Global Policy Forum

Cultural Relativism vs. Universalism


The Universalism vs. Cultural Relativism debate has existed in legal scholarship for decades, and is increasingly entering public discourse on international law and human rights. Universalism refers to the notion that human rights are universal and should apply to every human being. Cultural Relativists object, and argue that human rights are culturally dependent, and that no moral principles can be made to apply to all cultures. They argue that the principles embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) are the product of Western political history. Indeed, the origins of the Universal Declaration are rooted in political landmarks in Western history, such as the Magna Carta of the United Kingdom (1215), the French Revolution (1789) and the American Bill of Rights (1791). Cultural Relativists argue that Universalism, in its attempt to extend a Western ideal to the rest of the world, is a form of cultural imperialism. As the establishments of post-conflict ad-hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia in the 1990's and the International Criminal Court in 2002 illustrate, universalism is steadily being put into force. Cultural Relativists are critical of the validity, relevance and effect of these tribunals and of the ICC especially. Instead, Cultural Relativists are generally supportive of 'traditional' or local approaches to justice, as they believe these will contribute more to post-conflict reconciliation. This page will follow how this theoretical debate plays out in practice, through a series of case studies.

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General Analysis


short blurb, mention genocide, traditional approaches : gacaca.


short blurb, mention conflict in Northern Uganda, traditional approaches: mato oput etc.


short blurb, mention conflict and alternative approaches: gamba spirits, healing ceremonies etc.


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