Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thoughts on the UDHR

Perhaps I’m getting ahead, but I proceeded with an independent reading, More, Elizabeth (2007) Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Today’s World. International Communications Journal , v11n2 (

This critique discusses briefly the motivation behind the UDHR, arising out of the abuses of human rights that occurred during the second world war, and two of the somewhat opposing schools of thought related to interpreting human rights, universalism and cultural relativism.

More uses the example of so-called female circumcision (which is in fact more appropriately labeled female genital mutilation), among others, as the backdrop for her discussion leading to her conclusion that neither approach is entirely satisfactory and argues that a “broad culturally inclusive universalism” which nevertheless is “self-consiously minimalist” is an acceptable middle ground.

Her preliminary discussion of Human Rights generally conforms to some of the issues raised in the Stanford treatment, and also more explicitly raises the issue of basic rights as minimal constraints versus a more expansive expression of those rights and privileges necessary to achieve the whole of human potential. Whereas some basic human rights may appear to be universal, application of higher order(and even some basic) rights often run into difficulties of interpretation that are intrinsically tied to culture and religion; as rights become more expansive and encompassing, cultural differences become more troublesome.

So, are rights universal, or can cultural relativism be applied to their exercise? More presents scenarios that highlight some of the concerns. Severe corporal punishment (e.g. cutting of the hand of a thief) is generally abhorrent to westerners and most would consider it a violation of basic human rights. Some, however argue that for those with a strong belief in strict Islamic rule, the earthly punishment assures that God will not mete even more severe punishment in the afterlife.

More also presents the case of female genital mutilation among some African cultures and notes that some of its strongest proponents are, disturbingly to most westerners, the victims of the process. Further, the practice is regarded as “culturally vital to the community, promoting ethnic identity…”

Here, cultural relativism and universalism seem quite at odds. More notes that illegality sometimes makes things worse, forcing practices underground where reforms are undermined by “a community’s failure to agree to destroy its cultural tradition and practices.” Yet is difficult to argue that female genital mutilation is not a violation of basic human rights on cultural grounds.

More quotes Parekh (1999) in “advocating that universal values be culturally mediated while retaining their normative and critialdrive, and suggests:
• Universal values can be understood in a variety of ways, ranging from the minimalist to the maximalist
• Since universal values are necessarily general and relatively indeterminate, they should as far as possible be articulated in the language of norms
• We should not confuse values with particular institutional mechanisms
• Since every society enjoys the moral freedom to interpret and prioritise the agreed body of universal values, we cannot condemn its practices simply because they are different from or offend against ours, and
• We might encourage regional arrangements for defining and enforcing universal values.

Information rights are not explicitly addressed in the UDHR, although they will likely find an implied home in sections covering freedom of expression as well as education. However as this paper argues, interpretation of information rights, as with other rights, will need to find an expression that speaks a universal truth but is nevertheless bound and of necessity limited by cultural and religious practice and interpretation.

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