Human Rights and the Social Context

0 views
Skip to first unread message

Zhenqin Li

unread,
Jun 18, 1993, 6:05:36 PM6/18/93
to
Human Rights and The Social Context


Zhenqin Li
June 18, 1993

Forty five years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It states that all people are born
free and are equal in dignity and rights. Though the document lacks legal
authority, it serves as an aspiration for people all over the world in their
continuing struggles for justice and expanded freedoms. Now, the United
Nations World Conference on Human Rights is taking place in Vienna. It
reflects not only the progress made in the past years, but also the urgency
of human rights issues facing the world today.

A recurring theme of considerable controversy at the U. N. conference
centers on the question: to what extent the human rights are unequivocally
universal, and to what extent these rights are defined in terms of social
and cultural contexts? This is not only a fundamental question, but also
one of practical consequences, as to how should one confronts the
persisting human rights conflicts around the world.

The core of the question is not about the universality of the human rights
principles, as expounded in the Universal Declaration, which few would
argue against. But rather, the question is whether there exist legitimate
differences in the implementation of human rights principles among
different societies and cultures. I think the answer is obvious, if we accept
the fact that there exist legitimate limits imposed by a society as to what
extent an individual can exercise his or her human rights without
endangering those rights of others. These legitimate limits of human rights
may differ from one society to another.

It may sound surprising or politically incorrect to say that human rights
have limits, even in democratic countries. However, a person may be
denied freedom of speech in a democracy if it can be shown that his or her
speech might lead to the overthrow of the government. A person may not
use civil rights to justify actions that might seriously harm the health,
welfare, safety, or morals of others. In 1919, U. S. Supreme Court Justice O.
W. Holmes, Jr., wrote: "The most stringent protection of free speech would
not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."

The specific limits of human rights in a given society vary with the times.
Changing social and economic conditions also cause changes in the
importance that people give to certain rights. In the late 1800's, most
Americans valued the property rights more than personal freedoms. But
since the late 1930's, Americans have shown greater concern for personal
freedoms and equality in opportunity.

Given the different social and economic conditions of different societies, it
is not surprising that the specific limits of human rights in one country
may be different from those of another. Thus, while people in the U. S.
have the rights to possess firearms, such rights are denied in Japan and
many other countries. The rights to abortion, homosexual marriage, etc.,
are also limited in many nations, to varying degrees.

The argument that there exist social and cultural differences in the
enforcement of human rights, may indeed be used by authoritarian rulers
as an excuse to shield criticism of human rights abuses. However, this
should not become the reason for us to ignore or deny such differences. On
the contrary, acknowledging such differences could help us in
differentiating between two cases of human rights restrictions: (1) the
arbitrary repression of human rights of the masses by authoritarian
regimes, and (2) the limits of human rights established by centuries-old
social and cultural traditions which have been taken for granted by the
populace. Such a distinction is important, because the former calls for
universal condemnation and often actions from the whole world, whereas
the latter might require a long, involved process for the evolution of social
institutions toward better protection of human rights.

The principles of human rights are mainly Western in origin. The concept
of having democratic institutions which limit government powers and
guarantee such rights, remain an alien idea in much of the Third World.
We have every reason to believe that these principles and institutions are
of great and general appeal to the non-Western peoples. However, this
does not mean that every democratic institution in the West should be
imposed on the other countries. If we believe that the non-Western
peoples have the same dignity and rights as the peoples in the Western
countries, then it follows that the non-Western peoples do have their
rights to choose their own models of development which are deemed to
best serve the human rights advances in their own societies. What the
peoples in the Western countries can do, is to oppose any arbitrary
repression of human rights by authoritarian rulers, and to help facilitate
intercultural communications so that peoples in the non-Western world are
able to rationally re-examine their social traditions and improve their
social institutions in an open and consensual process.

Michael Gold

unread,
Jun 20, 1993, 6:28:55 PM6/20/93
to
In article <930618220...@iris116.biosym.com>, z...@biosym.com (Zhenqin

Li) wrote:
>
> Human Rights and The Social Context
[stuff deleted

> The core of the question is not about the universality of the human
> rights principles, as expounded in the Universal Declaration, which few
> would argue against. But rather, the question is whether there exist
> legitimate differences in the implementation of human rights principles
> among different societies and cultures.

Agreed.

> I think the answer is obvious,

I respectfully do not agree.

> if we accept
> the fact that there exist legitimate limits imposed by a society as to
> what extent an individual can exercise his or her human rights without
> endangering those rights of others. These legitimate limits of human
> rights may differ from one society to another.

Are you saying that when an individual endangers the rights of others, we
are now free to violate human rights principles?



> It may sound surprising or politically incorrect to say that human rights
> have limits, even in democratic countries. However, a person may be
>denied freedom of speech in a democracy if it can be shown that his or her
> speech might lead to the overthrow of the government. A person may not
> use civil rights to justify actions that might seriously harm the health,
> welfare, safety, or morals of others. In 1919, U. S. Supreme Court
> Justice O. W. Holmes, Jr., wrote: "The most stringent protection of free > speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and > causing a panic."

Just as an individual does not have the license to abuse free speech, that
person's government has no license to sacrifice the principles of human
rights in retaliation, or in order to deter others, or under the
transparent guise of "rehabilitation". Political correctness has nothing
to do with it--except it is used in some developing countries to justify
torture and slavery. Human rights hardliners are not the same as civil
rights hardliners who sometimes defend irresponsible behavior



> The specific limits of human rights in a given society vary with the times.
> Changing social and economic conditions also cause changes in the
> importance that people give to certain rights. In the late 1800's, most
> Americans valued the property rights more than personal freedoms. But
> since the late 1930's, Americans have shown greater concern for personal
> freedoms and equality in opportunity.
>
> Given the different social and economic conditions of different societies, it
> is not surprising that the specific limits of human rights in one country
> may be different from those of another. Thus, while people in the U. S.
> have the rights to possess firearms, such rights are denied in Japan and
> many other countries.

