Morality: what separates human from animal. Our ability to distinguish the difference between right and wrong is what we, as one entity, pride ourselves in. Different cultures have different ideas of right and wrong. Different religions prohibit different things. An example is the consumption of pork, which is prohibited in Islam, but completely acceptable in Christianity. A source states that “some norms, such as not to kill, not to steal, and to honor one’s parents, are widespread and perhaps universal”. What if this is false? The protection of an individual’s rights is a statement widely thrown around in every culture, but are human rights really maintained everywhere? Surely the answer is no.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, aimed at “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. The rights in this declaration are described as “inalienable”. However, the violation of these rights is common all around the world. The freedoms of movement and seeking political asylum and violated by nations forbidding refugees to enter their countries. The right to privacy is violated by governments imposing surveillance on unknowing citizens, a prime example of this is the NSA’s violation of Americans’ right to privacy.
However, the violation of these rights is often more distinct in some cultures. Local traditions and customary laws often collide with the UDHR. Individuals are often robbed of their most basic rights, such as right to life, right to have freedom of religion, and right to be married consensually. These violations are justified by simply saying that we cannot adapt them into certain cultures, it simply doesn’t work. However, this has been a huge point of debate among the younger, more conscious generation; a generation becoming more aware of their rights.
Human Rights and Local Traditions
We can define Human Rights as the rights every human is obliged to have, thus ensuring that no human is oppressed by another human. This seems simple at first, but this has been a concept overseen and played with many times throughout history, and up until today. Firstly, what can we define as human? Not long ago, the oppression of slaves wasn’t considered to be a violation of “Human Rights”, since slaves weren’t considered to be humans; they were considered to be a form of subspecies, not smart enough to realize the ownership they have over themselves, and thus to be owned and abused. Secondly, what are rights? When boiled down to the extreme basic, rights are a code of how people should interact with one another without violating their dignity. People have rights to their own body, to their religion, to speak their mind, and to seek after their own safety. This concept, as simple and as right as it may seem, contrasts with many ideologies even in this modern day and age.
Local traditions are the customs and rules set by an indigenous population, all belonging to the same entity. They stem from decades if not centuries of shared culture. Many of these traditions are harmless; on the contrary, local traditions bring order to the society, their practices and customs unite them. However, we cannot overlook the dangers that come with local doctrines, more often than not imposed on everyone living in the area where said culture is practiced. Local traditions can tie to hierarchy, where man is more powerful than woman, where a person from a more powerful family can oppress a person from another family, and where one ideology is more respected than another. These ideologies of hierarchy lead to the violations of many human rights.
In order to understand why the UDHR goes against many local traditions, we need to understand how the UDHR came to be. During the first half of the 20th Century, the world has seen forms of inequality like never before, with the outburst of great wars, the holocaust, and the failure of the League of Nations; the difference between the poor and the rich was massive, people were being killed because of their nationality and their religion; the world needed to find a way to redeem itself. In addition, it was not difficult to spot the hierarchal societies that were established throughout history; the majority of societies practice misogyny, religious and/or racial discrimination. We can refer to these as “the habits of the majority”, which, over the course of history, molded itself into a culture. The UDHR was formed in 1948, shortly after the formation of the United Nations, in order to make sure that no one’s rights are compromised ever again, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or social status. It was formed with the intention that every country must abide by these regulations, to grant their citizens their freedoms and, in an ideal world, open its borders for whoever seeks to live there.
Local customs and traditions were formed long before the UDHR even existed. Therefore, according to the older generations, their customs come first and are the right traditions. This forms a conflict between the universality of human rights and the ideas of cultural relativism. On one hand, many argue that human rights should be implemented in the same way globally, with no exception, and the cultures with traditions that defy these human rights should omit said traditions. However on the other hand, people in favor of cultural relativism say that the UDHR and any international code of rights will tarnish the fabrics of a culture or religion that were developed over the course of many years; they go as far as calling it “a violation of state sovereignty”. For example, in Liberian societies, the term “Human Rights” is generally looked in a negative perspective. They are often sees are a mean to allow people to rebel, and to weaken the culture of their societies. In fact, Liberian elders have shown their contempt for legal actors trying to influence change in their societies.
The fact that the UDHR was drafted with regards to morality, and the idea that every individual has freedom over themselves; to choose their religion, to get an education, and to move if they wanted to, elevates their point of view in this debate, since it is immoral to claim control over people just because they were born in a certain region where most people adopt the same customs. Therefore, it can be said that, morally, human rights should be applied universally.
The oppression of one’s human rights can be looked through a variety of examples. Here, we can see the violations of the UDHR with respects to the Middle East, and in Liberia. It is easy to see how the vast majority of the rights the UDHR lists are being violated in both of these regions due to cultural stigmas, and boundaries placed by local traditions, that bind people to obey codes made long ago by oppressors, because said customs are still integrated into the culture.
Liberia, located in the west of Africa, is home to several societies, all of which adopt their own traditions. In the society of Sande, girls are prone to being kidnapped and undergoing female genital mutilation at a young age, often hindering them from going to school, or even to their families, and many are forced into an early marriage afterwards. In other counties, young boys and girls are often forced to undergo different types of ritualistic initiations, often tearing them away from their families and are tortured, raped, or even murdered. In addition, they are prohibited from exiting their country. All of these cultural practices clearly violate the UDHR, even so, they are generally considered to be “the right thing to do” by the oppressors in the Liberian societies. It is worthy of noting that the government of Liberia is in full support of the implementation of human rights in the region, but this is where we see a contrast between the written law imposed by the government, and the customary law followed by the societies, which ties to their traditions.
The Middle East is yet another prime example of the violation of basic human rights by local societies. The Middle East is majorly inhabited by Muslims, with very strict customs tying them together. Firstly, the freedom of choice in religion is greatly ignored, as it is not acceptable for Muslims to change their religion. Secondly, the cultures are often misogynistic, whereas they openly advocate for the oppressing of women, sharing that a women has no place in a working environment, and her job is to have children at a young age. Yes, the culture in the Middle East greatly limits women’s rights. Firstly, it is common for young girls to be withdrawn from school at around the fifth grade. When analyzing this, we can find a few reasons why this could violate the rights listed in the UDHR. Firstly, these young girls are prone to becoming child brides. Secondly, they are being deprived of their right to pursue and education and work. The cycle of depriving young girls of education causes them to be unaware of their rights, and therefore unaware of the fact that they do have a choice in life, to do more than what they are being dictated to do. Again, early marriage and dropping out of school is illegal and goes against the written law in many countries in the Middle East. This does not stop a culture from choosing to break the law in order to continue practicing its traditions.