Human rights and its inherent liberal relativism

Liberal relativism that celebrates civil and political rights is a neo-colonial construct which should be understood as such. What we see is really competing relativisms prioritised by the whims of private and public donors.

Abdullahi An-Naim
25 August 2014

The human rights paradigm is embedded in a double paradox of universality and self-regulation by the state, but the ultimate paradox is the perceived need for the conceit of neocolonial liberalism to protect and enforce these rights. It is primarily the former colonial powers of the North Atlantic which continue to repudiate the essence of human rights in their imperial “civilizing mission” on a global scale. By liberal relativism I mean the set of values and institutions which limit human rights to negative claims on the state to refrain from interfering with the freedom of individuals. This perspective upholds civil and political rights of citizens, pays lip service to notions of inclusive universality of human rights, and relegates economic and social rights and collective demands for development and protection of the environment to the realm of second and third generation rights. In this model, judicially enforceable negative civil and political rights are true rights, while affirmative claims on the state for economic and social justice are deemed incidental outcomes of upholding true rights.

This view is relativist because it is premised on a particular philosophical view and political experience. It is neocolonial because it projects that relativist view as universal through imperial hegemony, economic blackmail and the constant implicit threat of use of military force at the discretion of the same former colonial powers, while “international” finance and the U.S.-backed loan businesses make it impossible for “developing” countries to realize socio-economic and cultural rights. The liberal scenario is paradoxical because it negates self-determination of poor countries in the name of protecting their human rights. The point here is not whether a claim deserves recognition as a human right or not, but the imperialist coercive nature of the process that refuses to consider the possibility of a non-liberal perspective.

We all know and experience the world as who we are, men and women of any racial, linguistic, cultural, religious or other affiliation or identity. Since every claim of a human right is relative to all our particularities everywhere, the quality of being a universal norm can neither be assumed nor imposed. A liberal conception of any norm as a human right or not is necessarily as relativist as a religious or communitarian conception of that or any other norm. The paradox of universality is that any enforcement of a norm is a negation of its human rights quality, yet the lack of voluntary compliance is what constitutes a violation of the right. To say that enforcement is justified because the norm is a human right is to beg the question of who decides that. The object of universality is to ensure the protection of certain rights regardless of national constitutional, legal and political level of protection. Yet, coercive enforcement of these international obligations is neither possible in practice nor acceptable in principle. 

The international protection of human rights can work only through the internalization of those rights as indigenous values in the socialization of children and interpersonal and communal relations. External protection may appear necessary because both the violation and implementation of human rights always happen within the territorial jurisdiction of one state or another. Yet the intervention itself is a violation of sovereignty. In any case, external actors cannot be present everywhere and long enough to ensure comprehensive, consistent and sustainable protection of human rights. External actors cannot have the legitimacy, cultural competence and local access to prevent or remedy violations.

The inadequacy of hegemonic liberal relativism is also clear in that the monitoring and evaluation mechanisms deployed by liberal actors are designed for the negative task of collecting narrow information about violation of a limited number of rights, usually of political elites who are competing over political power in the name of protecting the rights of the poor. Priorities of monitoring violations are determined by what official and private donors are willing to fund, and there is no evaluation of the effectiveness of what is done. The fact that violations of rights are accurately reported does not mean that they will end or be redressed, and there is no follow up to ensure any specific outcome.

The liberal approach can only work in a piecemeal and reactive manner, responding to human rights violations after they occur, rather than pre-empting them or preventing their occurrence. It also tends to focus on specific cases or limited issues, without attempting to address structural causes of human rights violations or creating institutional mechanisms for sustainable respect for and protection of rights. The whole system of international law and relations and private donors which support the present human rights regime is necessarily opposed to addressing the underlying causes of violations because that will threaten the existence of the major actors in both official and private domains.

This critique does not deny the role the present inter-governmental and non-governmental human rights regimes, but only seeks to expose its inherent relativity.  Let us acknowledge that all we can have are competing relativisms so that we can begin to debate relative benefits to differently positioned populations. The essential doctrine of human rights can only be realized by entrusting the effort to the human agency of the subjects of those rights, and shifting action to the essentially political nature of the struggle. National and international legal strategies can only follow political action, never lead or replace it.


This article is part of the Human rights strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Kate Nash's introduction to this strand here. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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