Are Human Rights Universal or are They Contingent Upon and Relative to Culture? | Sample Assignment of Politics


Human rights are those fundamental and moral rights that are indispensable to the needs of a dignified human life. And every individual is inherited with these rights regardless of their gender, class, creed or economic status they belong to(Boersema, D., 2011). It is a very important concept that started taking its shape after the second world war, in fact, it was also the need of the hour after the world was in chaos and it became important for human life to be respect and dignified by everybody and for everyone. Therefore, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – UDHR was drafted as the most important milestone in the history of human life(United NAtions, 2021). As a matter of fact, the human rights are granted to everyone, simply because we are human beings, and thus no state or authority can give or take away human rights. However, in spite of the existence of Universal Declaration of Human Rights and making human rights universal in nature, a lot of criticisms has surrounded them, and one of the major ongoing debate is that the human rights are relative to culture and are determined by cultural conditions of a specific region(United NAtions, 2021). This essay focuses on this ongoing debate are tries to explore different arguments presented to gain a better understanding of human rights.

Human Rights Determined by Culture

The United Nations clearly states that Human Rights are universal and inalienable in nature, which means that firstly, human rights hold universal implementation and are equal for all, no matter who a person is, where he/ she belongs to or what their age or religion be, these rights are absolutely equal for all(United NAtions, 2021). Second, it states that no one or no authority can take these rights away from people, unless there is a particular situation where a person may no longer can exercise the right, such as the right to liberty cannot be given to a criminal(Kao, G., 2011).

Despite this basic nature of human rights, they have been widely criticized for being developed from a western school of thought, and not being able to justify their universality in different cultures(Pillay, 2021). These criticisms often act as barriers to implementation of human rights universally. It is often argued by critics that human rights are extreme proponents of liberty and freedom and that they went too far in promoting the liberal ideology. This argument is often posed by different groups of illiberals such as conservatists and right wing supporters(Sachedina, A., 2009). They are of the view that human rights constantly speak of freedom, which can be too much in certain instances and that not every individual requires or needs as much freedom as stated in UDHR. Moreover, this much idealization of liberty and freedom can crate disharmony and upheaval in social structures of various communities(Almqvist, J., 2006).

Another argument that is posed against universality of human rights is that it is a modern western concept, thus, it is better suited to western school of thoughts, the ideals of human rights do not consider the differences in tradition societies and that same rights cannot be given to every community or region(Sachedina, A., 2009). Moreover, the western societies are limited in their understanding of other parts of the world, thus the human rights are mostly based according to the need and culture of the western world(Ignatieff, M., 2001). These arguments are also based on the fact that universal rights are a modern phenomenon, and that it only developed after the second world war, in accordance to European and American cultures(Almqvist, J., 2006). For instance, Saudi Arabia withdrew their vote on the declaration because they were of the opinion that the Articles 16 and 18 that states the right of men and women to choose whom they want to marry and the right to freedom of religion, are in complete disagreement with the faith and teachings of Islam, which adheres importance to patriarchal dominance(Sachedina, A., 2009). Additionally, there are several traditional societies in the world that still practice honor killing and do not believe or abide by human rights.

A lot of critique of universal declaration of human rights also point the validation of one single document representing every single human when there are varied differences in terms of thoughts, culture, experiences and lifestyle(Pillay, 2021). In this regard, it is argued that the thoughts, lives and roles of people are shared in accordance to the society they live in. Thus, the moral cultures, values and belief systems are constructed on the basis of one’s cultural upbringing. So, it is not possible for everyone to have a single belief system and same ideology of rights. Therefore, human rights even though are universal in nature, cannot be taken away from cultural values of people(Kao, G., 2011). This is why it is often criticized as a western document that cannot hold universal value as it fails to account the various cultural differences that are present in different parts of the world. Additionally, it is also argued that while reading the UDHR it can easily be noticed that a lot of emphasis is given to individual rights, and communal rights are ignored. This is clearly an individualistic thinking that prevails more in western countries, and it is not a part of the non- western world(Ignatieff, M., 2001).

