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Human Rights: What Are The Boundaries?

Human Rights: What Are The Boundaries?

A statistical analysis of the Clash of Civilizations theory shows no proof for cultural division in human rights.

Now the supreme court in India has revoked the 2009 ruling to decriminalize gay sex, the global debate on LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights has yet again been fueled. It comes on top of the protests against Russia’s hardened stance on gay rights, especially in the light of the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, and the discussion on gay marriage in the United States, this year. These prominent discussions on LGBT rights expose the ongoing relevance of discussions on human rights and different perspectives that exist on what constitutes human rights and how these views differ between cultures.

The discussion on human rights is the most old and fundamental, dating back to Plato and Aristotle. In the beginning of the 1990’s, Samuel Huntington ignited the debate on the connection between cultures and human rights with his thesis named “The Clash of Civilizations” on the new world order after the Cold War. In this thesis, he argues that the main hub of conflict revolves around cultural and religious identities. The source of conflict is thus not primarily ideological or economic, but cultural.

A reexamination of the Clash of Civilizations theory

Now, Wade Cole, sociologist at the University of Utah, offers a statistical reexamination of Huntington’s thesis on the clash of civilizations. In his recently published article in the International Journal of Comparative Sociology, he finds that his statistical analyses offer little support for the clash of civilizations theory. To reach this conclusion, he examines three hypotheses. First, he hypothesizes that human rights practices will be better in Western countries and in non-Western civilizations with closer historical, cultural, or religious ties to the west. Second, he examines whether  cultural variation in human rights practices is greater after the Cold War than during the Cold Ward, will diminish or remains stable over time. Third, that cross-cultural differences in human rights practices will be most pronounced with respect to civil and political rights and less pronounced with respect to bodily integrity rights.

Major conclusions

He finds that is does not make a difference if a country has close historical ties with Western countries for it to have better human rights practices. Also, the analysis does not support Huntington’s theory that there would be an increase of conflict after the end of the Cold War. It thus seems that this statistical reexamination of a theory merely based on ideas clearly exposes where this theory does not correspond with reality.

Furthermore, he also sheds some lights on the influence of information dynamics. Increased monitoring by external human rights observers lead to artificially lower human rights scores. This is visible in the increased interest in the human rights situation in Russia in anticipation for the Winter Games. The 2008 Summer Games in Beijing had the same effect. This can also be considered as a positive effect, because it raises awareness for the state of human rights.

The debate on human rights permeates politics and science alike. With a statistical analysis like this research, ethical and normative discussions get a more positivistic base. Do you think normative issues like human rights benefit from a statistical approach, or are these fundamental and existential problems eventually too subjective?

Cole, W.M. (2013). Does respect for human rights vary across ‘civilizations’? A statistical reexamination International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 54 (4), 345-381 DOI: 10.1177/0020715213508767

Nura Rutten

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