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  • The Culturalization of Human Rights Law by Federico Lenzerini
  • Julie Fraser, Ph.D. Candidate (bio)
Federico Lenzerini, The Culturalization of Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2014), ISBN 978-0-19-966428-3, 304pages.


The apparent tension between human rights and cultural diversity is as old as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In an effort to ease this tension, Federico Lenzerini uses this book to promote the “culturalization” of human rights: a differentiated understanding of rights based on the specific needs of the people in each case. Lenzerini makes important contributions by setting out the foundations of human dignity and rights in societies around the world, and providing examples of cultural approaches to human rights law by international and regional bodies. The book is a thoroughly researched and well-argued contemporary analysis of the long-standing human rights debate on universalism and cultural relativism.

The book proceeds in five chapters, first introducing the universalism debate before turning to sources of human rights and dignity in societies around the world. Lenzerini provides detailed examples of human rights in pre-colonial societies, analyzing, inter alia, the Code of Hammurabi, the Qur’an, Confucianism, the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations, and Aztec and Incan texts. He concludes that from ancient times, ideas of human rights existed well beyond the “West.”1 Chapter Two notes that despite the development of “universal” human rights law at the international level, different parts of the world have retained their specific views on rights through regional instruments.2

Chapter Three sets out the culturally based approaches to human rights evident in international and regional law and practice. The in-depth study, including the African, European, Inter-American, and UN systems, concludes that culture today is recognized as an element to be considered in human rights adjudication.3 The fourth and final chapters articulate the advantages of a culturally based approach to human rights, as well as a methodology for identifying universal standards. The crucial issue Lenzerini addresses is not whether human rights can be interpreted and implemented in a culturally sensible manner, but to what extent.


Like others, Lenzerini submits that almost all human rights include a cultural dimension4 resulting from the fact that “culture” includes features that characterize a society or social group, including the modes of life, the value systems, and the traditions and beliefs.5 As culture can [End Page 1110] play such a critical role in shaping the content of human rights for an individual or community, Lenzerini questions the traditional view that human rights are “wholly universal.”6 He subscribes to “moderate cultural relativism,” holding that cultural variations are acceptable to the extent that they do not impact upon the “basic core of fundamental rights which are universal.”7

Lenzerini advocates the “culturalization” of rights, an interpretive process by which the content of rights is made relevant for and tailored to communities around the world. This is necessary as people’s expectations differ, and human rights standards should be flexible to allow different expectations to be met in concrete ways.8 This process sits in contrast to the strict application of rigid international human rights norms regardless of the historical, social, and cultural context of the individual/community in question. Lenzerini’s culturalization can be compared to other culturally sensitive approaches to human rights advocated by scholars including Sally Engle Merry, Eva Brems, Abdullahi An-Na’im, Tom Zwart, and Alison Renteln.9 Yvonne Donders asserts that cultural sensitivity in human rights implementation is now generally accepted.10

In support of his approach, Lenzerini cites a number of benefits, including better community acceptance of human rights, improved effectiveness, and greater state compliance. He claims that culturalization promotes the “cultural acceptance, assimilation, and legitimization of human rights.”11 As a result, human rights are not perceived as “abstract dictates” from the outside, but are “brought down to earth” and seen as a key component of the social dynamics.12 As such, people support human rights as embedded and necessary, which may in turn increase state compliance.13 While this may be the case for nation-states, the process will arguably be more complicated...


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