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  • Cultural Relativism Revisited: Through a State Prism *
  • Adamantia Pollis (bio)

In 1979 and 1982, Peter Schwab and I coedited two volumes on human rights which challenged the prevailing view as to the universality of the Western liberal concept of individual human rights. 1 A debate ensued between advocates of cultural relativism and those of universalism. Within each paradigm, there are variations with regard to the roots of rights, the priority of specific rights, and their very substance. 2 However, these are not of critical importance for my purpose. More than a decade has passed since the “cultural relativist” argument was first put forth, and it behooves one to evaluate its continuing theoretical and empirical validity.

The passage of time has not diminished the salience of the early claim that in many societies—Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe (including Russia), and the Middle East—the liberal doctrine of human rights does not speak to the people’s world view. The ontological foundations of their cultures and society, often reinforced by the political regime on matters such as the nature of man/woman, her/his identity, and the person’s relatedness to others and to society, differ in significant ways. Belief systems, values, and basic concepts, frequently articulated in nontranslatable words (hence the concepts are nontransferable), 3 were and remain markedly different from those in the West. [End Page 316]

Despite the initial clamor against those challenging the liberal doctrine of the universality of individual human rights, increasing awareness has emerged slowly among scholars as to the prevalence of significant cultural variations in notions of rights. This recognition, however, frequently has been muted and implicit. It was argued early on that even if concepts of individual human rights were not universal, with modernization, less developed societies would assimilate notions of individual rights and behavior would change accordingly. This argument collapsed for two reasons. First, and most importantly, the success of modernization and development in states such as Japan, 4 Singapore, 5 Taiwan, and South Korea 6 has not been accompanied by the assimilation and incorporation of notions of individualism, individual freedoms, and equal rights. Second, despite the optimism of modernization theorists of the 1950s and 1960s, development has not materialized in Africa and in regions of Asia. The deterministic assumptions of modernization and democratization, inclusive of individual rights, have been refuted empirically.

A related argument has been the trade-off theory. This theory contends that the priority of economic development mandates political stability and thereby justifies violations of individual rights. 7 Once development has been attained, individual human rights will flourish. Again, this has not occurred in the successful newly industrialized countries (NICs) where human rights abuses persist. Furthermore, the collapse of communism and the alacrity with which “democratization,” 8 privatization, and a market economy have [End Page 317] been adopted in some states (such as Poland, Hungary, and even Albania) have not been accompanied by the internalization of concepts of individual rights. 9 Similar problems face the so-called transitions to “democracy” in several Latin American countries. 10 Although the formal institutions of democracy have been adopted, the fundamental principles of individual freedom and rights are lacking; press freedom and dissent are restricted in some, but not all states; the judiciary is not independent; and security apparatuses either remain intact or have been renamed. Surveillance and repression persist. 11 Finally, moves towards a market economy in countries such as China have not been accompanied by any improvement in their human rights records.

Economic transformations and the alleged transitions to democracy have brought about massive societal and political changes, but violations of provisions of the “international bill of human rights” continue unabated. As will be discussed below, fundamentally different conceptions of rights (if any) remain, at least in part, contingent on a society’s deeply imbedded cultural configuration. As a consequence, many political regimes, including those which have “democratized,” are lacking the constraints in the exercise of power and authority operative in a polity underpinned by the principles and concepts of individual rights. 12 A repressive reaction is typical, particularly when the “new” political elites perceive themselves as challenged by demands for further political and socioeconomic reforms.

Consideration of the relative merits of...

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pp. 316-344
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