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Power Dynamics in the Human Rights Movements - Universalism or Relativism Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by , Canada Aug 28, 2007
Cultural Diversity , Culture , Human Rights   Opinions
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In a world where identity has become a political tool for public mobilization, it takes great facilitation skills to navigate across the universalism and cultural relativism debate without hurting anybody's feelings. Ideas of global citizenship and international solidarity have been introduced to Western popular culture by musicians, politicians and opinion leaders alike, and in the mist of the dream for peace and social justice, one can easily be diverted into the troubled waters of cultural imperialism or post-modernist free-for-all. In this paper, I will focus on how such a debate relates to the idea of international human rights, which is in itself very contentious. Starting by examining terminology issues, false assumptions of the debate and how problematic it is to adopt either extreme point of view, I will then expose the themes of legitimacy and enforcement of ''universal human rights'', cultural imperialism and resistance to universalism, as well as issues of interpretation and power gradients of the universal human rights paradigm. I will also link the debate to some of my recent experiences and expose how my opinion changed when I became more exposed to the debate. I am conscious to be ignoring a range of issues, especially those of secularism and spirituality, which unfortunately go beyond the scope of this paper.

First of all, there are terminology issues underlying the debate that are worth looking at more closely before going any further. The authors who mention the French Revolution and the Enlightenment as the focal point of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) do not define ''equality'' in a satisfactory manner (Coomaraswamy, 2001) (Gatens, 2004). Whereas ''gender equality'' has sometimes been intepreted as the idea that women should become more like men, generating common stereotypes of feminists as women with shaved heads and hairy legs, I would argue that even the term ''mankind'' implies that women are inferior to men. However, although a strict dichotomy between men and women does not exist in certain cultures – for example, the Nepali who see the flesh as female and the bones as male (NEW368, Lec. 03) - it remains dangerous to deny such differences because it has been proved that men and women do have different fundamental characteristics. To further complicate the matter, not all females identify with the label ''women'' as it is primarily understood, and different cultures do not associate the same understanding with the concept of womanhood; it is thus impossible to use only one category to describe all women.

The word ''rights'' is another polemic term, and the relation between rights, their enforcement and their associated responsibilities is blurred. As phrased in the context of the universalism versus cultural relativism (CR) debate, ''it is this dynamic relation between an abstract right and its implementation in a particular context that presents a challenge to those who conceive of the relation between human rights and particular norms as a 'clash' or 'contradiction''' (Gatens, 2004 ). I think a right per se is a policy rather than a law; the positive side of that is it is possible to adapt laws to the local context. However, the right is then subject to more interpretation, which can be, in many cases, detrimental to women. Moreover, from my experience, the coloquialisation of the term ''right'' engenders certain rhetorical clashes which I find easier to position towards after reading the articles. For example, in discussion arising in the context of meetings for an Anti-Oppression Committee, I realized that a number of white men, without necessarily feeling historically entitled to their privilege, were complaining about being discriminated against because of hiring procedures in the public sector aiming at attaining a gender balance; they were clinging at the human rights (HR) framework to bulkward against their loss of privilege, which indicates a different notion of the term ''right'' depending on one's position in the social hierarchy.

Moreover, I believe there are some false underlying assumptions in the universalism versus CR debate. First, feminism and cultural relativism are seen as antagonists (Coomaraswamy, 2001). I disagree with this idea because there are so many types of feminists; the movement has a complex history filled with internal contradictions and proponents adhere to certain parts while criticizing other. Also, being a feminist is only one part of somebody's identity, and someone may have a more radical, liberal or global approach for advocating gender equality. HR are a mainstream tool of analysis and are not necessarily the basis of argumentation for all feminists. Second, one can not separate women's rights from human rights, because women are humans, but also because ''women'' are not isolated, as we saw in class (NEW368, Lec. 09) in Sembene Ousmane's movie Moolade, the structures oppressing them are part of a greater system of social interactions. One ought to keep the intersectionality of such transient but significant ''identities' as' race, class, gender, religion, ethnicity, in looking at which women are in fact denied otherwise ''universal'' HR and why.

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Je suis étudiante en économie du développement au Canada, présentement volontaire en prise en charge socioéconomique des personnes vivant avec le VIH SIDA au Burkina Faso. Je m'intéresse particulièment aux mouvements sociaux et aux questions d'équité et d'oppression.
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