Are universal human rights a form of cultural imperialism?

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Are Universal Human Rights a Form of Cultural Imperialism?

An Analysis of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights in the Context of Gay Rights

Mette Helene Christensen & Anne Larsen

Aalborg University

Helene Pristed Nielsen

May 27, 2014


Human rights, and especially human rights violations, are a frequently debated topic in today’s society. Today the legitimacy of states depends, to a greater extent, on their ability to protect human rights, emphasizing the relevance of the topic. Moreover, minority rights have become an extensively covered subject within the news media, and especially the rights of homosexuals in Africa have been subject of recent debate due to the implementation of new and stricter laws criminalizing homosexuality in various African countries. This increase in laws condemning homosexuality has especially gained criticism in Western media, which has led to several Western countries and non-governmental organizations condemning these actions. Some have chosen to withhold or redirect financial aid in countries adopting such laws.

In this context, the debate between advocates of universal human rights law and cultural relativists is relevant, as it poses the question whether universally binding human rights are able to adapt to cultural diversity, and vice versa. In extension of this issue, the aim of this project is to answer the following research question: With a view to recent debates over the rights of homosexuals in several African countries, to what extent can human rights, and especially gay rights, be perceived as a form of Western cultural imperialism?

In order to shed light on the above problem statement, theories concerning the universality of human rights, cultural relativism, cultural imperialism, and homosexuality will be incorporated. These principles will be used as analytical tools. Furthermore, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights will be included as a main object of analysis, along with the European Convention on Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as supplementary objects of analysis. The main purpose of including these covenants is to outline supporting grounds for non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Specific cases from Europe and Africa are included as well to exemplify the differing interpretations of the covenants.

Generally, it is found that the charters are rather similar in their formulations regarding discrimination. However, how they are interpreted and implemented differ vastly, and it appears that there is a greater tendency for legal support of homosexual rights within the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights than in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Additionally, a high level of public resistance toward homosexual rights prevails in many African countries. In this sense, it is concluded that the notion of universal human rights, and especially gay rights, can, to some extent, be seen as a form of Western cultural imperialism.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction 4

2. Methodology 6

2.1 Sources 10

3. Theory 11

3.1 Human Rights 11

3.1.1 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 12

3.1.2 Western Notions of Human Rights 14

3.1.3 Non-Western Notions of Human Rights 15

3.2 Cultural Relativism 16

3.3 Universality of Human Rights Versus Cultural Relativism 17

3.4 Culture 19

3.4.1 Imperialism 22

3.5 Cultural Imperialism 23

3.6 Homosexuality 25

3.6.1 A Religious Perspective 27

3.6.2 Homosexuality as a Human Right 28

4. Case Description 29

4.1 Homosexuality in Africa 29

4.2 The African Union 31

4.3 The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights 32

4.4 The European Convention on Human Rights 33

5. Analysis 35

5.1 Defining Sexual Discrimination 35

5.2 Interpreting the Legal Framework for Non-Discrimination of Homosexuals 37

5.3 Peoples’ Rights 42

5.4 Justifying Discrimination 44

6. Concluding Discussion 47

7. List of References 50

1. Introduction

International human rights law has increasingly begun to focus on the weakest members of society and the violation of their rights, and the existing human rights instruments have so far not been sufficient in addressing and protecting the rights of the more vulnerable minority groups. Also, there has been an intensified focus in the media on this subject. Particularly, the rights of homosexuals in Africa have been covered extensively, as an increasing amount of laws criminalizing homosexual practices have been implemented throughout the continent. Most recently, the adoption of a new and stricter law in Uganda has received a lot of international attention from human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Amnesty International. This law criminalizes homosexual acts to the degree that such can lead to lifetime imprisonment. Another legal approach limiting the fundamental freedoms of homosexuals was implemented in Nigeria only last year, and many other African states have similar laws on the matter. Currently, 38 African countries have official anti-homosexual laws (Amnesty, 2014). On the global level, Africa thus accounts for half of the countries in which official laws on the matter exist, as homosexual practices are currently criminalized in 76 countries worldwide. Punishment hereof varies profoundly and ranges from fines to imprisonment or even death penalty. South Africa remains the only country, within the African continent, to protect and promote the rights and fundamental freedoms of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people along with the right to same-sex marriage (Johnson, 2013). Thus, within the context of minority rights, homosexual rights are highly relevant to examine due to contemporary discussions on the subject.

Especially the Western media tend to have a critical view on the increase of criminalizing homosexuality. Seen from a Western perspective, this critical view is rather reasonable, as such laws can be seen as human rights violations. However, there have been great debates on whether the universality of human rights is a form of Western imposed cultural imperialism and to what extent human rights can be universal at all. This poses a moral dilemma, in the sense that interfering might seem like the right thing to do from an outside perspective. On the other hand, interference or condemnation might contravene with national values and beliefs and fail to acknowledge existing cultural differences. Taking such actions also runs counter to the principle of cultural relativism, as it conveys the belief that one’s own culture is superior to that of others. Therefore, it is essential to consider the cultural diversity and historic development in Africa in order to obtain a more nuanced perspective on the matter.

The overall aim of this project will be an attempt to shed light on and answer the following research question: With a view to recent debates over the rights of homosexuals in several African countries, to what extent can human rights, and especially gay rights, be perceived as a form of Western cultural imperialism?

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