Monthly Archives: March 2014

Are culture and human rights incompatible?


Are human rights universal or are they dependent on cultural traditions? It is often said that the only way to advance the human rights agenda is to argue that rights are inherent and inalienable and that culture has no role to play in understanding either the content or implementation of international human rights. In response it is often argued that human rights are a Western construct not compatible with other cultures/traditions. But I have never been convinced by such arguments. And having been living in Asia for a while has made me draw a few conclusions.

The idea of universal, inherent human rights focuses on the existence of a so-called natural law, a higher moral order informed by foundational theories rooted in moral, social, political and religious ideologies. They speak to the existence and definition of human nature and what it means to have a right. These are epistemological questions that have been around for a long time.

Universality can be a tool to interfere in the internal affairs of States.  And arguably, that was the intention of the human rights system: to challenge the State and its monopoly over the means to exercise power. But this intention was also balanced with the protection of State sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention, and with the empowering of States with the responsibility to protect human rights. It is not difficult to see why a constant tension exists.

The modern human rights regime represents the institutionalisation of a set of moral values. This can be seen from the myriad mechanisms: declarations, treaties, institutions, jus cogens norms, case law, custom, etc. In this sense, even for the more skeptical of critics, it is hard to deny the existence of a set of rules and obligations that protect all persons without distinction. This, however, does not stop States from entrenching human rights violations into their Constitutions or to systematically violate human rights. Often, traditions and practices, religious beliefs and historical or geographical contexts are used to justify the relativism of human rights. This line of argument often reflects the supremacy of state sovereignty.

The development of the modern human rights regime was also a political expression of the kind of governing system that ought to exist in order to guarantee the protection of individuals. When looking at the history of the human rights regime it is impossible to ignore its cultural (and political) underpinnings. For a long time there have been claims about the implicit Western bias in the way human rights instruments have developed. But this bias is less pronounced than it is often assumed. In fact, the values articulated in human rights instruments, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are a chronological reflection of European and global values, moral lessons learnt, political ideologies, and a wide range of religious and secular traditions. Modern human rights have been influenced by Western views as much as by socialist and ‘Third-world’ views (so-called 1st generation rights, 2nd generation rights, and 3rd generation rights), both to the benefit and to the detriment of the human rights agenda.

Relativists, as they are called, often claim that universal human rights standards cannot accommodate non-Western values. Demands for group rights and cultural rights, while advancing the rights of minorities (for instance indigenous peoples), can also serve to promote the continuation of oppressive practices, as, for example, the practice of female genital mutilation as a manifestation of power politics and gender inequalities in some societies. It is for that reason that any human rights agenda cannot pretend to work in a cultural or political vacuum, least they hide national or political interest elements. Time and time again particularism and nationalism have undermined the promotion of universal human rights. Particularism speaks to different understandings of morality, of what is right and wrong, rooted in traditional practices and beliefs, and wholly context driven.

I am of the opinion that cultural relativism therefore, rather than being ignored needs to be understood in its own context, because culture has a big role to play in understanding the content of human rights and their implementation. It is true that the discourse of human rights has often become hijacked by cultural practices, religious and traditional beliefs and geopolitical conceptions. It is also often subject to domestic politics and speaks to the tensions that are often found in the way States choose (or not) to integrate international law into their domestic legislation or the way States apply the law.

Culture can be understood as tradition, national identity (both of which imply a fixed state) or as susceptible to power structures and external influences. In an evolving conception of culture, human rights can become part of culture, in turn contributing to the universalisation of human rights. But more often than not, political considerations, the primacy of the principle of sovereignty, and the tensions inherent have a bearing on the way cultures can adopt human rights values. Unfortunately this seems to be the norm. Take a look at the 1993 Bangkok declaration in which Asian countries recognised the existence of human rights. On reading this the declaration you will see that, while to most Western countries human rights are a means to an end (prosperity, etc.), for Asian countries human rights are the end itself, subject to other conditions such as economic development. The UK or Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers another example of how politics construct culture (not the other way around) in applying the law.

Cultural traditions and religious practices are often a source of gender discrimination. Arguably, any cultural tradition that allows the subjugation of half of a society, the use of violence and the constant portrayal of people as weak and worthless should be eliminated as a cultural tradition. It is, thus, not about preserving cultural traditions, it is about preserving a status of power relations. Culture can be empowering for human rights. Power politics a hindrance. Relativists often argue in favour of the latter, and hijack the evolution of culture in the process. Watching a recent National Geographic documentary about India, a marriage ceremony was explained and glorified as a celebrated cultural tradition while the (female) narrator recounted the process of symbolising the bride becoming the property of the husband and her subjugation in marriage. The whole procedure romanticised the tradition while ignoring its symbolic meaning for the perpetuation of violence against women and girls in India, an issue that has dominated international media since the brutal gang rape and death of an Indian student in New Delhi in December 2012, and countless others since.

Time and time again women’s rights, and other rights are seen as relative issues subject to cultural and religious beliefs rather than as a core human rights issue. Arguably the question should not be whether human rights are compatible with values and cultural traditions, but whether values and cultural traditions are compatible with human rights. In that case, the values of both Western and non-Western nations are put to the test.

