to approach human rights from an anthropological perspective as well as international legal frameworks.
This post aims to examine how cultures are perceived and what universal human rights are using anthropological terminologies “ethnocentrism” and “cultural relativism”.
Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism
Suppose a woman dressed in a niqab and a woman wearing a bikini and sunglasses see each other. They could think “Nothing is covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated culture!” and “Everything is covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated culture!” respectively. It is inevitable to have prejudices against some cultures since everyone belongs to his own culture and one tends to be influenced by his or her surroundings. The term ethnocentrism refers to the attitude that sees one’s own group as virtuous and superior and an out-group as contemptible and inferior. The attitude also includes regarding one’s own standards of value as universal. While ethnocentric views are not necessarily intended, they have led to major human disasters through history causing bullying, discrimination, intolerance, war, genocide, etc. On the other hand, cultural relativism (Boas) stands for the idea that each culture must be understood in terms of the values and beliefs of that culture and should not be judged by the standards of another culture. In other words, no culture is superior nor inferior to others.
Discussing the cases of human rights violations with these ideas, one will find out other aspects of the issues. For example, the Bangladeshi government legalized child marriage reducing minimum marital age to zero on February 28, 2017. Many people criticized the decision, which could be ethnocentric. A lot of parents married their little daughters off to survive even when child marriage was illegal, and some families could not afford to fake their daughters age and starved to death. In this respect, the law protects UDHR article 3, the right to life instead of violating article 22, the right to social security.
Ethnocentrism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often referred as the ‘world’s most intractable conflict’, is rooted in a dispute over the land claimed by Jews as their biblical birthright and by Palestinians, who seek self-determination. The issue is too complicated to solve with international law and often talked about with ethnocentrism.
A book “SIDE BY SIDE” (Adwan, Bar-On, Naveh, 2012) brings an interesting insight about the conflict. On alternate pages, the editors, literally “side by side”, present both the Palestinian and Israeli versions of remarkable events that have marked the fraught decades of the 20th century. One side’s “War of Independence” is the other’s “Catastrophe”; for Israel, the 1967 Six-Day War was “a huge victory in a war it didn’t initiate or intend”, where the Palestinians see it as an act of pure “aggression”; for the Jews, the US prosecuted the Gulf War to “maintain stability in the Middle East,” understanding “its first priority was to achieve a political order acceptable to all sides,” while the Palestinians condemn the US for using “its achievements in the war to enhance its hegemony even on its European allies.” They describe the same events in totally different ways; during the Intifada, the Jews insist that the Palestinians used Molotov cocktails and so many Israeli soldiers got injured and wounded without fighting back the Palestinians, while the Palestinians say they just threw stones and Israeli soldiers killed many Palestinians. This is how they teach their children and they will continue hating each other.
Some people argue that human rights are ethnocentric since universal laws for diverse cultures are unlikely to exist. Each country has its own culture and issues. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is part of the International Bill of Human Rights, along with the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESCR) and the UDHR. One can see cultural relativistic aspects in human rights law; state parties are allowed to have reservations and the article 4 of ICCPR permits them to prioritize public interests over some human rights saying as follows.
- In time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed, the States Parties to the present Covenant may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law and do not involve discrimination solely on the ground of race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin.
- No derogation from articles 6, 7, 8 (paragraphs I and 2), 11, 15, 16 and 18 may be made under this provision. (ICCPR, Article 4)
In this sense, human rights law could be cultural relativistic and probably universal.
The article 4 of the ICCPR sets out the following rights in the ICCPR from which states can never derogate, even in times of public emergency that threatens the life of the nation: right to life (art 6), prohibition of torture, cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatments (art 7), prohibition of medical or scientific experimentations with no consent (art 7), prohibition of slavery, slave trade, and servitude (art 8), prohibition of imprisonment because of inability to fulfill contractual obligations (art 11), right to fair trials (art 15), recognition everywhere as a person before the law (art 16), freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (art 18). These rights cannot be violated and are universal basic human rights.
Anyone could be culturally biased and have one’s own standard, which has led to hatred toward other cultures and human rights disasters. This is why some people are persecuted or discriminated against based on their race, religion, nationality, etc., and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been lingering so long.
It might be very difficult to have a universal law for everyone, but ICCPR can be universal human rights law thanks to reservations and its article 4. Some human rights can never be violated (basic human rights), and they are the universal standard of human rights.
Adwan Sami, Bar-On Dan, Naveh Eyal, SIDE BY SIDE Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine, New York, 2012,
Axelrod Robert, Hammond Ross, The Evolution of Ethnocentric Behavior, April 16, 2003, http://www-personal.umich.edu/~axe/research/AxHamm_Ethno.pdf, accessed on January 1, 2018
Conversi Daniele, Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing and Nationalism, January 20, 2006, http://www.armenews.com/IMG/Genocide-Ch27_1_.pdf, accessed on December 31, 2017
Brown F. Michael, Cultural Realtivism 2.0, June, 2008, https://sites.williams.edu/mbrown/files/2017/08/Brown_CR2_2008.pdf, accessed on December 31, 2017
Temoney E. Kate, Religion and Genocide Nexuses: Bosnia as Case Study, June 14, 2017, file:///C:/Users/Yuto/Downloads/religions-08-00112.pdf, accessed on December 31, 2017
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Documents/UDHR_Translations/eng.pdf, accessed on December 31, 2017
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/ccpr.pdf, accessed on December 31, 2017