Universalism and the West
An Agenda for Understanding
From The Future of War, Vol. 23 (2) - Summer 2001

WERNER DAUM, a Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, was Germany's ambassador to Sudan from 1996 to 2000.

On August 20, 1998, the United States attacked the Al-Shifa (Health) Company, a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan. The nighttime strike completely destroyed the factory, killing the night watchman and his family. The US government offered three justifications for the attack: the “facility” was heavily guarded by the military; it was owned by Osama bin Laden, or by the “fundamentalist” government of Sudan, or by a frontman for these; and it had started to produce precursors to chemical weapons (CW).

The next day, when journalists flocked to Al-Shifa, they found no indication that it was a military facility. Neighbors had never seen any military personnel there. The factory had been open to visitors. Western businessmen, wishing to sell pharmaceutical equipment, had been free to tour the insides of the factory at will.

Within a few days it was determined that the factory belonged to a private businessman who was not a fundamentalist. On the contrary, he was found to be a prominent opposition figure who had financed a newsletter in exile, and who even had on his payroll an old schoolmate of his who was a leader of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. The factory had even been partly financed with an official international-development loan.

Normally, it would be almost impossible to disprove allegations of CW-precursor production, but in this case a witness stepped forward. At a press conference, the owner’s lawyer declared that he had handled his client’s purchase of the factory some months earlier and that he had personally checked every detail. He could testify that there was nothing related to CW in the factory, but that it genuinely was a pharmaceutical plant. And who was this lawyer? Ghazi Sulayman, Sudan’s most respected human-rights advocate, who had been imprisoned several times for his advocacy work against the government. Even US officials had publicly praised him for his unfaltering commitment to democracy and human rights. There could not have been a more credible witness.

It is difficult to assess how many people in this poor African country died as a consequence of the destruction of the Al-Shifa factory, but several tens of thousands seems a reasonable guess. The factory produced some of the basic medicines on the World Health Organization list, covering 20 to 60 percent of Sudan’s market and 100 percent of the market for intravenous liquids. It took more than three months for these products to be replaced with imports. It was, naturally, the poor and the vulnerable who would suffer from the plant’s destruction, not the rich.

Universalism vs. Relativism

This article is about human rights, or rather the way the West uses the idea of human rights in foreign policy. The underlying issue, however, is not human rights, but politics. The discussion is usually framed in terms of universalism vs. cultural relativism, an antithesis of massive ideological weight.

The debate opened in 1979 with the stunning research of Adamantia Pollis and Peter Schwab in Human Rights: A Western Construct with Limited Applicability. The book spelled out what many in the human-rights field had felt, albeit vaguely, and provided the tools for an intellectual analysis of this uneasiness. The book has become even more influential since 1990. Pollis and Schwab have continued to enrich and direct the debate—however, certainly to their credit, in a volume published in 2000, they have extensively rethought and modified their previous positions. Although they feel that their previous thesis is still correct, they now feel that “modernization” has encompassed so much of the world that distinctive cultures have more or less disappeared and have become integrated in the mainstream; countries can therefore no longer claim the right to be judged by a different set of human-rights criteria.

The other dominant personality in the academic debate is Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na’im. An-Na’im, a professor of Middle Eastern origin in the United States, is a follower of modernist and liberal ideas. An-Na’im is a universalist. He focuses on the problem of human rights in the Islamic world and its internal and Western misperceptions. He proposes two solutions for the problem of how the universal legal and formal legitimacy of the human-rights discourse can be transformed into cultural legitimacy. One way is through internal dialogue, within the Islamic societies, arguing on the basis of those tenets of the Koran and Islamic tradition that emphasize equality, rights of women, etc. The Koran, like every other great intellectual work, is open to interpretation. Arguments for equality can be found just as easily as arguments for differential treatment. The other way is by means of “historic interpretation”: if the Koran or the Prophet said something that related to the particular socioeconomic conditions of his time, then it might have to be formulated differently in today’s socioeconomic environment in order to meet its original intent. This method can be applied quite easily to such questions as the status of women and freedom of opinion or speech.

Dispelling Presentism

In the universalism vs. relativism debate, universalists say that human rights have been definitively outlined in various international declarations and pacts, while relativists identify “Asian values,” “Islamic” interpretations, or, in general, different cultural outlooks.

