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.
Universal Human Rights and International Law
Largely through the ongoing work of the United Nations, the universality of human rights has been clearly established and recognized in international law. Human rights are emphasized among the purposes of the United Nations as proclaimed in its Charter, which states that human rights are "for all without distinction". Human rights are the natural-born rights for every human being, universally. They are not privileges.
The Charter further commits the United Nations and all Member States to action promoting "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms". As the cornerstone of the International Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms consensus on a universal standard of human rights. In the recent issue of A Global Agenda, Charles Norchi points out that the Universal Declaration "represents a broader consensus on human dignity than does any single culture or tradition".
Universal human rights are further established by the two international covenants on human rights (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), and the other international standard-setting instruments which address numerous concerns, including genocide, slavery, torture, racial discrimination, discrimination against women, rights of the child, minorities and religious tolerance.
These achievements in human rights standard-setting span nearly five decades of work by the United Nations General Assembly and other parts of the United Nations system. As an assembly of nearly every State in the international community, the General Assembly is a uniquely representative body authorized to address and advance the protection and promotion of human rights. As such, it serves as an excellent indicator of international consensus on human rights.
This consensus is embodied in the language of the Universal Declaration itself. The universal nature of human rights is literally written into the title of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its Preamble proclaims the Declaration as a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations".
This statement is echoed most recently in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which repeats the same language to reaffirm the status of the Universal Declaration as a "common standard" for everyone. Adopted in June 1993 by the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in Austria, the Vienna Declaration continues to reinforce the universality of human rights, stating, "All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated". This means that political, civil, cultural, economic and social human rights are to be seen in their entirety. One cannot pick and choose which rights to promote and protect. They are all of equal value and apply to everyone.
As if to settle the matter once and for all, the Vienna Declaration states in its first paragraph that "the universal nature" of all human rights and fundamental freedoms is "beyond question". The unquestionable universality of human rights is presented in the context of the reaffirmation of the obligation of States to promote and protect human rights.
The legal obligation is reaffirmed for all States to promote "universal respect for, and observance and protection of, all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all". It is clearly stated that the obligation of States is to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights. Not selective, not relative, but universal respect, observance and protection.
Furthermore, the obligation is established for all States, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and other instruments of human rights and international law. No State is exempt from this obligation. All Member States of the United Nations have a legal obligation to promote and protect human rights, regardless of particular cultural perspectives. Universal human rights protection and promotion are asserted in the Vienna Declaration as the "first responsibility" of all Governments.
Everyone is entitled to human rights without discrimination of any kind. The non-discrimination principle is a fundamental rule of international law. This means that human rights are for all human beings, regardless of "race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status". Non-discrimination protects individuals and groups against the denial and violation of their human rights. To deny human rights on the grounds of cultural distinction is discriminatory. Human rights are intended for everyone, in every culture.
Human rights are the birthright of every person. If a State dismisses universal human rights on the basis of cultural relativism, then rights would be denied to the persons living under that State's authority. The denial or abuse of human rights is wrong, regardless of the violator's culture.
Human Rights, Cultural Integrity and Diversity
Universal human rights do not impose one cultural standard, rather one legal standard of minimum protection necessary for human dignity. As a legal standard adopted through the United Nations, universal human rights represent the hard-won consensus of the international community, not the cultural imperialism of any particular region or set of traditions.
Like most areas of international law, universal human rights are a modern achievement, new to all cultures. Human rights are neither representative of, nor oriented towards, one culture to the exclusion of others. Universal human rights reflect the dynamic, coordinated efforts of the international community to achieve and advance a common standard and international system of law to protect human dignity.
Out of this process, universal human rights emerge with sufficient flexibility to respect and protect cultural diversity and integrity. The flexibility of human rights to be relevant to diverse cultures is facilitated by the establishment of minimum standards and the incorporation of cultural rights.
The instruments establish minimum standards for economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. Within this framework, States have maximum room for cultural variation without diluting or compromising the minimum standards of human rights established by law. These minimum standards are in fact quite high , requiring from the State a very high level of performance in the field of human rights.
The Vienna Declaration provides explicit consideration for culture in human rights promotion and protection, stating that "the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind". This is deliberately acknowledged in the context of the duty of States to promote and protect human rights regardless of their cultural systems. While its importance is recognized, cultural consideration in no way diminishes States' human rights obligations.
Most directly, human rights facilitate respect for and protection of cultural diversity and integrity, through the establishment of cultural rights embodied in instruments of human rights law. These include: the International Bill of Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice; the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief; the Declaration on the Principles of International Cultural Cooperation; the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities; the Declaration on the Right to Development; the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; and the ILO Convention No. 169 on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.