The supporters of universality of human rights opine that all people from different parts of the world have a basic idea of dignified human life and would agree to some simple rights that every human being can share(Boersema, D., 2011). They also argue that the UDHR was developed by keeping in check with various cultural differences of people and that many traditional or ‘non- western’ countries did sign the declaration because they agree with universal application of these human rights(Pillay, 2021). Thus, these arguments are misguided, in fact the declaration was written by people from different parts of the world including Lebanon, Egypt, Chile, China, India, Pakistan, etc. and none of these countries are classified as western(Pillay, 2021). Moreover, by forming a declaration for individual rights, an attempt was made to remove any cultural bias and make a universal set of rights that is relevant for all people and communities(United NAtions, 2021).

Even though the supporters of human rights claim them to be universal in nature, it is still argued that they are neo- colonist and it is an attempt by the western countries to dominate the people of developing nations. In this regard, it should also be noted that such arguments are made by the authoritarian figures of the states in order to violate human rights, in order to enforce traditions, and too particularly for women and children(UNICEF, 2021).

Even in the case of Egypt, the universality of human rights is an ongoing debate as several supporters of the present regime argue that the country is not yet ready for democracy and that the meaning and definition of human rights is different in Egypt(Ignatieff, M., 2001). Adding to this, the current president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al- Sisi comments that even though Egypt upholds the values and democracy and freedom, but the nation cannot accept human rights declared by the UN. He also goes on to comment that liberty, freedom and human rights cannot have a western perspective and they are definitely not universal in nature, because they do not adhere to his country- Egypt. Moreover, there are several challenges at local and regional levels in the country that cannot be easily resolved with the decided human rights(Sachedina, A., 2009).

The proponents of human rights argue that these rights are basic for every human being and that these rights are inalienable and inherent to everyone regardless of their culture or gender or age, and in fact they have been designed in such a manner that they protect different cultures(Boersema, D., 2011). However, states do use cultural relativist arguments to justify their keeps their own behavior that keeps their communal practices in priority. Often these communal laws are abusive in nature, especially to women and children, for instance Sharia law and female circumcision(Boersema, D., 2011).


By going through different set of arguments in the case of universality of human rights, it can be said that the human rights declaration has gone through massive criticisms and debate. The fact that whether it can be standardized or not is still a debatable topic. However, the fact that human rightsare standardized guidelines that did keep in mind the cultural different and ensured that most aspects were covered while forming it(Boersema, D., 2011). Moreover, even though there is a clash between the ‘western’ and ‘non- western countries’, and people from traditional societies may find western guidelines that are outlined in UDHR to be very different; it is still a fact that three- fourth of the world has recognized and sanctioned universal human rights with an approval rate of 88%(Almqvist, J., 2006).  Furthermore, the proponents of UDHR have argued that a progressive version of Sharia law can be approved with universal human rights. Thus, even though there is a scope of improving cultural aspect of human rights and application of basic human rights needs investment and resources, it still is at the best interest of all states and should be applied universally by considering various cultural values that a community believes in(Almqvist, J., 2006). Hence, human rights are universal as every individual has some basic rights, it still has scope of improvement.


Almqvist, J., 2006. Human rights, culture, and the rule of law. Michigan: Hart.

Boersema, D., 2011. Philosophy of Human Rights. USA: Westview Press.

Ignatieff, M., 2001. The attack on human rights. Foreign Affairs, 1(12), pp. 102-116.

Kao, G., 2011. Ground Human Rights in a Pluralist World. Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Pillay, N., 2021. Are Human Rights Universal?. [Online]
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[Accessed September 2021].

Sachedina, A., 2009. Islam and Challenges of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

UNICEF, 2021. Child Rights And Why They Matter. [Online]
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United NAtions, 2021. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [Online]
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[Accessed September 2021].