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Universal and Indivisible?

There continue to be arguments over the universal and indivisible nature of the human rights in the UDHR. Governments argue that the human rights should not be regarded as indivisible. The United States has yet to ratify the ICESCR, illustrating its lack of support for economic and social rights, while groups of nations in Asia and Africa argue that civil and political rights should be secondary to the more urgent human needs recognized through economic, social, and cultural rights (Ghai, 2001). China states that while it is vilified for not granting civil and political rights, it does, however, meet economic, social, and cultural rights, which the United States does not. It argues that it is more important to meet the basic human needs for life than the more abstract political rights (Human Rights Watch, 1996).

Different countries have argued that the rights are not universal, and they should not be mandated to abide by that which is not appropriate in their culture. They state that human rights are not “one size fits all” but vary according to culture. This is known as cultural relativism. Some Asian countries argue that the document reflects a Western approach to rights, with a greater emphasis on the individual than on the society. They state that the community should be more important than the individual and prefer a strong government and deference to authority (Muntarbhorn, 2005). Freedom of speech may be viewed as a threat to a harmonious society, a key value in Asian culture (Reichert, 2003).

Social workers may find themselves in a bind trying to recognize both the right to one’s culture as well as one’s human rights. George (1999) argues that human rights cannot be both universal and culturally relevant and states that social workers have put themselves in a dilemma by arguing for both human rights and the right to one’s own culture. For example, in some cultures women are treated as subordinate to men, yet the UDHR states that treating any person as less than another due to a characteristic is prohibited. How can the traditional order of a society and the UDHR both be respected?

The United Nations has stated that these two ideals are not in opposition. The human rights declared in its conventions, covenants, and declarations are a minimum standard, and each culture can choose the most appropriate manner in which to realize those rights. Ife and Fiske (2006, p. 302) state that “universality does not mean 'sameness,’ rather it is a principle that emphasizes the essential worth of every human being without the need to reach a certain status or fit a certain model of desirable citizen.” However, cultural variations may not be used in order to deny rights. While the right to one’s culture is protected within human rights, that right is limited in that it may not infringe on another protected human right (Ayton-Shenker, 1995). Thus, each culture and the ordering of society within it must be respected, but only to the extent that the traditional order of a society does not impinge on the human rights of another.

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