No ifs or buts

"Human Rights are Universal - Period!", a paper by Hossein Bagher Zadeh, Chair of the Iranian Human Rights Working Group (IHRWG), delivered at the Fifteenth Annual Conference Center for Iranian Research and Analysis (CIRA) in Atlanta, Georgia in April 1997.

First, let me say that I make no apology about the bold title of my talk. This is not a proposition or an opinion I am expressing. It is rather a statement of fact. A fact that I am trying to establish in this talk. That human rights can not be but universal, and any qualification added to it would only negate its essence.

The observation and safeguard of human rights play cardinal roles in the moves towards a civil society. However, the notion of universality of human rights is being increasingly challenged in the third world on two main grounds. One, that there are no such things as absolute human rights - human rights can only be relative, that is relative to socioeconomic and political development of a society. Introduce a basic human rights like freedom of expression to a society not mature enough to use it responsibly, and, the relativists will argue, chaos will break out. Second, that cultural and/or religious differences should be taken into account in the evaluation of human rights in different societies. Otherwise, the proponents of this proposition maintain, a universally defined human rights imposed on different cultures will amount to nothing less than cultural imperialism.

In this presentation, I will look at these two questions, i.e., the notion of relativity of human rights and the relation between culture and human rights and the ways they may interact/overlap with each other - where concern for human rights may end and cultural interference may begin. We will also look at how the arguments of relativity and cultural differences are used as a cover to propagate injustices and inequalities in the third world and why the notion of universality of human rights is essential for cultures - any culture - to develop and flourish.

In addressing these two questions, I will refrain from going into the historical backgrounds of human rights as we know it today, how did they come to exist and who can claim to own them. This is NOT what my talk is about. Neither am I going to talk about the philosophical issues involved: whether there is such a thing as a 'natural' human rights or if they are all defined by conventions and social consensus. What I am saying is that, whatever the basis of these rights and wherever they are originated from, once a right is defined as human right, it can only be universal. In other words, you can either accept or reject a right as a human right, but you can not say that this right can be acceptable as human rights in this society but not in that society. For example, if the right to life is accepted as a human rights (as we in the IHRWG believe to be and you'll hear some of the arguments from my two other colleagues later), then you can not say that abolishing the death penalty is acceptable in one society and not in another.

So let's assume that there are certain rights that we accept as human rights. These rights do exist. Take the fundamental human rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). One characteristic of these right is that they can never be altogether outlawed in a society, but only 'rationed' in a discriminatory manner! For example, in order to outlaw the freedom of expression and implement it, it would require that certain groups of people (the rulers, the legislators, the censors) be exempt from it! The same is true of freedom of beliefs, association, representation etc., etc. These rights, by their very nature, can never be uniformly outlawed. They are fundamental human rights . Other rights may also be defined and accepted as human rights even though they may lack this characteristic.

Let me go back to the two main points of contention: relativism and cultural differences. Relativists will always argue that people need education in order to know how to exercise their freedoms, that basic freedoms are like medicine - they should be given in small doses to the people, and as they digest some and get ready for more, they can get new doses. In this way, you make sure that these rights are not abused and the fabric of the society is not threatened. Hence, the ideas of 'guided democracy' in all its forms and names beloved by many dictators around the world.

Relativists, of course, have strong arguments in support of their position. They talk of "informed choices" and can bring up an infinite list of what can go wrong if you make a wrong choice out of ignorance. And they are right. You only need to look at the outcome of the elections almost anywhere in the world to see how a lot of people are fooled by empty promises and dishonest advertising into voting for candidates who have quite different agenda then the electorate are led to believe. But all this argument proves is that you need more education rather than restricting the rights of free votes in the election. Otherwise, who is to determine if I am informed enough to make my own choice?

There's a very fundamental issue at stake here: there's no way you can define if I am 'well informed'. Your definition is wholly subjective and an invasion of my rights. If I am making a choice, I am declaring, by implication, that I know what I am doing. Nobody can (or should) force me to make a choice. Equally, nobody can deny me the choice even if I am not 'well informed'.

So as a basic human rights, people should have the freedom to choose. Of course, they may make the wrong choice (as we see in almost all the democracies) but it's their right to do so. Nobody with the slightest respect for human rights can ever deny this right - the best one can do is to educate - to help to raise public awareness about what's happening and to campaign for the right environment for people to get educated - like free expression. Once the latter is established, people find ways of educating themselves - that's if they don't want to remain in ignorance (which they can, as a matter of rights, of course!)

