Are Human Rights Universal? Cultural Relativism Vs. Universalism


The notion of human rights is something that has been interpreted differently over the past four centuries. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) outlines the historical steps that have been undertaken in order to redefine the meaning of human rights. As a result, several theories have been put forward to interpret the meaning of human rights. Are human rights universal or culturally relative? This essay aims to answer the question. It explains what human rights are, compares cultural relativism vs. universalism in this sphere, and provides examples.


Shongwe (2016) argues that “human rights are liberties and freedoms that are inherent to human beings from a different nationality, colour, language, race, sex, and culture” (p. 8). The cultural relativism vs universalism debate has redefined legal debates for centuries. In the recent past, the debate has become part of public discourses on human rights and international law. The emerging issues have been guided by the fundamental guidelines outlined by the United Nations. It is agreeable “that human rights and freedoms are for all people without distinction as to language, culture, or sex” (Bukuluki, 2013, p. 6). The concepts of cultural relativism and universalism have been widely adopted by many scholars in order to demystify the unique issues surrounding the legality and ethicality of human rights.

Universalism vs Cultural Relativism in Human Rights: A Critical Analysis

To begin with, the concept of universalism refers to the dogma that all human rights are usually universal in nature. Consequently, such rights should be applied to human beings in every corner of the world. Proponents of this concept use different theories such as rationalism, positivism, and natural law (Jones, 2014). Rationalism is a powerful theory that argues that human beings are endowed with specific rights and liberties. The theory goes further to indicate that such individuals are empowered to think rationally.

The concept of universalism is therefore founded on specific theories such as natural law. According to natural law theory, human rights are inherent and appropriate for every human being (Bukuluki, 2013). That being the case, such rights should not be based on people’s specialities, religious beliefs, cultural values, or diversities. This means that human rights should always be treated as extra-cultural attributes (Choudhury, 2015). Based on the universalism concept, the definition of human rights in national and global laws is therefore guided by supporting theories such as positivism, natural law, and rationalism.

The other perspective of human rights can be examined and analysed using the cultural relativism concept. Proponents of the notion indicate that human rights are dependent on the existing cultural aspects. Theorists and scholars who support the model go further to indicate that moral principles might not be applicable to all cultural or racial groups (Danial, 2013). This means that the concept of human rights is usually guided by the cultural attributes of a given society.

Individuals who embrace this concept go further to argue that the ideas outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 should be treated as the inappropriate products of Western political thoughts and ideologies (Danial, 2013). The history of many Western nations, according to the proponents of the model, is what has led to the creation of the modern ideas of human liberties and rights (Mitchum, 2013). Consequently, many cultural relativists have gone further to argue that universalism is an inappropriate concept that should not be embraced in the world today.

The cultural relativists go further to indicate that the western powers use their ideas and political strengths to support the concept of universalism. According to such proponents of cultural relativism, imperialism is “something that should be treated as a form of cultural imperialism” (Danial, 2013, p. 4). The thoughts of many cultural relativists explain why they have been against some of the modern establishments such as the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In order to find an acceptable solution, cultural relativists believe strongly that local approaches should be considered in order to promote universal justice. Whenever conflicts emerge in a given community or nation, traditional strategies can be embraced in order to produce desirable results (Bukuluki, 2013). This means that the resolution approaches will be based on evidence-based ideas that can address the major conflicts affecting different cultural groups.

Concluding Remarks

After analysing the concepts of cultural relativism and universalism, it becomes quite clear that the debate regarding their effectiveness and hopelessness might not end any time soon. It is also agreeable that social relations and notions of human rights in different communities are regulated using traditional thoughts or norms. At the same time, any attempt to reject the outlined human rights might result in conflicts and systematic abuses (Shongwe, 2016). It is, therefore acknowledgeable that cultural relativism is an ideology that might result in numerous conflicts. Cultural relativism remains a challenging notion that has led to numerous challenges (Danial, 2013). That being the case, nations, communities, and societies should embrace the concept of universalism. This notion can guide more societies to support the rights of human beings, reduce chances of discrimination, and eventually promote their lifestyles.


Bukuluki, P. (2013). Negotiating universalism and cultural relativism in peace and development studies. International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, 10(1), 1-7.

Choudhury, C. (2015). Beyond culture: Human Rights universalisms versus religious and cultural relativism in the activism for gender justice. Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice, 1(1), 227-267.

Danial, S. (2013). Cultural relativism vs. universalism: Female genital mutilation, pragmatic remedies. The Journal of Historical Studies, 2(1), 1-10.

Jones, W. (2014). Universalizing human rights the ASEAN way. International Journal of Social Sciences, 3(3), 72-89.

Mitchum, P. (2013). Slapping the hand of cultural relativism: Female genital mutilation, male dominance, and health as a human rights framework. William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law, 1(4), 585-607.

Shongwe, M. (2016). Cultural and religious relativism as opposition to the aims of international human rights law: Revisiting the universalism vs. regionalism debate. SSRN, 1(1), 1-12.

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