Culture, Conflict Resolution, and Human Rights

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Disclaimer: These opinions are all my own and do not reflect Amnesty International as an organization.

By: Megan Salmon

Confession: I have always been passionate about human rights, I work closely with Amnesty International, and I want my future career to be in human rights. Thus, I enter this conversation acknowledging that I have some preconceived biases and that I have a high stake in this conversation. It is for this reason that I write this blog as I am of the opinion that those of us that want to work in international human rights must carefully consider what they are really doing and its implications, and in some cases, rethinking the entire field. This is going to be difficult for me. Let’s begin.

In today’s class with Kevin Avruch about culture in relation to conflict resolution, we had an in-depth conversation about what exactly culture is and what that means to us as peacebuilders. Of course, when we discuss culture (especially indigenous/native cultures), there are always very distinct arguments coming from both the cultural universalist and the cultural relativist sides. The universalist argues “in the end, we’re all humans with the same rights. There exist oppressive flaws in some cultures that infringe on these human rights which we must work to change.” On the other hand, the relativist argues “who are we to govern culture? Every culture is human and valid, so human rights do not exist in a singular form. We must understand and allow cultures that differ from our own.”

I take issue with each of these positions. As someone who aims for a career in human rights, I have often heard the rhetoric of the universalist, and up until I took a Middlebury course of international humanitarianism (shout out to Professor Stroup), I bought into it. I am no longer so sure and the short time we devoted to this topic in class today did not seem to do it justice. It is for this reason that I have taken the challenge upon myself to further reflect on human rights and culture and the implications of leaning toward either viewpoint.

First and foremost, the universalist argument is just as idealistic as it is Western-centric. There is no concealing this. It is naive to convince oneself that the human race is so similar in its conceptions of reality that human rights will function in the same manner in each society. The world is so vast and the human experience differs in every person that experiences it. How can we argue that there are basic ideals that can and will persist in the same manner in every corner of the world? Further, it is privileged thinkers in the West who have the agency and resources to discuss, research, and consider the field of human rights so what we generally accept as basic human rights must be examined through this lens. Human rights are shaped by their holders, so it is nearly impossible to define a set of “basic” human rights that everyone views as essential.

On the other hand, the relativist argument is just as retroactive as it is ignorant. In the field of human rights, it is safe to say that although there is a lot of work to be done, we have come far with making the world a more equal place. If we simply validate every culture no matter what it is, what do we make of the progress we have made with female genital mutilation in Africa, Asia and the Middle East? Its logic reverses the progress that we have made for international egalitarianism. Further, it ignores the very fact that oppression, degradation, torture, enslavement, murder, etc. etc. are all morally wrong in a sort of transcendental way that all humans and cultures innately understand in some form or another. While the infanticide exists in some Indian cultures, those individual cultures still recognize that murder is wrong. They simply do not see infanticide as murder. Arguing that this part of the culture is still valid is ignorant to the fact that murder is simply morally wrong on a transcendental basis.

So are peacebuilders and human rights advocates, where are we to lean? Both seem like bleak options. I hope to explore this topic further as we dive deeper into the program, and I look forward to writing another blog with a more exhaustive perspective on this topic. However, at the moment, these are my thoughts and I leave you with them:

As peacebuilders, human rights activists, and general international do-gooders, we must always address our biases first before deciding whether a practice in a culture should be altered. We must ask ourselves, for example, if we view hijabs as oppressive because we fear them, or because we are questioning the patriarchy that created them. Further, we must analyze whether they are still being used for oppression, or if they have become a reclamation of identity and rebellion for the community, much like the term “queer” for the LGBTQ+ community. This is just one case with many nuances and implications, but it demonstrates that even a single aspect of culture can do multiple things for the field of human rights. In summation, through reflection, objectivity, collaboration, and time, we can hopefully begin to uncover the answers. At the moment, I still believe in basic human rights that every single person on this planet should have access to. Exactly what those rights are, however, is yet to be explored through this program. Now, I am going to sit in bed and rethink this entire blog post.

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