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Human Rights Quarterly 24.1 (2002) 237-263

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Does Cultural Diversity Affect Countries' Respect for Human Rights?

Scott Walker & Steven C. Poe


I. Introduction

In the post-World War II era, international human rights standards have evolved, establishing in law a set of basic rights designed to guarantee an acceptable level of personal dignity for all people. A long list of human rights is presented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1 and later covenants and conventions. Increasingly, the degree to which these human rights are realized is considered an important standard of a regime's performance.

In this paper we will examine the relationship between cultural diversity (which we also will call ethnic heterogeneity or fractionalization) [End Page 237] and the respect for several human rights outlined in these documents. 2 The rights we will examine empirically include the right to physical (or personal) integrity, the right to subsistence, and political and civil rights including the right to equal treatment regardless of gender.

Toward this end, we will first argue that internationally recognized human rights are increasingly being used as standards to measure the performance of regimes and we will discuss the "core" human rights we will deal with here. Second, we will review the long history of theoretical discussions that tie diversity to effective governance. Third, drawing upon these theoretical treatments we will pose alternative hypotheses regarding the possible linkages. Finally we will conduct some simple, bivariate analyses designed to ascertain whether a multicultural society is conducive or detrimental to the human rights performance of regimes. In a concluding section we will summarize our findings and discuss our ideas for future research on the linkage between cultural diversity and human rights.

II. Human Rights as a Measure of Regime Performance

As a reaction to the Nazi holocaust and other horrors of World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 3 set human rights standards that were intended to outline the conditions necessary to guarantee dignity to all humans. Several subsequent developments indicate that in a comparatively short time, human rights have become a measuring stick on which the performance and legitimacy of regimes are increasingly being judged. These include:

  • The development and operation of numerous treaties and covenants dealing with human rights. 4 [End Page 238]
  • The initiation and ongoing activities of regional human rights organizations. 5
  • Successes of organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Peace Brigades International, among others, in publicizing human rights violations, and in some cases, their effective efforts to pressure governments to cease or slow their abuses. 6
  • Recent war crimes tribunals and the move toward establishment of the permanent International Criminal Court.
  • The evolving efforts by governments such as the United States, Canada, and Norway to take countries' human rights records into account in making some of their foreign policies.
  • Increasing attention paid to human rights in the popular press and academic publications.

Choosing which human rights to examine is our first challenge. The phrase "human rights" assert that all persons, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, culture, or society should be provided certain entitlements, simply as a result of these persons' humanity. 7

Because the human rights stated in international law are extremely wide-ranging, empirically examining a comprehensive set of human rights would be quite difficult. However, as a point of departure we can [End Page 239] investigate a core group of these rights. In this paper we choose to investigate the performance of governments on a relatively uncontroversial set of human rights standards drawn from the Universal Declaration and closely related to those that Shue 8 concludes are "basic" human rights: the right to physical security, the right to subsistence, and political and civil liberties.

III. The Multicultural Debate

A. Theoretical Treatments

Arguments regarding the viability and the political performance of multicultural states have been taking place for well over a century, and probably longer. Indeed, some analysts have concluded that such multicultural states are predestined to find that it is either extremely difficult or impossible to achieve and...


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