By Bonny Ibhawoh,
I am teaching an undergraduate course on “Human Rights” this term and last week the topic was “Universalism vs. Cultural Relativism.” As always, it was interesting to get the students’ perspective on a debate that has long dominated human rights scholarship.
I began with a survey of the class of about 60 students. “How many of you here think human rights are universal?” Only 6 hands went up. “How many think that human rights are culturally relative?” 40 hands went up? “How many cannot make up their minds about this?” About 10 hands went up. Verdict: Most of my students think that human rights, despite the claim to universality, are in fact not universal. It’s a conclusion that proponents of human rights will find rather disheartening
But then, I tweaked the question a bit. “How many of you think human rights OUGHT to be universal?” 42 hands went up. “How may think human rights ought not to be universal?” Only 6 hands went up? Verdict: Although these students thought that the contemporary international human rights regime/movement is far from being universal, they nevertheless saw in it the promise and ideal of universalism. This offers some consolation. But whether this Universalist utopia can ever really be attained was the subject of another debate.
After the class, one of the students sent me the cartoon above. For him, it captured humorously but quite eloquently, the unending debate over the universality and cultural relativism of human rights.