There's no point in pitying people who may make 'wrong' choices. And no amount of knowledge can be defined to be sufficient. Knowledge is relative - and people may switch from one choice to another (and indeed, some time reverse a choice) as the amount of 'knowledge' increases. There's no absolute minimum or maximum knowledge. You say that a certain practice is the result of ignorance. That's fine. Let people talk about it - and talk freely. If you are concerned about the society's maturity in making the right decisions, you should be implication promote the freedom of speech rather than curtail it. You should campaign for an environment in which these questions can be discussed and people who hear the arguments can make their own choice- a choice which should always be respected no matter at which point of the long and continuous scale of 'knowledge' curve they may be.

The language used by relativists is also very startling. They talk of 'people' as entities out there which do NOT include the relativists themselves. They regard these 'people' as patients, or children - and themselves as doctors or guardians who know what is best for these patients/children. They give themselves, and not anybody else, the right to measure how immature the people are, how much medicine they need, how much progress they make and when are they ready for the next dose. In other words, they regard themselves as super-people and super-humans - and give themselves the rights they deny from other people.

And that's the essence of relativism: differentiating between people and their rights. Not that they regard certain freedoms are not suitable for the society they live in, but that they are not suitable for other people in their society. They themselves can use these the freedom of speech to full effect with no worries about their misuse. They regard themselves as 'taafte-he joda baafteh', people with higher intellect and/or humanity. They are more human than others.

That's where the whole premise of relativism collapses: they don't regard human rights as human rights. The notion of human rights pre-supposes humans as equal being. Equal in the sense that they are all human. Humans, whether they are white or black, born in this or that part of the world, of this or that background, they are not different species. If a right is defined as human rights, it belongs, to the same degree, to all humans. Relativism denies this principle. It classifies humans into humans and sub-humans. Then it grants human rights to those it regard as humans, namely the people with power, authority or privilege. The rest are not full humans. While the first group can enjoy all basic freedoms, almost with no restrictions, they can also define the limits of human rights for others - the sub-humans.

This means that relativism can indeed provide one of the best excuses for the abuse of human rights (the very excuse used for its justification): while these rights are monopolized by a few, the same people are allowed to use their authority and power to unilaterally define limits on other people to enjoy their basic freedoms - a prime example of the abuse of these rights.

[That's why in these societies not only political activities are kept under control and free political expression is not allowed, but even non-political groupings like human rights bodies are banned or controlled. The authorities not only suppress freedom of expression in the name of relativism but even the chance is denied for other people to get engaged in this very discussion. That is, they keep the monopoly of defining the limits to themselves - they being the law-maker, the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, the executioner all in one.]

All in all, relativism is nothing less than a statement of de-classification of human beings in a single society into humans and sub-humans. It bestows on a small privileged minority rights far in excess of what they deserve and allows them to abuse these rights almost with no limits. At the same time, relativism denies the vast majority of the population of their basic rights. The
de-classification has nothing to do with intelligence or people's ability to use these rights responsibly: many of the privileged minority do abuse these rights and act irresponsibly, while many of the intelligentsia who dare challenge the relativists' theories are gagged, prosecuted and/or persecuted.

Human rights are either granted to all humans by right - or else, any restricted application of these rights under the excuse of relativism amounts to oppression and injustice. Human rights can not be, but universal. Let me now turn to the second contentious issue: cultural differences.

This issue is based on the facts that major cultural differences do exist in societies across the world and that these differences amount to different sets of values in these societies. It also observes that human rights are nothing but a set of values. Hence, proponents of this thesis argue, it is very likely that these values may clash with each other and as a result, we should not insist on universal application of human rights, but rather, we should respect the local culture of a society and allow them to define or re-define human rights to match their own cultures.

There are basically two sets of values concerned here. One set is clearly cultural: social manners, accepted behavior or personal morality. Cultures provide a context in which human relationships may develop and flourish. They may differ from one society to another - and from one generation to another. More importantly, they are always in a state of flux: at any given time, some cultural elements are dying and new ones are spreading. When a cultural element is dominant, you may accept it and conform to what the society expects from you or may question and/or reject it - but at your own peril! In no circumstances, however, you should be forced to conform. Once force is introduced, it is no longer a question of culture but coercion - a truly anti-cultural development. Neither, cultural values should be allowed to be abused and exploited for the benefit of a few at the expense of the many or as an excuse for the imposition of the will of some on others. The latter's are issues of power politics and should be subject to consensus and/or democratic control - and that's where the second set of values comes into the question: human rights.

