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The fallacies in the "Universalism Versus Cultural Relativism" debate in human rights law

de Varennes, F. (2006) The fallacies in the "Universalism Versus Cultural Relativism" debate in human rights law. Asia-Pacific Journal on Human Rights and the Law, 7 (1). pp. 67-84.

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Human rights are a “Western” construct which do not always sit comfortably within the confines of many Asian societies. This view often leads to the assumption that the “idea” of human rights is somehow more the prerogative of Western societies. This is not only oversimplistic, it is also based on an ignorance of Asian writings and traditions from which one can find the same "seeds" and inspirations for what we call today human rights.

The Qu’ran, which is not only a holy book but also a book of law, contains sections dealing with equality, freedom of religion, and the right to property, as did other philosophical and legal sources throughout Asia. While not necessarily using the words “human rights”, they were nevertheless based on a sense of justice and humanity that are essential building blocks for what are considered today human rights standards.

This article proposes that these assumptions need to be examined anew in light of a more detached historical and legal perspective – one which is not exclusively “Western”. It will attempt to highlight a few of the moral and philosophical underpinnings of international human rights which are closely linked to Asian traditions, and not intrinsically alien to them. Finally, it will proceed with a critical examination of the whole debate surrounding the universality of human rights and cultural relativism, showing that much of the debate is actually obscured by a failure to fully understand the nature and content of international human rights. It will be suggested that many of these international standards are capable of taking into account cultural and societal particularities while not affecting their universal application.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Law
Publisher: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers
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