Can there be Relativism in Human Rights?

Since the Universal Nations released the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there has been a considerable amount of backlash from the international academic community. The universalistic focus of ‘rights’ has been placed as oppositional to cultural relativism; which means the “the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual's own culture” (Boas 1887). Its critics say the UDHR was the first step towards homogeneity of culture under the guise of human rights, whilst others maintain that the atrocities committed worldwide need to be held accountable to an international forum. This is obviously a difficult ground to navigate as a volunteer abroad, where your own world view may be radically different to those where you are staying. Where does individual responsibility end, and cultural relativism begin?

It is undeniable that a hierarchy of rights exists in the international community, as Sally Merry Engle (2006) correctly points out, Female Gentile Mutation has served as the ultimate linchpin of ‘African Backwardness’ over such issues as water and education, which are equally as important to improving local life’s. She suggests this difference is caused by the cultural differences found in Africa equalling a lack of progression and modernity to westerners. Therefore the west (which heads most NGO’s and Aid agencies) is attempting to “uplift the inferior” in a form of neo-colonial racism. This debate can frame many of the issues found within the world of voluntourism: to what extent can you, as a westerner, living a life of relative comfort, help? Often, we choose to get involved in fundraising, campaigning and advocacy, without paying attention to all the cultural complexities that can be present within one issue.

Obviously, cruelty does not need to be scientifically studied and assessed to be felt by any observer. So how can a volunteer abroad reunite these issues critically? Matthew Engleke (1999) writes that we can reconcile universalism and relativism by paying attention to the innate, natural human condition of ‘knowing’ what is morally wrong. He writes, the big moralities such as torture, death, rape and abuse are never ‘just cultural’ but that they are universally found across all cultures, stemming from writings in ancient China, Greece, Egypt and so on. However, this cannot be the same for the grey areas in-between. Whilst yes, the ‘big’ evils may be clear, it is often not these actions that are championed by charities or aid agencies. What is missing in the international community, is not good intentions, but dialogue. Imposing radically different laws does not change individual mind-sets, and historically does nothing to change cultural opinions on the ground. This is clear from the current homosexuality bill in Uganda; pressure from the international human rights community has only caused a feeling of anger in local Ugandans, who understand this as an invasion of heritage and neo-colonialism and have advocated anti homosexuality rhetoric as ‘nation-saving’.

Therefore, far from the worries of many local campaigners, the UDHR and such international legal frameworks do not spell a beginning of cultural homogeneity. It can become a tool for resistance, as it is differently enacted on ground level, subject to its own relative history and context. However, before any traveller or volunteer heads to ‘safe Africa’ from its own culture, they would do well to remember the relativist/universal debate. One must always remain mindful of where our own ideologies have come from, as well as those we volunteer with/alongside, as well as staying critical of the campaigns we back and the effect they have.


Boas, F. (1887). "Museums of Ethnology and their classification" Science 9: 589.

Engle Merry, S. (2006). Fluidity of Human Rights in Practice. Anthropology News, 47(5), pp.4-4.

Engelke, M. (1999). 'We Wondered what Human Rights He Was Talking About': Human rights, homosexuality and the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. Critique of Anthropology, 19(3), pp.289-314.

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