The right to own firearms has not been established as a human right, to my
knowledge. Again, it is essential to distinguish between civil rights and
human rights.

> The rights to abortion, homosexual marriage, etc.,
> are also limited in many nations, to varying degrees.

What is, is not neccessarily what is just.


> The argument that there exist social and cultural differences in the
> enforcement of human rights, may indeed be used by authoritarian rulers
> as an excuse to shield criticism of human rights abuses. However, this
> should not become the reason for us to ignore or deny such differences.
> On
> the contrary, acknowledging such differences could help us in
> differentiating between two cases of human rights restrictions: (1) the
> arbitrary repression of human rights of the masses by authoritarian
> regimes, and (2) the limits of human rights established by centuries-old
> social and cultural traditions which have been taken for granted by the
> populace. Such a distinction is important, because the former calls for
> universal condemnation and often actions from the whole world, whereas
> the latter might require a long, involved process for the evolution of social
> institutions toward better protection of human rights.

I agree with the above. And it goes both ways: developing countries also
must engage the west in a dialog about our own human rights violations,
which are many.



> The principles of human rights are mainly Western in origin. The concept
> of having democratic institutions which limit government powers and
> guarantee such rights, remain an alien idea in much of the Third World.

I most vehemently disagree. In fact, the concept of a powerful,
centralized government that rules without respect for human rights is
_very_ western. In many cases, developing countries merely copied the
behavior of the western colonial powers. If the typical citizen of, for
example, China, Burma, or Indonesia states that they agree with you, how
could you possibly believe them? They know that if they spoke their true
feelings, torture may be visited upon them or someone in their family!



> We have every reason to believe that these principles and institutions are
> of great and general appeal to the non-Western peoples. However, this
> does not mean that every democratic institution in the West should be
> imposed on the other countries. If we believe that the non-Western
> peoples have the same dignity and rights as the peoples in the Western
> countries, then it follows that the non-Western peoples do have their
> rights to choose their own models of development which are deemed to
> best serve the human rights advances in their own societies.

How do you propose to allow those peoples to choose their own models when
they have no ability to choose? I agree, the west must not impose _every_
democratic institution on others. But human rights is not the same thing.
It is the minimum standard needed for the west to consider development aid,
IMO. Developing countries may have a right to development, but they cannot
demand that I assist. A bad human rights record leads to political
instability in a country, which is then a poor investment .

> What the
> peoples in the Western countries can do, is to oppose any arbitrary
> repression of human rights by authoritarian rulers,

I am in total agreement on this. I advocate zero tolerance for human
rights abuses.

> and to help facilitate
> intercultural communications so that peoples in the non-Western world are
> able to rationally re-examine their social traditions and improve their
> social institutions in an open and consensual process.

This is sometimes appropriate, and sometimes not. I do not generally
consider it my responsibility to engage slavers and torturers in
constructive dialog. However, when it is a neccessary and politically
useful way of promoting human rights, then sure, facilitating intercultural
communications is fine. See my subsequent posting about the proposed
Beijing Olympics.

-MG
These opinions are my own, and not SRIs, nor any other organization I
belong to.

Barrett L McCormick

unread,
Jun 20, 1993, 8:15:27 PM6/20/93
to
z...@biosym.com (Zhenqin Li) writes:

>The core of the question is not about the universality of the human rights
>principles, as expounded in the Universal Declaration, which few would
>argue against. But rather, the question is whether there exist legitimate
>differences in the implementation of human rights principles among
>different societies and cultures. I think the answer is obvious, if we accept
>the fact that there exist legitimate limits imposed by a society as to what
>extent an individual can exercise his or her human rights without
>endangering those rights of others. These legitimate limits of human rights
>may differ from one society to another.

We might agree with the above - different societies will have different
customs and different laws - and yet still find some governments' practices
so utterly repugnant that we should choose not to remain passive observers.
The obvious cases are Hitler's attempt to exterminate all Jews, or the
denial of racial equality in South Africa. The current situation in some
other countries, such as Haiti, China, and Burma, to select three of many
possible choices could also fall within the range of intolerable situations.

In China in particular, the government routinely violates its own laws, against,for example torture. To argue that Chinese people think it is acceptable for
the government to arbitrarily detain people, to narrowly circumscribe the
range of opinions that can be published, or to deny people the right to protest
officials' corrupt use of their office is not only a slander but is contrary
to most of the evidence.

Cultural relativism is not an adequate apology for gross violations of
fundamental human rights.

Barrett McCormick
blm...@huxley.anu.edu.au

Zhenqin Li

unread,
Jun 20, 1993, 11:26:00 PM6/20/93
to
I am afraid that you are barking at a wrong tree. Did anybody here argue

that "Chinese people think it is acceptable for the government to
arbitrarily detain people, to narrowly circumscribe the range of
opinions that can be published, or to deny people the right to protest
officials' corrupt use of their office". I assumed that anybody here with
conscience and intelligence would not only condemn the human rights abuses
of the Chinese government, but also would be open-minded about new alternatives.
I see no cultural relativism here, but I do see somebody pretend to have
The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth.

Zhenqin Li
z...@biosym.com

<Barrett McCormick
<blm...@huxley.anu.edu.au


Zhenqin Li

unread,
Jun 20, 1993, 11:31:26 PM6/20/93
to
I might be mistaken. I see no cultural relativism here, but I do see
Reply all
Reply to author
Forward
0 new messages