How can support for human rights be enhanced within local cultures? This book chapter from the United Nations Population Fund suggests that human rights can become ingrained through ‘cultural legitimacy’. Culturally sensitive approaches cannot promise immediate and predictable results, but they can provide effective tools for understanding the relationships between human rights and cultures and tackling oppression. Changes fundamental to human development, which require full realisation of human rights, depend on serious and respectful engagement with cultures.
There is considerable debate about the extent to which the rights included in the human rights framework are universal. Some call for multicultural approaches. They argue that the framework reflects Western cultures and values, and pays little attention to other cultures’ assumptions and experiences. Some developing countries reject particular human rights provisions as undermining their own cultural and religious norms.
The human rights framework has changed to reflect cultural change. Since 1948, human rights have become less individualised. They now include protections for the collective rights of groups, and provisions for economic, social and cultural rights. Rights must be understood within their contexts: culturally sensitive approaches are crucial. Culturally sensitive approaches recognise that people in different cultures understand rights in different ways. People within the same culture also have different perspectives on and experiences of rights. The way people advocate for rights also depends on their context.
Culturally sensitive approaches recognise that people are more likely to observe human rights sanctioned by their own cultural traditions. However, facilitating cultural legitimacy requires cultural knowledge and engagement, and safeguards are needed. Culturally sensitive approaches should:
- Be guided by human rights principles of non-discrimination, equality and accountability. This does not mean that all cultural norms and practices should be accepted, but recognises that imposing particular interpretations of rights undermines cultural ownership and can produce resistance and resentment.
- Acknowledge rather than avoid struggles over the meanings of rights. Their causes should be identified, and the perspectives of different actors discussed.
- Take local norms and practices into account when developing policy, building on those that support core goals, and debating those that do not.
- Explore and engage with local systems of meanings. They must understand cultures at national and international levels and recognise their interrelationships.
- Involve gender analysis, taking into account how different categories of men and women, boys and girls experience rights.
- Include all societies and reach into communities, including marginalised groups within communities. Over time, this process should build ownership for human rights.