What Are Human Rights? Despite efforts to make the modern human rights program more inclusive, it is still highly controversial. Why?
On May 19th, the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Program (ILDP) fellows had an audience with Abdulaziz bin Mohammed al Rawas, Advisor to His Majesty the Sultan for Cultural Affairs. As the fellows and I were seated in a spacious sitting room ornately furnished with fine pillows and wood carvings, assistants whisked around offering us fresh juices and water. Rawas’ presence was immediately felt as he greeted us, and his sparkling white dishdasha swirled around his feet. Though Rawas was a small, quiet, aged man, he carried himself with eased elegance.
Rawas addressed the group, and briefly discussed Oman’s rich cultural history and the economic goals for the state. After his presentation, Rawas took questions. As the Q&A section was winding down, I raised my hand. I asked what I thought would be a simple, throw away question: “What are Oman’s future human rights goals?”
The Advisor’s expression changed. Somewhat bemused and somewhat annoyed, he responded with three rapid-fire rhetorical questions. “What are human rights? What is the definition of human rights? Can you define human rights?” Rawas subsequently launched into a passionate speech on human rights. He was very clear that he did not believe in the concept of human rights as the West understood it. Rawas was most agitated at what he viewed as the arrogance of Western nations, which are presumably ignorant of Omani or Islamic history and culture, to promote secular rights in his country. He also contended that the ‘international community’ could not detail what human rights were or were not to Oman. Lastly, he stated that rights such as freedom of expression or religion would be unacceptable in Oman. Rawas’ rant against the implementation of universal human rights was typical of a cultural relativist.
Cultural relativism is a perspective on ethics that is often applied to human rights. Cultural relativists argue that ethical standards, but specifically human rights, cannot be applied universally to the international community. The theory holds that ethical standards are derived from culture. Different societies have different moral codes, and these codes are premised on centuries of history, religion, and cultural development. Cultural relativists assert that different perspectives on human rights should be applied for different societies, and these different interpretations are equally legitimate. Some cultural relativists, including Rawas, would imply that a universal standard for human rights is “moral imperialism” imposed by secular Western nations.1
Cultural relativism directly opposes the universalist approach to human rights. Universalists argue that while history, religion, and culture are extremely important to the foundation of a society, some ethical standards are universal regardless of time or place1. The first clause of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The second clause continues, “Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.” The human rights enshrined in documents like the UDHR represent the natural and inalienable rights guaranteed to all peoples, regardless of their geographic location. Moreover, universalists assert that human rights can, and should, be applied to all nations equally.
Intellectual war between cultural relativists and universalists has been waged since the UDHR was written. Even though the drafters of the UDHR represented nine very different countries, some states still find the document problematic.3 There are many valid critiques of the modern human rights program, some of which were expressed by Rawas. Many of the presenters on our trip have pointed out hypocrisies in the behavior of Member States that support the UDHR and violate human rights domestically. Though the UDHR drafting committee was representative of various religions, philosophies, and nationalities, no Muslims or Islamic scholars were represented in the committee. Values of inalienable, natural rights do stem from Western Enlightenment philosophers like Immanuel Kant, John Locke, and David Hume.
I had heard all of these critiques before in my human rights courses at Hunter College in New York. However, other fellows pressed Rawas on human rights issues in Oman such as freedom of speech and women’s rights. Consequently, he made an argument that completely took me by surprise. Rawas instead of addressing human rights directly, shifted his focus to the mayhem gripped modern Middle East. He asserted that revolutions similar to those that occurred during the Arab Spring, which called for democracy, political pluralism, and state recognition and reaffirmation of human rights, are out of the question for Oman. While I disagreed with Rawas’ implication, suddenly his cultural relativist perspective made more sense to me. While what he viewed as ‘moral imperialism’ was certainly problematic and irritating, Rawas hinted that there was a much bigger threat behind the human rights agenda–chaos.
I entered the Ibrahim Program as a staunch universalist, and I will probably leave as one. However, the Advisor showed me a perception of the human rights program that I had not seen before. Oman has a fairly robust economy (albeit with dwindling revenues from oil and gas, and an undeveloped civil society) and is remarkably peaceful. Understandably, Rawas is suspicious of any political ideas that would threaten the tenuous stability that Oman has managed to cultivate and maintain despite its naughty neighbors. Rawas’ arguments about human rights echoes sentiments held by many autocracies and monarchies in the region. Human rights aren’t just ‘moral imperialism’; they’re dangerous.
As a human rights activist, I want states to change behaviors that violate human rights. Before the ILDP, I viewed cultural relativism as a logically flawed theory that justified autocratic regime’s human rights abuses. Rawas’ presentation didn’t change my mind about cultural relativism, but it certainly changed my perception.