The Universal Declaration of Human Rights constitutes a beacon for promulgating human rights. Although the name itself suggests its universal application, this is not always the case. Nevertheless, human rights are innate in human nature, are ingrained in our core and thus, they should be savored by every individual.
This notion has been veiled with controversy and has been repudiated by many who maintain that other factors play a decisive role in the applicability of human rights. These factors may be social, cultural, or political. This view can be reiterated if one considers that in the Arab world women hold an inferior position to men or that in Africa, for instance, children often suffer atrocious attacks.
However, is the fact that human rights are not equally enjoyed intertwined with the fact that we live in a cultural mosaic or the fruit of the absence of proper enforcement? Could one hope that human rights can reconcile intractable differences?
The underlying issue here is whether culture and the elements it entails, namely religion, tradition, custom, influence or should influence the implementation of human rights. Undoubtedly, culture plays a predominant role and is an indispensable part of a nation, it distinguishes it from another and impacts the behavior of its people. Is following, however, the dictates of culture however always correct? I do not believe so.
With the passage of time and the interaction of people from different civilizations, the world has become multidimensional and hence, it has facilitated the evolution of the identity of nations. Subsequently, it is only logical that all of their characteristics evolve too; this is the natural order of things. Culture and all it encompasses represents a variable.
Without its development, it is almost certain that society would fall into atavism. The fact that culture is not a constant is demonstrated by practices around the world that are now deemed antiquated. Society, however, has yet to make progress. Traditions that threaten the enjoyment of human rights still exist.
An example that proves the significance culture and religion play in defining human rights is the restriction or even utter prohibition of abortion in many parts of the world, even in western countries like Ireland. Ireland’s abortion rules reflect its religious beliefs and have polarised the nation. Currently, Ireland is trying to follow a more liberal approach and align itself with the demands of the modern world. Abortion is a reproductive right but is not recognized as such in international treaties.
However, its importance is uncontested and treaties like the Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) that promotes women’s equality and the General Recommendation No. 35 (article 18) of the CtEDAW on gender-based violence have contributed greatly to mitigating the problem. The nexus of culture and human rights is powerful and their interaction irrefutable.
However, this cannot deter us from the goal human rights aim to achieve. Individuals have fought to establish, promote and defend them through struggles, have overcome hurdles and gruesome situations. Accepting the rationale that universality is non-existent and that cultural relativism applies, poses a threat to everything we have achieved throughout the years and risks reversing all the progress.
The significance of human rights is tremendous and indisputable; human rights should be interpreted as universal norms. Of course, this does not mean that culture should be forsaken, resulting in assimilation of people; besides, as aforementioned, culture constitutes the distinctive feature of nations. Subsequently, the question remains.
How can human rights deal with these intricacies? Do we completely abandon cultural norms or do we head into the future solely with these as guidelines? The answer lies in the middle. Culture and human rights should function in unison without jeopardising eroding their character and subsuming one another. Practices that reflect cultural norms should retain their character but not at the expense of human rights implementation.
Fundamental rights should be absolute for they are associated with human dignity. Human rights should be the cornerstone of a modern society, the foundation for the convergence of nations and the basis for living a life designated by solidarity and mutual understanding.