Nonetheless, culture is the only way of understanding the content and implementation of human rights because it places those rights in the specific context. We should avoid the trap of believing that culture is fixed and learn to identify cultural values and practices that serve to perpetuate the subordination of peoples, discrimination, unfair treatment or violence, and those that promote human rights. Culture is not incompatible with human rights. Politics, power relations, lack of education and a State that fails to implement its obligations are. Ignoring the role that culture can play in advancing, as well as hindering, the human rights agenda is doing a disservice to the project of universalising human rights.

Antigone. Painting by Frederic Leighton, 1882.


I am a girl – Marking International Women’s Day, 3 of 3 personal reflections


This week I watched, for the first time, Rebecca Barry’s 2013 feature documentary, I Am A Girl, which tells the stories of six young women from around the world. Through their personal stories, the film shows what it means to grow up as a girl in Afghanistan, Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, the US and Australia. For the filmmaker, the film is an attempt to put “a human face” to the disadvantage and discrimination still faced by women around the world. In telling this story, Barry has chosen to focus on certain issues facing young women today, including access to education, early marriage, childbirth and maternal health, sex work, the role of social media, and mental health.

This film is certainly quite challenging and heart-breaking at times. Take the story of Kimsey, a young 14-year old Cambodian girl, who must work as a sex worker in order to provide for her family and young child. Hers is unfortunately a very common story for poor women in Cambodia – desperation, poverty, domestic violence, hopelessness. Through her face, you can see that Kimsey sees little hope for the future.

Yet the film is also inspiring and deeply moving. In Afghanistan, the filmmakers explore the story of 17-year old Aziza, who is deeply passionate about her own education as well as education for women in Afghanistan. Closer to home, the story of 17-year old Australian girl, Katie, gives a frank, intimate and honest account of her battles with depression and self-harm, as well as the positive and tentative steps she is making in managing her condition.

Through all six stories, the film depicts the vastly different experiences and challenges facing young women across the globe. Yet, by doing so, the film also explores universal themes such as hope, despair, family, sex, future aspirations etc. Most tellingly, the stories of I Am A Girl make another and more powerful statement – gender inequality occurs no matter what the circumstance or cultural context.

This International Women’s Day, I will be thinking about the many challenges still facing girls and young women in today’s world, as well as their inestimable courage, honesty and hope.  If you can, I Am A Girl is well worth watching.

Clips of the film can be seen here:

Rebecca Barry’s Homepage

Mum is the word – 2 of 3 personal reflections marking International Women’s Day


The world is full of many well-known inspirational women but I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the contribution that a group of women closer to our own lives have made: our mothers.

To those mothers who have given their children the world by encouraging them to reach their potential regardless of their gender, race, disability or socio-economic background, they are the unsung inspirations for many people throughout the world, including me. These women, in their own small way and often unconsciously, have contributed to breaking down many of the socially constructed barriers for their children. Although the majority of these women would never describe themselves as feminists or social activists, they have each contributed to changing how we perceive our society and established dominant social norms by providing their children with a nurturing environment, the tenacity and opportunity to allow them to soar and achieve their potential and to instil in them the knowledge that dreams can become reality.

For those of us who have been fortunate enough to have such women in our lives, let’s take a moment on International Women’s Day and acknowledge all the sacrifices they made to allow us to be who we are and to be however small, the engines of social change in our societies.

Marking International Women’s Day – 1 of 3 personal reflections


I have become increasingly frustrated lately with the music industry, with the shallow, vacuous lyrics and the way women are reduced to mere sexual and emotional objects. I find them patronising and insulting rather than flattering. Don’t get me wrong, I am a hopeless romantic too. But my life is not reduced to how many hearts I break or not, whether I want to run to a man’s arms or not, or if the man of my dreams has decided to go with another woman. My life is rich with plenty of other experiences that also define me.

The way women are depicted in the media or in movies (and Hollywood is not unique, Bollywood does its share of women misrepresentation!) is also something that increasingly bothers me. And with the explosion of senseless and ridiculous real-life TV type of shows, it hurts to see how many women have become proud victims of a gendered vision of society that reduces them to mere objects that serve no other purpose than to meet the needs of men. Even female singers sound like broken whingeing records. I get that love is an ever lasting source of inspiration. But is that all women are for? Make men happy and live lives that are fulfilled by the mere presence of a man who loves us? Me thinks definitely not!

Gender is a hopelessly misunderstood issue. Even some good intentioned, so-called feminists get it wrong. And many of the awareness raising efforts that pitch women as the answer to all of the world’s problems are wrong and simply, miss the point. I have news for you: there are good women, and there are not so good women, just like there are good and bad men. The reactions to the death of Lady Margaret Thatcher a case in point – was she a feminist or the antithesis to feminism? Neither, she was a person with a vision, and unfortunately her vision was not a very nice one (nor for women or for the poor and disenfranchised for that matter), but that is another question. You see, I do not necessarily consider myself a feminist, I simply think that women are not deserving of equality and rights and worth investing in because they are women, but because they are people! ‘Human beings’ is the defining character of both women and men.

So this International Women’s Day I would like to pay tribute to two ladies that have inspired and educated me through their work and actions to change the way women and girls are portrayed in the media and in films: Gina Davis and Cate Blanchet. I leave you with a couple of clips that say it all. Happy International Women’s Day, may it be one that gets us closer to gender justice and to everyone being treated like an equally deserving human being.

Cate Blanchet Oscars Speech via Huffington Post