Human Rights and International Law

by Seth Weinberger

Today’s New York Times has an interesting piece on the promotion of human/women’s rights in Africa and the tension between such rights and local custom. This is an excellent illustration of the central problem with international law (at least from a political science perspective). As I have discussed in several other posts here, the critical tension is between sovereign equality of states and the creation of strong, enforceable law. As the Times article makes clear, international legal standards, especially in an area like human rights, often runs counter to local practice, tradition, and custom in the developing worlds. For example, the rights of women to hold property or the practice of female genital cutting (both mentioned in the article) seem to be clear violations of internationally accepted norms.

In order for international law to be successful, it will have to challenge and likely make illegal many such practices. This is a problem for those believers in cultural relativism, or opponents of western “cultural imperialism.” In my experience, many supporters of broadening the breadth and scope of international law into domestic jursidictions like women’s rights are hesitant to acknowledge that doing so requires judging other cultures and declaring their traditions barbaric and illegal. This problem is compounded when international law seems to coincide with western standards for human rights or the treatment of women.

So, I’ll pose a question to all of you international lawyers out there: How can this problem be resolved? And this is not a rhetorical question. If law is to flourish, it must make judgments about right and wrong. On the other hand, if we are to protect the diversity of other cultures and prevent or slow the spread of western values, then the international community must promote sovereignty instead of law. Are you willing to promote the law at the expense of cultural diversity? Personally, I would be, although I can see few international mechanisms by which such decisions could be made. How can the international community agree on standards that violate the sovereign right of nations and peoples to govern themselves?

4 Responses

  1. I disagree with you. I think cultural diversity can be maintained through outlawing certain, clearly barbaric, traditions. All cultures have to develop and evolve. Many traditions and practices that took place in Western societies are now outlawed and many other practices that were once outlawed are now being permitted (gay marriages being a recent example that is taking over the western world).

    It is a bit forceful to push these societies into the new millenium by telling them female genital cutting is no longer legal, but it is necessary in order to integrate these societies into the rest of the world. It is, I agree, a very delicate process, but these cultures will find their roots in the developed and modern culture they are pushed into (and that distinction should be encouraged).

    A final comment is that, by permitting countries and societies around the world to practice their own traditions, however inhumane, we open the door for many evils: rapists, child molestors etc from western countries could move to countries where culture permits it and have their fill of their otherwise highly illegal and criminal behaviour.

  2. RL:

    I don’t disagree that societies can transform themselves, and old barbaric customs can give way to more modern “enlightened” practices. I’m just skeptical of the ability of the international community to foster such a move.

  3. I would think that the progress of globalization will be the most powerful driver of change. Given that most of the world has no stake in the pooerest places in the world right now – and, therefore has little to do with them – it’s not surprising that nothing is done.

    I suspect that once factories open up and the West gets more involved with these countries, their increased proximity to many of these “customs” will be the driving force of change.

  4. I don’t know why it’s our job or burden to “protect the diversity of other cultures and prevent or slow the spread of western values.” I’m all for the best Western values diffusing world-wide with alacrity and I have no problem holding such values up as “superior” to many practices now off-limits to criticism under the ersatz protective banner of cultural diversity.

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