The debate has become boring. For quite a while, no new arguments have been proposed. Let us address it, then, from a different intellectual perspective: the concept of uncontemporaneity. This means the paralleling of Western history with the contemporary non-Western world. Depth of time in Western society is equivalent to geographical distance in the contemporary world. History should be understood in its own right, and phenomena should be judged by the standards of their time. Let us take the example of slavery; Aristotle accepted slavery, as did Cicero, Augustine, the Bible, Thomas Aquinas, African tribes and their leaders, and many of the fathers of the US Constitution—all considered slavery a natural institution. Today we cannot even imagine such a thought. But time separates our two judgments, spanning a period of transition and moral questioning.

Another example is religious freedom. Religious intolerance was also the rule in Europe several centuries ago: the extermination and expulsion of the Huguenots in France is well known. In Germany, the wars of religion were settled through the principle of cuius regio eius religio: those who wanted to profess another religion than that of their ruler had only the right to emigrate, if that. The principle was abolished only in 1806, not even 200 years ago.

Death: Natural or Cultural?

What is true of Western society, in a historical perspective, should be true of other societies in today’s world.

From a cultural-historical point of view, the notion of childhood was invented about 200 years ago. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile played a large part, but the notion of childhood was essentially a product of the Romantic movement. Looking to the visual arts is our best guide on this subject: it was not until the turn-of-the-century transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism that children appeared in portraits. Before then, only small people had existed, painted like miniature adults. In the Middle Ages, adulthood among the peasant classes began at the age of six, or eight, or sometimes 12, with all the rights and responsibilities this entailed.

It is often said that the loss a mother experiences when she loses her child must be the same in every culture. Yet in many societies the value placed on life is different from that of Western society. This is the case not only in primitive societies where blood feud (or blood money) substitutes the loss to the social group (the tribe or extended family). In many African states, child mortality rates are above 30 percent. Though surely no mother would not be profoundly saddened by the loss of a child, the situation of an African mother is fundamentally different from that of the one-or two-child mothers of contemporary Western Europe or North America. For a man to die in the Arab world or in Africa is different, not only because of religion, but also because he is part of a much larger community that will survive. Again, a comparison to differences across history can help us to understand differences across geography: would Western societies still be prepared to fight World War I if life was almost certain to be lost?

I can only mention these problems here, and I sympathize with readers who will not be convinced, or who will not wish to be convinced. One more example, however, may clarify the point.

I used to be a convinced human-rights universalist. I believed that international human-rights tribunals should address the worst violations. But the wisdom of such tribunals may resonate only with a Western mind: In Cambodia, one of the most horrifying genocides of our century occurred. While the international community demands a tribunal, the Cambodian government is dragging along, trying to retard and delay it. But it seems it is not just the government but also the people who oppose the tribunal. Knowledgeable observers point to the Buddhist teaching that even the death of millions of people does not justify vengeance, which would only increase negative karma. I am not a specialist on Cambodia, but it seems that Cambodians wish to forget the millions of people who died because death, for them, means something very different from what it does to us.

Social Security

A major difference among societies today is their respective conceptions of individual-social-group relationships. Freedom of religion, for example, can only be granted in societies where religion has lost its primary importance as a formative ideology, where it is no longer the basic cement that holds the society together. Religion in some societies is what social security is in the West.

Most peoples and states in the world do not have social security. The social safety net is the extended family, the tribe, or the village. He who has work or income or property must share it with others—and the community will in turn provide for his sustenance in a time of need. In order to benefit, he must, of course, share the basic values of his community. Normally, religion would be one such set of social values. A person wishing to opt out of religion would opt out of society. No social group can accept a member’s radical denial of social coherence and social values and not declare such a person a total outsider; he would be free to dissent, but would also thus be free to die.

The question of love and marriage (as an illustration of the status of women) and its human-rights implications is also central to our exploration of the individual as the tacit foundation of the Western human-rights concept. Most societies in the world which do not recognize individuals in the Western sense believe marriage comes first and love will follow. Only the West has invented the tradition of Romeo and Juliet, another marker of the individual. The result is that marriages in non-Western societies are much more stable than they are in the West. Divorce as a mass phenomenon in the West became possible only since the introduction of generalized social security. The problem today is caused by Hollywood invading the African village and the Islamic city. And this has human-rights implications. Should Romeo and Juliet become a universal model? One thing is certain: for the great majority of people in the world, Romeo and Juliet is not an anthropological model.

