Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ‘too white’? The Cultural Relativism argument and its merits.

In 1948, when the 48 Member States of the then-UNGA voted to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR[1] [2]”), little did they know that, despite living in the aftermath of the collective and horrific WWII experience, they were far from actually having human rights realized, as with time new arguments against the iconic UDHR surfaced. Out of which, the most famous is that the UDHR is ‘too white’ or does not cater to ‘non-white people’. This is known as ‘Cultural Relativism’ (“CR”).
The CR argument at the onset does not stand its ground. This is because out of those 48 adopting states[3], 32 were ‘non-white’ (if we include the South Americas) or 13 were ‘non-white’ (if we do not include them), with Afghanistan, Iran and China etc. as the adopting states as well. Even in the UDHR’s drafting, the representatives from the ‘non-white’ states such as C. Malik from Lebanon, P.C. Chang from China[4] and H. Mehta from India[5] etc. were actively involved.
So then, why is CR still argued today on grounds of culture, faith and economics? And is there any merit to such arguments? Let’s take it step-by-step.


CR and the culture:
The most hard-core proponents of this argument are the non-Indian Eastern Countries (such as Japan and Malaysia etc.). They state that the UDHR principles are structured on ‘individualism’ and do not cater to the importance of community and communal sacrifice for the greater good. That the whole eastern history is embedded with sacrifices for the greater good and too much focus on individualism, such as labor rights with proper wages and good working conditions, or even gender equality, do not serve the communal good of ‘to each their own task’. That while we all must strive for improved living standards, too much focus on individual rights may distort the greater balance which is at play.

CR and the faith:
This argument is most commonly relied upon by the Muslim-majority states (such as Saudi Arabia or UAE etc.). They say that since the UDHR is based on a purely-western experience (the WWII), it does not take into account that the divine law places certain restriction on our way of life, the classic example of which will be the ‘right to sexual freedom’ and the sinful concepts of sodomy and homosexuality that exist in religious texts, or even the ‘right to free expression’ and ‘blasphemy’.

CR and the economics:
And lastly, the African states majorly argue that the complete realization of human rights is dependent upon adequate monetary resources, such as the ‘right to education’ which, even if accepted in its entirety as based on the innate capability of humans[6], still requires schools, books, qualified teachers and much more. Same goes for the ‘right to health’, ‘food’ and ‘shelter’. They say that unless all the states in the world have the same resources, states that fall below the poverty line cannot be held accountable for the way they chose to spend their limited resources, which are either stolen by corrupt politicians/military generals or spent to maintain peace.

Universalism’s (the opposite of CR) response to economics and faith is very straight-forward:
1.    When the UDHR was realized into legally-binding instruments, the choice to make two treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 (“ICCPR”) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966 (“ICESCR”) was intentional and not arbitrary, so that the negative rights (those which do not require any effort on part of the states, but mere restraint) such as ‘right to life’, and ‘right against torture’ were made legally-binding but the positive rights (which do require effort and resources) such as ‘right to education’, ‘health’ and ‘food’ were made subject to ‘progressive realization’, so that no illegality is committed unless there is gross negligence[7].
2.    With regards to faith, J. Donnelly[8] adequately solves it by saying that human rights have three-tiers: the Substance (which remains the same), the Interpretation (such as the ‘right to free expression’ could be interpreted as freedom subject to religious sentiments) and the Form (the laws to regulate it). He calls it Universalism, disguised as weak CR.

As for the ‘culture’ argument, the answer revolves around the metaphor ‘what goes around, comes around’, or circular reasoning. If you had so many problems with the way the UDHR has materialized, why didn’t you say anything at the time of its drafting? And then why did you sign it? Nevertheless, all the treaty instruments have a ‘reservation’ option should a state chose to consider itself not bound by certain provisions.
From the arguments mentioned above, it seems clear that the CR argument, after all, has no merit at all.


[1] For the purpose of this article, any reference to the UDHR may be construed to be a reference to all the other similar global and regional human rights instruments, such as the ICCPR and ICESCR.
[2] GA Resolution 217 (III) A, “International Bill of Human Rights” (1948), A/RES/217(III). UNDOCS.
[3] Chapter 5 “Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Questions”, Part I, Yearbook of the United Nations 1948–1949, p. 535
[4] Drafting Committee – Members, accessed at: http://research.un.org/en/undhr/draftingcommittee
[5] D. Jain, “Women, Development and the UN” (2005), Indiana University Press, p. 20
[6] For details, read the works of A. Senn and M. Nussbaum on the ‘capabilities approach’ theory, such as A. Senn, “Development as freedom” 2001, Oxford University Press and M. Nussbaum, “Creating capabilities: the human development approach” (2013), Harvard University Press.
[7] For detailed analysis, see R. Higgins, “Problems and Process: International law and how we use it” (1995), Oxford University Press, p. 95, and its critique.
[8] J. Donnelly, “Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights” (1984), Human Rights Quarterly Vol. 6(4)

The writer, Sana, is a lawyer and legal academic based in Lahore, with a keen interest in Jurisprudence and Islamic Law. Previously, she has studied the University of London's International LLB Honours degree at University College Lahore, securing First Class Honours. 

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