Human rights which relate to cultural diversity and integrity encompass a wide range of protections, including: the right to cultural participation; the right to enjoy the arts; conservation, development and diffusion of culture; protection of cultural heritage; freedom for creative activity; protection of persons belonging to ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities; freedom of assembly and association; the right to education; freedom of thought, conscience or religion; freedom of opinion and expression; and the principle of non-discrimination.
Every human being has the right to culture, including the right to enjoy and develop cultural life and identity. Cultural rights, however, are not unlimited. The right to culture is limited at the point at which it infringes on another human right. No right can be used at the expense or destruction of another, in accordance with international law.
This means that cultural rights cannot be invoked or interpreted in such a way as to justify any act leading to the denial or violation of other human rights and fundamental freedoms. As such, claiming cultural relativism as an excuse to violate or deny human rights is an abuse of the right to culture.
There are legitimate, substantive limitations on cultural practices, even on well-entrenched traditions. For example, no culture today can legitimately claim a right to practise slavery. Despite its practice in many cultures throughout history, slavery today cannot be considered legitimate, legal, or part of a cultural legacy entitled to protection in any way. To the contrary, all forms of slavery, including contemporary slavery-like practices, are a gross violation of human rights under international law.
Similarly, cultural rights do not justify torture, murder, genocide, discrimination on grounds of sex, race, language or religion, or violation of any of the other universal human rights and fundamental freedoms established in international law. Any attempts to justify such violations on the basis of culture have no validity under international law.
A Cultural Context
The argument of cultural relativism frequently includes or leads to the assertion that traditional culture is sufficient to protect human dignity, and therefore universal human rights are unnecessary. Furthermore, the argument continues, universal human rights can be intrusive and disruptive to traditional protection of human life, liberty and security.
When traditional culture does effectively provide such protection, then human rights by definition would be compatible, posing no threat to the traditional culture. As such, the traditional culture can absorb and apply human rights, and the governing State should be in a better position not only to ratify, but to effectively and fully implement, the international standards.
Traditional culture is not a substitute for human rights; it is a cultural context in which human rights must be established, integrated, promoted and protected. Human rights must be approached in a way that is meaningful and relevant in diverse cultural contexts.
Rather than limit human rights to suit a given culture, why not draw on traditional cultural values to reinforce the application and relevance of universal human rights? There is an increased need to emphasize the common, core values shared by all cultures: the value of life, social order and protection from arbitrary rule. These basic values are embodied in human rights.
Traditional cultures should be approached and recognized as partners to promote greater respect for and observance of human rights. Drawing on compatible practices and common values from traditional cultures would enhance and advance human rights promotion and protection. This approach not only encourages greater tolerance, mutual respect and understanding, but also fosters more effective international cooperation for human rights.
Greater understanding of the ways in which traditional cultures protect the well-being of their people would illuminate the common foundation of human dignity on which human rights promotion and protection stand. This insight would enable human rights advocacy to assert the cultural relevance, as well as the legal obligation, of universal human rights in diverse cultural contexts. Recognition and appreciation of particular cultural contexts would serve to facilitate, rather than reduce, human rights respect and observance.
Working in this way with particular cultures inherently recognizes cultural integrity and diversity, without compromising or diluting the unquestionably universal standard of human rights. Such an approach is essential to ensure that the future will be guided above all by human rights, non-discrimination, tolerance and cultural pluralism.
Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information DPI/1627/HR--March 1995
UNESCO WSIS Action Directory How UNESCO is implementing the WSIS Action Plan on C8. Cultural diversity and identity, linguistic diversity and local content
Cultural and linguistic diversity, while stimulating respect for cultural identity, traditions and religions, is essential to the development of an Information Society based on the dialogue among cultures and regional and international cooperation. It is an important factor for sustainable development.
a) Create policies that support the respect, preservation, promotion and enhancement of cultural and linguistic diversity and cultural heritage within the Information Society, as reflected in relevant agreed United Nations documents, including UNESCO's Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. This includes encouraging governments to design cultural policies to promote the production of cultural, educational and scientific content and the development of local cultural industries suited to the linguistic and cultural context of the users.
b) Develop national policies and laws to ensure that libraries, archives, museums and other cultural institutions can play their full role of content—including traditional knowledge—providers in the Information Society, more particularly by providing continued access to recorded information.
c) Support efforts to develop and use ICTs for the preservation of natural and, cultural heritage, keeping it accessible as a living part of today’s culture. This includes developing systems for ensuring continued access to archived digital information and multimedia content in digital repositories, and support archives, cultural collections and libraries as the memory of humankind.
