Are universal human rights a form of cultural imperialism?

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2.1 Sources

This project mainly draws on articles from academic journals, news articles, and textbooks. The majority of the sources used stem from recently published data, contributing to attain a contemporary angle, which in our case is suitable, as the subject of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in Africa, to a great extent, is a contemporary concern, and therefore is well-represented within media sources as well as within the field of academic literature. Also, it helps provide a broader perspective as contemporary literature has a wide range of existing research to base new findings on. Nevertheless, especially the theory section of this project builds partly on data which is not new. For example, the section on cultural imperialism partially draws on literature from the 1970s. This is the case, as the term enjoyed great scholarly focus in the 1970s, shortly after its initial emergence. The interest of cultural imperialist scholars were, to some extent, ignited by the decolonization of Africa, which took place in the aftermath of World War II, mainly during the 1950s and 1960s. As the contemporary notion of this concept still builds on the original theoretical framework, using these older texts does not interfere with or devalue the points we wish to communicate; rather it helps to convey the original message of this concept.

In addition, the covenants used for analysis originate from between 1948-1981 and can thus be perceived as somewhat non-contemporary. Their time of origin can have an impact on the content, and they might have looked differently if they had been drafted today. Nonetheless, they are still all in force. Further, the age of the covenants has resulted in the existence of academic literature discussing and examining the covenants, which enables us to attain a more thorough knowledge on the subject.

3. Theory

The following theory section will, as mentioned, include a presentation of the principles of human rights, cultural relativism, cultural imperialism, and homosexuality.

3.1 Human Rights

Human rights, and especially human rights abuses, have become a frequently debated topic of much public concern. Historically speaking, this is a rather new tendency, as human rights were not perceived as a legitimate international concern up until the end of World War II. Instead, such matters were limited to be concerns of state leaders, who were protected by rights of sovereignty (Donnelly, 2011: 496). In the aftermath of the second world war, a more liberal approach to global affairs occurred which brought along an increased concern about human rights to the international agenda. In this spirit, the United Nations (UN) introduced the UDHR on December 10 1948, and since then, the notion of human rights has increasingly been implemented as a key concern in national and international affairs around the globe. Especially since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s/early 1990s, actions to prevent human rights violations have been taken, for example through humanitarian interventions such as peacekeeping missions. A reason as to why such measures have become more frequently employed, is that it has become a more generally accepted notion that domestic human rights violations can and should be perceived as a threat to global peace and security, a notion in overall compliance with Democratic Peace Theory (Taylor & Curtis, 2011: 317-19). As national sovereignty remains the supreme principle in the global arena, violating the internationally recognized human rights does not delegitimize a state or its government, apart from cases involving genocide. Even so, it has become a growing tendency to view the protection of human rights in relation to that of a legitimate government, indicating that a state’s ability to protect its citizens’ human rights is directly associated with its political legitimacy (Donnelly, 2007: 289).

The concept of human rights is by definition rather complex, as it addresses the ethical issue of what should be perceived as an individual’s basic human rights and when these are considered violated, and thus to some extent, what should be perceived as right or wrong (Freeman, 2011: 3-4). Perceptions of these concerns may vary profoundly between individuals, depending on cultural, social, economic, or political differences, which also express one of the main obstacles to the concept of universally binding human rights. However, as the UDHR was agreed upon by a vast majority of the UN member states, it undeniably holds an important role in the formulation of what is globally perceived as human rights violations and also which basic rights should be respected (Freeman, 2011: 4-5, 40). It is also this notion of human rights, the one formulated by the UN, that will be referred to throughout this project.

3.1.1 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The UDHR states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, and respecting such rights is essential in order to “promote the development of friendly relations between nations” (UDHR, 1948). Within this context, according to the UDHR, the term human rights should be perceived as to refer to a set of equal and inalienable rights that one has on no other background than simply being human (Donnelly, 2007: 282). The UDHR mainly addresses the relationship between governments and their citizens and it was established with the purpose of formulating a set of guidelines and goals of human rights that states were expected to seek to fulfill, rather than imposing legal obligations on states.

