Culture Doesn’t Justify Human Rights Violations

By Olivia Kittel
Elm Staff Writer

The concept of cultural relativism has been and is continually used to justify the nonobservance of human rights in many countries.
Cultural relativism is the idea that human rights and values vary according to differing cultural perspectives. Therefore, according to this belief, human rights are not universal but rather, they are culturally relative.

Female genital mutilation is just one example of a cultural violation of human rights. This is the process of snipping, or entirely removing the clitoris, or in more extreme cases, completely removing all external genitalia. The motivation behind this procedure is to minimize sexual pleasure, and in turn, prevent women from engaging in pre-marital sex. This tradition occurs largely in Africa, where the UN estimates over 3 million girls are cut annually. The dangers of this practice are obvious. Oftentimes, the cutting instruments are not clean; many girls bleed to death, and suffer dangerous childbirth and other lifelong injuries. Cutting is typically done when girls are too young to rationally make their own decisions. This is defended as a cultural right of passage.

Honor killings or honor rapes are another form of a cultural violation of human rights. The UN estimates over 5,000 honor killings annually. This cultural tradition entails the violent murder or rape of a girl as the consequence of “immoral behavior.” Such immoral behavior could encompass anything from staying out too late, to falling in love and as a result, girls are accused of engaging in premarital sex. Paradoxically, this occurs in societies with extremely strict moral codes, such as abstinence.  Oftentimes girls who are murdered for their immoral behavior are later found to be innocent through the autopsy revealing an intact hymen. Honor killings and rapes are defended as a part of many nations’ cultures. Both the Bible and the Koran encourage the murder of women who lose their virginity before marriage.

There are countless other forms of cultural human rights violations that are less extreme, but still violations nonetheless. Domestic abuse and the oppression of women are just two examples.

These violations are allowed to continue for many reasons. One reason is the attitudes that are embedded in these cultures. Many citizens of these countries believe that women deserve to be beaten if they disobey their husbands, and that female genital mutilation is a legitimate way of ensuring abstinence. Many truly believe that women deserve the repression they face from men because it is their culture.

Human rights must be universal rather than relative. There must be a legal standard for the minimum protection of human dignity. However, making human rights universal does not necessarily mean that there must be a universal culture. It is crucial that cultural relativism and cultural traditions are not interpreted to justify any violation of human rights. Allowing cultural relativism to govern a state legitimizes these violations by oppressive governments.

Because culture is constantly changing and evolving, the interpretations of cultural traditions should evolve as well. For example, although the Koran encourages the freedom of slaves, Islamic law accepted slavery for many years and today, the Islamic world has abandoned slavery. So, if the Koran can be read differently according to changing attitudes towards slavery, why shouldn’t it be read differently according to changing attitudes towards women, or anything else? As society evolves, so does culture and thus, some aspects of cultures are naturally changed or rejected. Society has evolved to protect human dignity and therefore cultures must evolve to protect it as well.

Finally, the question of coercion is key in determining if an aspect of a culture is violating human rights. Coercion inevitably leads to the violation of human rights. Any citizen should have the freedom to choose to participate in or to reject his or her traditional culture.

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