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Any attempt at establishing universal human rights is a form of cultural imperialism.

Do you Agree ? Explain your reasoning.

The universality of human rights has been a topic of contestation for most part of the 21 st
century. Universalists and particularists have debated over the supremacy and validity of the
respective philosophical claims. Cultural relativism portrays universality as an imposition or
impediment and argue that universality contradicts the diverse cultural identities (Teson 1985,
Donnelly 2003, Tharoor 2000). Ethnocentrism evaluates other cultures within the prejudiced
notions arising from their restricted cultural bounds. Unilateral universalism adopts a similar
approach, in its philosophical essence, one that is centralized on regional or national interests
alone (Donnelly 2007). There are many theories and arguments, as there are different kinds of
universalities. A popular form of universality has been the relative universality or overlapping
consensus universality that is legal and functional.

Amidst all these theories and debates, an essential question that can be raised is, ‘What are
human rights’? Human Rights discourse defines them as the rights or entitlements possessed
by every human, merely by merit of being human. Every member of the human community
should have access to these rights irrespective of their state, geography, religion, political
affiliation, sexuality, gender, economic capabilities or social condition. The attempt at
universalising human rights does not intend wilful suppression of cultural expression or
diversity on the other hand, universal human rights leave space for regional and cultural
particularity(Donnelly 2007, Tharoor 2000, Sen 1997,O’Sullivan 2007, Perry 2000 ). The
argument that of universalisation of human rights is an attempt at cultural imperialism by the
West, has no validity considering that the concept of ‘West’ is just an analytical paradigm
rather than a real entity(Brown in Patman 2003). Subsequently the essay investigates the
legitimacy of the constructs on relative universality through overlapping legal, political and,
most importantly, cultural consensus.

Initially the essay will attempt to analyse the origin argument from 3 stances. The first contest
being that universal human rights do not have its roots in Western culture but in
modernisation(Donnelly 2007, Moyn 2012, Sen 1998, Langlois 2007). The second is the
inclusion and participation of Asian, African and other non-western countries in the drafting
process(Tharoor 2000). The third being that most societies have acquiesced to or identified
with the rights in the universal human rights regime somewhere in their traditional
practises(Moyn 2012, Donnelly 2007). Secondly, the essay will explore the limitations to the
argument of cultural relativity within the premise of constantly evolving cultures and
misrepresentation of societies by elite authoritative figures, who do not echo the voice of the
society, that decry universality while disregarding/abusing the culture domestically (Harris-
Short 2003, Brown in Patman 2003, Tharoor 2000, Sen 1998). Finally, the argument for
relative universality with overlapping cultural consensus will be made.

Franck, T 2001, ‘Are Human Rights Universal?’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 80, no. 1, pp. 191-204.

Donnelly, J 2007, ‘The Relative Universality of Human Rights’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol.

29, no. 2, pp. 281-306.

Hopgood, S 2014, ‘The End of Human Rights’, The Washington Post, 3 January, viewed 31

March 2017, <



Langlois, A J 2007, ‘Human Rights’, in Devetak, R, Burke, A, and George, J (eds.), An

Introduction to International Relations: Australian Perspectives, Cambridge

University Press, Cambridge, pp. 340–349.

Moyn, S 2012, ’Humanity before Human Rights’, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History,

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Perry, M 2000, “Are Human Rights Universal? The Relativist Challenge and Related Matters”

Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 461-509.

Sen, A 1998, ‘Human Rights and the Westernizing Illusion’, Harvard International Review,

vol. 20, no. 3, viewed 31 March 2017,


Tharoor, S 2000, ‘Are Human Rights Universal?’, World Policy Journal, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 1-6,

viewed 31 March 2017, <>

United Nations 1948, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, digitised document, United

Nations website, New York, viewed 28 March 2017,

The essay will support this standpoint through the following arguments:

The origin is not from western concepts, rather modernisation due to industrial revolution
and advancement of technology

As evidenced in the works by Tharoor, Sen, Donnelly, the origin for a universal human rights
regime has its roots in modernization.

The participation and representation of ‘Third World’ and developing countries during the
articulation of human rights.

Culture focused universalism (pg 20)—TONG SHIJUN, one chapter in a book, title :
Diversity in Unity: Harmony in a Global Age, publication :Cultural Heritage and
Contemporary Change Series III, East Asian Philosophical Studies, Volume 30

Misappropriation of cultural relativist argument – universality isn’t homogeneity.

The thought that people have an underlying unchanging essence is essentialism.

Case for relative universality with overlapping legal consensus not hampering cultural

The cultural diversity can be respected and practised even while adhering to the universal
norms of human rights. The constructs of justice, equality and the capability of an individual
to plausibly contest the government or other actors in authority are favourable to all societies
in the world. The post colonialist and post structuralist doctrines that originated from within
the cultural relativists advocates a dialogical approach for cross-cultural consensus.
International Human Rights and Cultural Relativism
Tesón, Fernando R
Virginia journal of international law
Volume: 25
Issue: 4
Page: 869