d) Develop and implement policies that preserve, affirm, respect and promote diversity of cultural expression and indigenous knowledge and traditions through the creation of varied information content and the use of different methods, including the digitization of the educational, scientific and cultural heritage.
e) Support local content development, translation and adaptation, digital archives, and diverse forms of digital and traditional media by local authorities. These activities can also strengthen local and indigenous communities.
f) Provide content that is relevant to the cultures and languages of individuals in the Information Society, through access to traditional and digital media services.
g) Through public/private partnerships, foster the creation of varied local and national content, including that available in the language of users, and give recognition and support to ICT-based work in all artistic fields.
h) Strengthen programmes focused on gender-sensitive curricula in formal and non-formal education for all and enhancing communication and media literacy for women with a view to building the capacity of girls and women to understand and to develop ICT content.
i) Nurture the local capacity for the creation and distribution of software in local languages, as well as content that is relevant to different segments of population, including non-literate, persons with disabilities, disadvantaged and vulnerable groups especially in developing countries and countries with economies in transition.
j) Give support to media based in local communities and support projects combining the use of traditional media and new technologies for their role in facilitating the use of local languages, for documenting and preserving local heritage, including landscape and biological diversity, and as a means to reach rural and isolated and nomadic communities.
k) Enhance the capacity of indigenous peoples to develop content in their own languages.
l) Cooperate with indigenous peoples and traditional communities to enable them to more effectively use and benefit from the use of their traditional knowledge in the Information Society.
m) Exchange knowledge, experiences and best practices on policies and tools designed to promote cultural and linguistic diversity at regional and sub-regional levels. This can be achieved by establishing regional, and sub-regional working groups on specific issues of this Plan of Action to foster integration efforts.
n) Assess at the regional level the contribution of ICT to cultural exchange and interaction, and based on the outcome of this assessment, design relevant programmes.
o) Governments, through public/private partnerships, should promote technologies and R&D programmes in such areas as translation, iconographies, voice-assisted services and the development of necessary hardware and a variety of software models, including proprietary, open source software and free software, such as standard character sets, language codes, electronic dictionaries, terminology and thesauri, multilingual search engines, machine translation tools, internationalized domain names, content referencing as well as general and application software.
For more info: http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/ev.php-URL_ID=15927&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html
Vancouver Statement of First Meeting of Coalitions and Cultural Organizations of Asia-Pacific States
Vancouver Statement of First Meeting of Coalitions and Cultural Organizations of Asia-Pacific States
Representatives of cultural organizations from 10 Asia-Pacific states gathered in Vancouver, Canada, March 27-29, to discuss the implications and opportunities presented by the UNESCO Convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions. At the conclusion of their discussions, they agreed on the following declaration:
Recognizing the distinctive nature of cultural goods and services as transmitters of values, identity and meaning in addition to culture’s dimension as a key pillar of sustainable economic and social development, we, as representatives of cultural organizations from across Asia-Pacific, urge all UNESCO member states from the region that have not yet done so to ratify the Convention on the diversity of cultural expressions on a priority basis.
We urge these same states to meaningfully involve and support civil society, including cultural organizations, in the process for implementing the Convention at the national, regional and international levels—notably through consultation and engagement in the application of policies and other measures to support domestic cultural industries.
We also call on all Asia-Pacific states to ensure coherence in their actions, and to not only ratify the convention, but to uphold and observe its principles and objectives in other international forums—notably by refraining from liberalization commitments in trade negotiations that would constrain their right to apply cultural policies and other measures in support of their domestic cultural sector.
We undertake to work together to advocate ratification and meaningful engagement of civil society in implementation of the Convention by expanding the mobilization of Asia Pacific cultural organizations, and to explore the creation of national Coalitions for Cultural Diversity in our own countries to pursue these objectives.
We urge States to publicly affirm their intention to ratify the Convention and engage in its effective implementation through the adoption of statements in such forums as the ministerial meeting of the International Network on Cultural Policy (INCP), the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and appropriate meetings of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Adopted March 29, in Vancouver, Canada by representatives of cultural organizations from Australia, Brunei, Canada, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zea-land, the Philippines, Singapore and South Korea.
The meeting was presented by the Canadian Coalition for Cultural Diversity in association with the Commonwealth Foundation and the International Federation of Coalitions for Cultural Diversity (IFCCD)
For more info: http://www.culturaldiversity.ca/coalition_currents/09_May/VancouverStatement.pdf