A main obstacle to the UDHR is the widespread claims that it is Western-biased in its interpretation of and emphasis on certain rights. This notion is supported by its insufficient consideration of the UN member states’ cultural differences, further elaborated by the fact that implementing one human right might mean violating another, or respecting one person’s human right might cause the violation of another person’s rights. Examples of such issues can be found in cases involving people of differing religious beliefs or in situations of military interventions. Furthermore, this perceived Western-bias of the UDHR is also supported by the tendency to focus more on individual, civil, and political rights over collective, economic, social, and cultural rights (Freeman, 2011: 6, 42). However, in the aftermath of the global decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s a range of new UN member states occurred, introducing new concerns and priorities to the human rights agenda. The main focuses of these newly independent states included decolonization, anti-racism, and the right to self-rule, and adding these subjects to the human rights agenda helped weaken the claims of Western bias within the UDHR’s concept of human rights (Freeman, 2011: 48). Support for this so-called ‘Western arrogance’ or ‘Western hubris’ can to some extent be found in the Modernization Theory (Armer & Katsillis, 2000), whose main argument is that societies currently at the developing stage are at the so-called premodern stage of evolution and simply have not achieved the level of economic growth yet, but will eventually take on the social, economic, and political features of the Western societies, which have reached the highest level of evolutionary development so far. Such development is expected to be implemented by the global spread of Western technology that eventually will overcome traditional local cultures in case these are preventing the evolution. In this sense, Modernization Theory is rooted in the assumption that the current situation in Western societies is the best or right one and is what should be strived for. Also, it is assumed that the poorer nations have the resources and ability to reach the same level of development, simply by adopting Western values and approaches, which to some extent disregard the long historical process of global inequality shaped, for example, by colonialism (Jaqcues, 2006; Armer & Katsillis, 2000).

3.1.2 Western Notions of Human Rights

Some argue that the perceived ‘Westernness’ of human rights should be assigned to the level of modernity, rather than the nations’ Western cultural roots. Therefore, the principle of universally binding human rights is relevant anywhere with a similar level of modernity, regardless of the country being Western or not. This argument is supported by the observation that there was no particular focus on or predisposition for human rights, or the tendency of such, in pre-modern Europe. Neither did any particular Christian scriptures support a principle of a set of universal inalienable rights assigned equally to all human beings. From this perspective, human rights did not emerge from any Western cultural roots but rather from the transformations brought on by modernization. Modernization posed new economic and political threats to human dignity, resulting in a range of demands from the public, whereof the notion of human or natural rights constituted a central part. As modern markets and states spread globally, these same threats to human dignity became relevant elsewhere, along with the notion of human rights (Donnelly, 2007: 287). Donnelly (2007) further states that “[h]uman rights today remain the only proven effective means to assure human dignity in societies dominated by markets and states” (p. 288); a statement that he backs up with the notion that market economies and bureaucratic states are constant factors that remain threats to us all, regardless of other societal problems. Therefore, equal and inalienable universal human rights should be seen as essential in providing protection from these threats and other cultural traits should be perceived as secondary to this (Donnelly, 2007: 287).

3.1.3 Non-Western Notions of Human Rights

The points set forth in the UDHR represents the contemporary notion of human rights, but the idea itself originated in the Western hemisphere during the Age of Enlightenment. A theory on natural rights can be found in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which was published in 1689. Ideas of this type were what ignited and called for a political reconstruction during the American and French Revolutions, for example (Donnelly, 2007: 286). Locke’s theory stated that each individual naturally possesses certain rights, which are not to be controlled or decided by the government. Furthermore, the government is obligated to respect these rights in order to appear legitimate, and thus relies on the power vested in it by its citizens (Freeman, 2011: 9, 41).

However, considering or recognizing human rights is not simply a Western notion, as both traditional African, Asian and Islamic societies supported and employed this concept, although often with a regard to local religious practices or described as being second to the necessities of the governing elite. What was missing in the pre-modern world, however, and in the West as well, was this contemporary notion of universally equal and inalienable rights that one possesses simply by being human. Previous notions of rights would be determined by factors such as divine commandment, tradition, natural law, or family ties (Donnelly, 2007: 284-286). The present Dalai Lama promotes the universality of human rights and has stated “the acceptance of universally binding standards of human rights as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . . . is essential in today’s shrinking world” (Lama in Kielsgard, 2011: 159). Early Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu, for example, expressed the anticipation of a universal love binding us all, including the governing elite and public office holders. This belief can be extended to resemble the modern principle of human rights, as love is seen as an entitlement equal to all, also implying the right to human dignity and respect. Middle Eastern cultures base their perception of rights on various interpretations of the holy Islamic text, the Qur’an, which also can be seen in accordance with modern human rights as those presented in the UDHR. As Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im (1990) argues:

“The fundamental position of the modern human rights movement is that all human beings are equal in worth and dignity, regardless of gender, religion, or race. This position can be substantiated by the Qur’an and other Islamic sources, as understood under the radically transformed circumstances today” (An-Na’im in Kielsgard, 2011: 160).

Traditional African cultures also included a regard to equal natural rights. The West African ethnic group Akan, for example, believes that every person contains an okra which refers to “an actual speck of God that he gives out of himself as a gift of life” (Wiredu, 1990 in Kielsgard, 2011: 160). Possessing the okra implies an inherent value shared equally by all people, which again can be seen in association with the concept of human dignity. The Akan’s notions of human rights consider civil, political, cultural, social, and economic rights, implying an overall resemblance to modern human rights (Kielsgard, 2011: 160-161).

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