Cultural Relativism

Cultural Relativism is a philosophy that believes that when it comes to matters of right and wrong, and other values of a moral nature, that there are no absolutes, or any fixed truth, but rather that all is relative.

Cultural background is one of the primary sources of identity.
It is the source for a great deal of self-definition, expression, and sense of group belonging.

As cultures interact and intermix, cultural identities change. The current insecurity of cultural identity reflects fundamental changes in how we define and express who we are today.
Cultural relativism is the assertion that human values, vary a great deal according to different cultural perspectives.
Some would apply this relativism to the promotion, protection, interpretation and application of human rights which could be interpreted differently within different cultural, ethnic and religious traditions.

The relativist position can be understood simply to assert as an empirical matter that the world contains diversity in views about right and wrong linked to the diverse underlying cultures.

According to Jack Donnelly,

  1. Radical CR: Culture as a sole source

  2. Strong CR: Culture as Important Source

  3. Weak CR: Culture may be one of the important sources.

Can Cultural Relativism go along with Human Rights?

  • If cultural tradition alone governs state compliance inconsistent with international standards, then widespread disregard, abuse and violation of human rights would be given legitimacy.
  • By rejecting or disregarding their legal obligation to promote and protect universal human rights, States advocating cultural relativism could raise their own cultural norms and particularities above international law and standards.

Accommodating Culture:

  • Cultures should be approached and recognized as partners to promote greater respect for and observance of human rights.
  • Drawing on compatible practices and common values from traditional cultures would enhance and advance human rights promotion and protection. This approach not only encourages greater tolerance, mutual respect and understanding, but also fosters more effective international cooperation for human rights.
  • Traditional culture is a cultural context in which human rights must be established, integrated, promoted and protected.
  • Human rights must be approached in a way that is meaningful and relevant in diverse cultural contexts.
  • The traditional value can be used as best tool if incorporated in a reciprocal manner (for example gender roles)

Concerns and Consensus of Human Rights

  • Addressed numerous concerns, including genocide, slavery, torture, racial discrimination, discrimination against women, rights of the child, minorities and religious tolerance etc.
  • The international consensus is embodied in the language of the Universal Declaration itself.
  • The universal nature of human rights is literally written into the title of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Its Preamble proclaims the Declaration as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.


  • Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community (Article 27 )


  • Right of everyone: …To take part in cultural life. (Art, 15)


  • In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.

Protection of Cultural Rights

Human rights which relate to cultural diversity and integrity encompass a wide range of protections, including: the right to cultural participation; the right to enjoy the arts; conservation, development and diffusion of culture; protection of cultural heritage; freedom for creative activity; protection of persons belonging to ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities and so on.

  • Vienna Declaration states in its first paragraph that “the universal nature” of all human rights and fundamental freedoms is “beyond question”.
  • The unquestionable universality of human rights is presented in the context of the reaffirmation of the obligation of States to promote and protect human rights.
  • he Vienna Declaration, however, provides explicit consideration for culture in human rights promotion and protection, stating that “the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind”.
  • This is deliberately acknowledged in the context of the obligation of States to promote and protect human rights regardless of their cultural systems. While its importance is recognized, cultural consideration in no way diminishes States’ human rights obligations.
  • The legal obligation is reaffirmed for all States to promote “universal respect for, and observance and protection of, all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all”.
  • It is clearly stated that the obligation of States is to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights. Not selective, not relative, but universal respect, observance and protection.
  • All Member States of the United Nations have a legal obligation to promote and protect human rights, regardless of particular cultural perspectives.
  • Everyone is entitled to human rights without discrimination of any kind.
  • To deny human rights on the grounds of cultural distinction is discriminatory. Human rights are intended for everyone, in every culture.

State responsibility

  • Human rights are the birthright of every person.
  • If a State dismisses universal human rights on the basis of cultural relativism, then rights would be denied to the persons living under that State’s authority.
  • The denial or abuse of human rights is wrong, regardless of the violator’s culture.

Human Rights, Cultural Integrity and Diversity

  • Universal human rights do not impose one cultural standard, rather one legal standard of minimum protection necessary for human dignity.
  • Like most areas of international law, universal human rights are a modern achievement, new to all cultures. Human rights are neither representative of, nor oriented.
  • towards, one culture to the exclusion of others. Universal human rights reflect the dynamic, coordinated efforts of the international community to achieve and advance a common standard and international system of law to protect human dignity.

Cultural Rights: Limitation

  • Every human being has the right to culture, including the right to enjoy and develop cultural life and identity .
  • The right to culture is limited at the point at which it infringes on another human right.
  • No right can be used at the expense or destruction of another, in accordance with international law.

Violation of Human rights

  • This means that cultural rights cannot be invoked or interpreted in such a way as to justify any act leading to the denial or violation of other human rights and fundamental freedoms.
  • As such, claiming cultural relativism as an excuse to violate or deny human rights is an abuse of the right to culture.
  • There are legitimate, substantive limitations on cultural practices, even on well-entrenched traditions. For example, no culture today can legitimately claim a right to practice slavery.
  • Despite its practice in many cultures throughout history, slavery today cannot be considered legitimate, legal, or part of a cultural legacy entitled to protection in any way.
  • All forms of slavery, including contemporary slavery-like practices, are a gross violation of human rights under international law.

Similarly, cultural rights do not justify torture, murder, genocide, discrimination of any kinds.

In Sum,

  • Cultural as ways of life
  • Particular identity
  • Non-interference
  • No harm culture
  • National and international concern
  • Cultural right as human rights

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