Our Theory of Relativity

By Alina B. López Hernández

The United Nations was founded in 1945 as part of the system of organizations and treaties that emerged after the Second World War. In that same year, and spanning part of the next, the trials of Nazi war criminals were held in the German city of Nuremberg.

Although the crimes against the Jewish population were known, their magnitude could only be demonstrated after the war. The material evidence obtained at the terrible extermination camps, in addition to the testimonies of survivors, allowed the world to describe those events then and forever as a holocaust.

In the statements by the accused and their attorneys at the international court which carried out the proceedings, the argument was presented once and again —in an attempt to justify what happened— that they acted in strict compliance of German Law.

Indeed, between 1933 and 1939, Adolf Hitler’s government had passed extensive anti-Hebrew legislation made up by more than 400 government decrees and regulations that wove a discriminatory network from the municipal to the national level.

No aberrant decision was made without its corresponding legal protection. Separate zones of residence, the obligation to identify themselves with the Star of David, the confiscation of property, the prohibition of marrying non-Hebrews, the removals from the faculties of universities and schools, the exclusion from the civil service at all levels, the mandatory sterilization, the transfer to concentration camps…

The argument of having obeyed the Law as a justification for the crimes was not accepted by the international court at Nuremberg. It contended that no particular legislation could infringe on the inherent human rights of people, which were considered to be universal.

As a result of these debates, on December 10, 1948, exactly 71 years ago, at the third UN General Assembly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was approved.

Cuba was a founding member of the UN Human Rights Commission and a signatory state of the UDHR. The negotiations corresponded to the administration of Ramón Grau, who subscribed the document.

The UDHR is a historical landmark. It was written by representatives of all regions of the world, with diverse legal and cultural backgrounds. The text is inspired by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It is proclaimed as a common, universal ideal, for which all peoples and nations should strive, so that both individuals and institutions may promote it by means of teaching, education and respect. They are fundamental rights, with such a universal nature that they must be protected worldwide.

It was approved with no votes against at the UN General Assembly. Only eight countries abstained: South Africa, which by then was beginning to apply the segregationist policy of apartheid; Saudi Arabia, where slavery was legal; and the countries that were starting to form the socialist bloc: Belarus, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.[1]

This being a widely known historical event, it was decidedly poorly explained on a recent special program in Cuban television. It was broadcast last November 7, on the occasion of the voting on the Resolution against the US blockade of Cuba, and presenter Humberto López, who, incidentally, graduated from Law school, stated that ‘human rights are a cultural construction’. The communicator argued that they don’t mean the same in China or other countries, as they do in Cuba.

This profoundly relativistic attitude has deep roots in anthropological science, specifically in the points of view of the American school of historical ethnology, or historical particularism, whose leading figure was Franz Boas (1858-1942).

This also happened in other sciences, like Philosophy, Sociology and History, for example. After the crumbling of real socialism, that perspective was reinforced as part of the postmodern wave. It would transmit to science an agnostic attitude and would deny traditional sources.

For Social Anthropology, however, historical particularism was positive. Boas, rejecting the ethnocentricity of previous anthropological schools of thought, denied the existence of world levels in cultural development. He believed that, in order to reconstruct the history of humanity, one had to begin by separately studying the history of each people. In his opinion, each culture was the unique result of a set of factors and exclusive conditions which could only be understood on the basis of their own rules.

These theses equally promoted a trend that took the fundamental propositions of particularism to their extreme. This was called Cultural Relativism. The two statements at its core are: ‘All cultural systems are inherently equal in value’ and ‘any cultural model is inherently as deserving of respect as the others’.

The advocates of the relativistic trend state that all criteria for the evaluation of a culture are relative, since they originate in the members of other cultures. There are no values or customs which are bad or good, better or worse, inferior or superior, only different. Such a stance, though it rejects ethnocentricity and cultural imperialism, has caused damage in the assessment of topics related to the universal rights of human beings.

If one assumes a relativistic stance, it would be impossible to criticize cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, which causes thousands of deaths and health complications every year; or selective infanticide, among other cultural traditions which infringe human rights, such as the right to life, reproductive freedom, etc.

When applied to political practice, this perspective would justify decisions that breach rights, such as the one restricting freedom of movement, just to mention a controversial example in Cuba-US relations. The North would not be able to criticize Cuba for preventing selected individuals from travelling abroad, while the island would be unable to complain that the US government forbids its citizens from freely travelling there as tourists.

If we continue down this path, we would prove that the debate between the universal character of human rights and the relativistic stance does not resist serious analysis, although we must equally stress that no nation can invoke the UDHR to intervene in another’s affairs using their non-observance of it as a pretext. However, international bodies have the function of accompanying and insisting on the observance of these principles, in any culture and in any system.

Contact the author at: alinabarbara65@gmail.com

[1] Ukraine and Belarus had seats at the UN at the time as a result of initial negotiations, even though they were part of the USSR.

(Translated from the original)

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Comments

  1. There’s a fact that’s universal: the majority of humans live within the framework of a state, under its rules and laws, and in many instances, if not most time, abused by the government. The UDHU stems from the recognition of the universal character of abuse, exploitation, and lack of protection and security. Obviously, any serious solution must be universal. Some governments and their spokesmen fall into relativism to justify the abuse, exploitation, and lack of protection and security of part of the citizens under their control. Lack of honesty on the side of government is also totally or quasi universal.

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