North Africa, West Asia

Human rights’ universality and correlation with culture

If democracy and human rights were collective values, wouldn’t they have been more appealing to the world? عربي

Farah Hallaba
3 December 2016
Demotix/Maggie Osama. All rights reserved.

"Our demands are unchanged: justice and freedom" and "A martyr's mother bellows: my children and I have no rights". Demotix/Maggie Osama. All rights reserved.As a fervent advocate of democracy and human rights, questioning their universality and their cultural specificity has proven to be very challenging. But driven by my anti-imperialist sentiments, I decided to push forward with this quest.

Democracy and human rights have been often perceived as the western solution to third world problems, without them, countries would fail to develop. Over the recent years, wars have been waged in the name of “democracy”, resulting in increased suffering and human rights violations – Iraq being a prime example.

Perceiving anything to be the absolute and only rightful solution is quite dangerous, regardless of whether it is faith, ideology or a political system. Put simply, it will quite often turn to arrogant certainty leading to radicalism, which justifies the dehumanization of those who do not follow the same ideas. This applies to democracies working hard to implement “democratic” values globally as well.

Do human rights vary across cultures?

This remains a contentious debate in Egypt. Numerous supporters of the current regime believe that ‘Egypt is not ready for democracy’ or that ‘the concept of human rights is different in Egypt’.

In an article published on Egyptian Streets, “Sisi confirmed Egypt’s commitment to upholding the values of democracy and the rule of law. He, however, said that freedoms and human rights in Egypt shouldn’t be perceived from a western perspective due to differences in challenges and local and regional circumstances.”

Sisi’s statement pushed me to dig deeper; it sounded absurd to read at first, but after a while, the statement made sense to a certain degree.

According to numerous studies, such as “Human Rights and the Individual: Cross-Cultural Variation in Human Rights Scores, 1980 – 2010”, the only consensual rights that varied little across countries and cultures were physically related human rights, such as killing, torture, enslavement and police brutality.

The research describes these “physical security rights” as the rights that perceive humans as biological individuals. Human beings share the capacity of pain and suffering, and as such can agree on the rights that protect them and this is why these rights receive wide consensus.

On the other hand, rights derived from “what it means to be an individual?”,  such as civil liberties, view the human as an ontological and empowered individual and differ from one region or culture to another.

In response to Sisi; if it we were to agree that human rights shouldn't be western-centric, basic consensual rights are certainly not being practiced in Egypt at the moment. Based on recent developments, basic human rights have been and are still being violated. Forced disappearances, extrajudicial detention, prolonged periods of pre-trial detention and crackdown on basic freedoms of expression...to name a few.  

According to the above mentioned study, Islamic traditions prioritize community and unity much more than the individual; it is considered blasphemous to legitimize the idea of individual “sovereignty”. But notions differ even within religions across regions.

Individualism tends to score higher in the Middle Eastern region than in other Muslim majority nations in Asia and Africa. However, Middle Easterners are usually less likely to accept law reforms related to sexuality, for example.

The same applies to Christianity. Catholicism is more conservatively practiced in Latin America than in Europe. Some scholars argue that Christianity practiced in South America, Asia and Africa is closer to Islam than the west. Culturally, individualism scores the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia; where Confucianism and Animism prevail. Also in Africa the conviction of “I am because we are, and because we are therefore I am” overrides; the collective overrides the individual.

On the other hand, it is argued that democracy and the implementation of human rights are just an organic and inevitable feature of modernity, and it just so happens that the west developed earlier.

The question of democracy has been plaguing international media to determine the success and/or failure of the uprisings in the MENA region, however, it’s rarely taken into account that democracy “is emphatically not the solution for extremely complex societies, and western meddling only makes matters immeasurably worse.”

When given the opportunity, people tend to push for democracy in the Middle East and other non-western nations. But, is its inapplicability caused by its unsuitability to varying cultures? Or is it due to governmental disinterest? Or is it seen as a failure because it does not match western definitions of democracy?

According to Aristotle, governing is like a flute that should not be given to the rich or noble but instead to the talented flute players. To him everything has a telos (a purpose), and the purpose of the flute is to be played well. But where does the government or the leader get the flute anyway? Do they not get it from the people?

This analogy supports the argument that governments reflect the culture or attitude of the people and thus cultural values are a direct factor in how the state functions; as well as the rights and duties the citizens have.

Some may argue that the flute is given in a system that checks how the leader will play it, along with institutions that act as the orchestra on the basis of institutionalization and rule of law. This is supposedly how democracy should be practiced: by a system, structure, or the presence of good institutions in a state that functions within the rule of law. This approach may imply that political differences are not correlated with democracy. The state that is institutionalized can liberalize, democratize and therefore enforce human rights.

The question remains, if democracy and human rights were collective values, wouldn’t they have been more appealing to the world? Wouldn’t the understanding of human rights have differed?

Does the western world actually care about democracy promotion globally? Or is it another way for their worldview to dominate? Or is the west leading the way, and others will follow?

I am a staunch supporter of democracy, human rights, minority rights and freedom of speech. However, I also give great weight to cultural differences and believe culture does affect how governments function.

Should various cultures and societies implement their own notions of human rights? And to what extent?

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