Title

Cultural Relativism and Cultural Imperialism in Human Rights Law

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

1999

Abstract

The "Universalism-Cultural Relativism" debate proceeds on the assumption that international human rights law requires the identification of fundamental principles of justice that transcend culture, society, and politics. Thus, the debate presumes that to assert the cultural relativity of justice is to deny the legitimacy of international human rights law. This comment challenges this presumed linkage between international human rights law and universally valid criteria of justice. Human rights standards are obviously culturally relative, and human rights law is obviously a Western institution. But so are the kind of states that human rights law sets out to restrain. The nation-state ideal is rarely fulfilled in the post-colonial world; the weak state sector is often just one cultural structure among many rather than the center from which a national culture radiates. The imperialism critique of human rights law hinges upon an ideal of national self-determination that may be unrealistic for much of the developing world. International governance of these societies is probably inevitable whether or not we acknowledge it. Rather than asking whether human rights standards are authentic to the national cultures of the developing world, we should ask whether and how human rights law marginally contributes to building societies capable of self-determination at some future point.

Publication Title

Buffalo Human Rights Law Review

First Page

211

Last Page

221

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