Human rights, by definition, are human issues and therefore super-cultural. I mentioned earlier that one may accept or reject a right as a human right, but once a right is defined as 'human' it transcends cultures. I also mentioned that as a minimum, we should accept the basic freedoms listed in the UDHR as human rights - simply because, by their very nature, there's no way one can deny them from the society without causing injustices.

These set of rights is all about power politics and on what basis humans may interact with each other. It tries to give the people the choice, rather than the goods. It does not try to define what is 'good' or 'bad' for a society to do (that's the domain of culture) but how it may do that. If people of a certain land practice a certain practice, its fine as a 'cultural' thing if they want to continue with it, as long as the participants 'volunteer', and are not forced into it. Human rights does not say 'thou shall not practice this anymore' but it can say 'don't force anybody into this practice just because you want to uphold your cultural heritage'! As far as cultures are concerned, human rights are there to protect the rights of the unwilling victims of the assaults carried out in the name of culture.

And that's the crux of the matter: there's a fine line between helping people to develop and be free to do whatever they want to do, to telling them what to do. The first is the subject of human rights. The second, if prescribed from outside, is at best patronizing and at worst cultural imperialism. Each culture may have aspects which are frowned upon in another culture, and no culture may claim superiority over other cultures in terms of what it regards as good manners, accepted behavior or personal morality.

However, in any culture, the people should have the freedom to choose - and this is what the fundamental human rights are all about. No cultural tradition can ever justify oppression, coercion, cruelty or imposition of certain practices on unwilling victims. And it matters not if the culture is eastern, western, primitive, advanced or else. Let me give three extreme examples which come from three widely different cultures: cannibalism, sadomasochism and religious self-mutilation. Each one of these is an aspect of a certain culture but frowned upon in other cultures. No proponent of human rights can ever sit in judgement and, in the name of human rights, declare any of these practices wrong or unacceptable. That's the job of cultural reformists who may campaign for changes in social behavior or personal morality from inside these societies. But the human rights activist can and should campaign for the right of every individual in every society not to be coerced into any practice in the name of culture or religion. Cultural differences can only explain what practice is or is not acceptable in a certain society. However, they can never justify imposition of the practice on an unwilling person. And that's universal!

A cultural practice which is forced on citizens of a society is no longer a 'cultural' thing. On the other hand, using cultural practices in one society as criteria to disprove a certain cultural practice in another society is not a human rights activity. A human rights campaigner campaigns universally against the first, and refrains from the second. They say that people in a society should be free to choose and develop their culture - and that participation in a cultural practice should be entirely voluntary, a true cultural affair. They say that people should be allowed to evaluate cultural matters and make choices as they like. It's not the human rights campaigners job to enter into the substance of this discourse, but try to provide the environment in which cultural questions can be discussed and people who hear the arguments can make their own choice. In this environment, other campaigning group may of course get involved in the substance of the debate.

Take the example of hejab in Iran. Here the difference between a culturally oriented group like feminism and a human rights group becomes apparent. It's no business of a human rights group to say hejab is good or bad. If a woman out there wants to wear it, she should have the right to do so, no matter if, as a feminist would argue, she is ideologically attached to it, culturally conditioned, or socially obliged. But if she is forced to do so - by the state, her partner, family members etc. - then it is a human rights issue, and her right not to wear it should be defended. So the criteria is not that a cultural feature of a society is good or bad (in some sense) but whether a human being is forced to conform to it.

Human rights are therefore super-cultural - i.e., truly universal. They embody the most fundamental rights that emanate from humanity of human beings. They are not against any particular culture - indeed, they are essential ingredients for the development and flourishing of cultures - any culture. No society can suppress human rights of its citizens in the name of culture - that would be inhumane and therefore anti-culture.

Neither relativism nor cultural differences can restrict the universal applicability of human rights to all human beings. Relativism is nothing less than a statement of de-classification of human beings in a single society into humans and sub-humans. Imposition of cultural values of one society on another society smacks of cultural imperialism. Saying that people of a certain society do not deserve human rights because they are of a different culture, smacks of racism. And use of cultural differences as an excuse for the imposition of the will of some people in the society on others is a most notorious example of the abuse of culture for the benefit of a few at the expense of the many. Human rights are universal, period.


Web Site Design by: Multimedia Internet Services, Inc. Send your Comments to:
Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form.