Chapter 9: Human Rights and Its Inherent Liberal Relativism

by Abdullahi An-Na’im
Chapter 9: Human Rights and Its Inherent Liberal Relativism
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Published
Sep 11, 2019

By liberal relativism I mean the set of values and institutions that limit human rights to negative claims on the state to refrain from interfering with the freedom of individuals. This perspective upholds civil and political rights of citizens, pays lip service to notions of inclusive universality of human rights, and relegates economic and social rights and collective demands for development and protection of the environment to the realm of aspirational policy. In this model, judicially enforceable negative civil and political rights are true rights, while affirmative claims on the state for economic and social justice are deemed incidental outcomes of upholding true rights. By imposing its own relativist conception of rights, liberalism accuses other paradigms of relativism in order to proclaim its own relativism as universalism.

In reality liberalism is merely one among many possible competing ideological and cultural relativisms and should not be allowed to gain priority in order to serve the interests of major powers and the whims of manipulative private and public donors. Liberal relativism is a neo-colonial ploy designed to maintain the exploitation of developing countries by developed former colonial powers. This ploy is also sustained by the so-called ‘human rights advocacy’ by Northern-based international non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which hide the working of neo-colonial structural underlying causes of human rights violations by failing to expose those realities.

This view is relativist because it is premised on a particular philosophical view and political experience. It is neo-colonial because it projects that relativist view as universal through imperial hegemony, economic blackmail, and the constant implicit threat of use of military force at the discretion of the same former colonial powers, while ‘international’ finance and US-backed loan businesses make it impossible for ‘developing’ countries to realize socio-economic and cultural rights. The liberal scenario is paradoxical because it negates the self-determination of poor countries in the name of protecting their human rights. The point here is not whether a claim deserves recognition as a human right or not, but that the imperialist coercive nature of the process does not enable consideration of the possibility of a non-liberal perspective.

We all know and experience the world as who we are, men and women of racial, linguistic, cultural, religious, or other affiliation or identity. Since every claim of a human right is relative to all our particularities everywhere, the quality of being a universal norm can neither be assumed nor imposed. A liberal conception of any norm as a human right or not is necessarily as relativist as a religious or communitarian conception of that or any other norm. The paradox of universality is that any enforcement of a norm is a negation of its human rights quality, yet the lack of voluntary compliance is what constitutes a violation of the right. To say that enforcement is justified because the norm is a human right is to beg the question, ‘who decides?’. The object of universality is to ensure the protection of certain rights regardless of national constitutional, legal, and political level of protection. Yet, coercive enforcement of these international obligations is neither possible in practice nor acceptable in principle.

The international protection of human rights can work only through the internalisation of those rights as indigenous values in the socialisation of children and interpersonal and communal relations. External protection may appear necessary because both the violation and implementation of human rights always happen within the territorial jurisdiction of one state or another. Yet the intervention itself is a violation of sovereignty. In any case, external actors cannot be present everywhere and long enough to ensure comprehensive, consistent, and sustainable protection of human rights. External actors cannot have the legitimacy, cultural competence, and local access to prevent or remedy violations.

The inadequacy of hegemonic liberal relativism is also clear in that the monitoring and evaluation mechanisms deployed by liberal actors are designed for the negative task of collecting narrow information about violation of a limited number of rights, usually of political elites who are competing over political power in the name of protecting the rights of the poor. Priorities of monitoring violations are determined by what official and private donors are willing to fund, and there is no evaluation of the effectiveness of what is done. The fact that violations of rights are accurately reported does not mean that they will end or be redressed, and there is no follow-up to ensure any specific outcome.

The liberal approach can only work in a piecemeal and reactive manner, responding to human rights violations after they occur, rather than pre-empting them or preventing their occurrence. It also tends to focus on specific cases or limited issues, without attempting to address structural causes of human rights violations or creating institutional mechanisms for sustainable respect for and protection of rights. The whole system of international law and relations and private donors who support the present human rights regime is necessarily opposed to addressing the underlying causes of violations because to do so would threaten the existence of the major actors in both official and private domains.

This critique does not deny the role of present inter-governmental and non-governmental human rights regimes, but only seeks to expose its inherent relativity. Let us acknowledge that all we can have are competing relativisms so that we can begin to debate relative benefits to differently positioned populations. The essential doctrine of human rights can only be realized by entrusting the effort to realize them to the human agency of the subjects of those rights, and shifting action to the essentially political nature of the struggle.1 National and international legal strategies can only follow political action, never lead or replace it.


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