Take another example: a more close-knit society, even a state, may not be in a position to grant full freedom of expression. If a country like China were to allow its citizens free choice of residence, it might encounter a total exodus from the countryside and a breakdown of society as such. In Sudan, its capital, Khartoum, like all capitals in Africa, has experienced an enormous influx of people from the countryside—probably more than two million in the last 10 years. The government has reacted with a very assertive policy, the only one of its kind in all of Africa: squatter settlements and slums have been systematically destroyed, with no participation from the people concerned. The removed population was resettled in the city’s periphery, where every family has received title to a small plot of land. As a result, Khartoum, with six million inhabitants, is one of the few big cities in Africa without favelas, or shantytowns, and thus without the crimes associated with large slum areas. Khartoum, unlike Nairobi, Lagos, and Johannesburg, protects the human right not to be killed in the street.

Constructing the Individual

From the Magna Carta to John Locke, the story of human rights is usually written from a doctrinal and juridical point of view. The social history of the individual is different and has not yet been written. We can trace the concept of the individual even to antiquity, with Sophocles’ Antigone as the greatest early example. We can follow it to 13th-century Milan, where, for the first time, a census counted heads and not families. We see it in renaissance German artist Albrecht Durer’s self-portrait of 1500, with which he challenged all religious and secular authority of his time. The individual as we know it, though, makes its appearance only in the 18th century, when a non-feudal society emerged and the individual claimed rights and freedoms against it. In spite of the globalization of economics and information, the cultures and feelings of the peoples of the world remain fundamentally diverse. Ten percent of the world’s population produces and consumes 70 percent of the world’s goods and services: unless we are ready to effectively and fully share our resources, providing social security for everybody in Africa and Asia, how can we impose only one facet of our society on the rest of the world? Many Muslim women feel that wearing a veil is central to their human dignity. What if Iran had the power of the United States and wished to impose its standards of female decency on Western women?

The West, unaware of the social foundations of its human-rights understanding­­—i.e. individualism, the cultural meaning of death, of the person, women, and social security—tries to project its view of human rights onto societies that do not possess the same concepts of these. The acknowledgment of difference in historical time and geography helps to elucidate the contested fields and to promote greater modesty when dealing with others.

Stones in a Glass House

But what about human rights in the United States? In 1993, the median net worth of a black family in the United States was US$4,418, while for a white family it was US$45,740. The average income of a black family is about half that of a white family. In the 25 years between 1976 and 1999, 497,030 persons were murdered in the United States. I do not know of many civil wars in Africa with so many victims. In 1999, 46.5 percent of all murder victims were black. The total income of the United States’ 12 million black households is approximately US$430 billion per year; the net worth of the 30 richest US citizens is approximately US$440 billion.

I do not mean that the West has no right to express concerns about human rights. There is a nucleus of rights that must be protected and practices that must be criticized. But it must keep its criticism and protest clear, using simple, measurable criteria. The ratio of political prisoners to total population is possibly one of the very few such reliable measures. But justice is blind, meaning that the West must not single out certain countries for whatever reasons and remain silent about others: justice requires comparison.

When US officials speak about human rights, they mean strategic interests and oil. From 1980 onwards, the West encouraged Iraq to attack Iran, delivered the weapons, and kept silent about the gassing of the Kurds. However, after 1990, when Iraq invaded US-allied Kuwait, threatening the US oil supply, sanctions were imposed. In the decade since, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, approximately 600,000 Iraqi children have died as a result of the sanctions.

A basic principle of common law is that “he who comes to Equity must come with clean hands.” The United States certainly has no right to criticize others about human rights.

International Instruments

The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights was one of a series of great programmatic UN world conferences of the 1990s. The main item of discord was universalism vs. relativism. This question had been addressed very prominently at the preparatory regional conferences, in particular through the Bangkok Declaration of April 2, 1993, which protested the “neglecting of social and economic rights,” “double standards,” and the “politicization of human rights.”

In Vienna the problem could not be solved. Operative paragraph five of the Vienna Declaration therefore verbally combines both positions but does not resolve them substantially: universalists and cultural relativists alike can claim this paragraph in support of their respective positions.

Faced with this impasse, the West tends to affirm the formal side of the various international declarations and covenants. But the argument can easily be reversed: the General Assembly regularly votes a resolution (e.g. A/RES/48/125 of February 14, 1994) stressing “non-selectivity,” “impartiality,” etc. And what institution represents the peoples of the world more than the General Assembly of the United Nations does?

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “There are truths on this side of the Pyrenees which are falsehoods on the other.” Pascal effectively summed up the message of this article more than 300 years ago; that message is more important today than it has ever been in the past.