Are universal human rights infringing on specific national, religious or cultural traditions? Or are they instead a condition for these traditions to be able to thrive, to express themselves and to evolve?
This is a question the University of Louvain/Leuven asks during its introductory course on human rights.
I think that universal human rights are an ideal. Their implementation is another matter, but I also believe that the interpretation of these rights continues to evolve and I hope that their increased awareness (through education and the media) is starting to open people’s eyes and minds all over the world.
I do believe that some human rights – not the rights themselves, but their interpretation and use – infringe on specific national, religious or cultural traditions of some nations without the same principles being applied to other cultures in other nations. It takes considerably more courage and honesty or vision, and perhaps humility, to address human rights violations in one’s own country and culture, and it is much harder.
A relatively clear example may be the condemnation of “female genital mutilation” (originating) in non-western countries, but seeing no problem with female genital mutilation carried out within the realm of western cosmetic surgery.
The NHS follows the World Health Organization in describing female genital mutilation as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” and the concerns surrounding non-western mutilation are said to be based on human rights.
The description, however, equally applies to western-type female genital mutilation (but not to surgeries for medical reasons such as tumour removal). These particular human rights concerns themselves can therefore be said to be a violation of human rights, as they are discriminatory in nature when they are only being applied to non-western practices.
The main difference is that the medical risks are generally lower in western-type mutilation, though it depends on who carries out the procedure. The backgrounds – the reasons for these procedures – are surprisingly similar.
Western women often do horrible things to themselves, but see nothing wrong with it because it’s been that way for so long that everyone is used to it. I think a Frenchman – his name escapes me at the moment – wrote a book about that ten years ago.
What about male circumcision?
Piercings? Stiletto heels?
The fact that many western women’s shoes don’t contain enough space for a woman’s toes?
Foot binding? Surgeries that extend the legs of asian women after they changed their eyelids, all so that they look more like western women?
While the focus of the world is shifting toward Asia, will many western women follow, have their legs surgically shortened, their breasts made smaller and their eyelids changed to resemble asian women more?
So where do we draw the line when we declare something illegal globally? At the intersection between western viewpoints and non-western viewpoints? (Will that line in the future be found at the intersection between asian viewpoints and non-asian viewpoints? What could that imply for common western habits?)
If you make certain practices illegal if they are carried out with a non-western point of view, they should be equally illegal when done from a western point of view.
Otherwise, you are discriminating.
We humans have a lot more in common than things that distinguish us from each other, but the latter always stand out, by definition. If you look at them in detail, they often turn out to be merely different expressions of the same ideas.