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Columbia Human Rights Law Review



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Universal Declaration of Human Rights, cultural relativism


As we celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the idea of human rights endures. The human rights idea was honored at a conference organized by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, held at Fordham Law School on December 10-12, 1999, to commemorate the first fifty years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The four pieces that follow were presented at the conference as part of a panel addressing one of the central philosophical concerns regarding the human rights project: its universality. While the panel's title, "What is a Human Right? Universals and the Challenge of Cultural Relativism," provided the framework for discussion, all four papers discard cultural relativism as a serious challenge, and instead attempt to locate ways in which the human rights system either accommodates or fails to respond to cultural difference. In providing an overview to the four papers contained herein, this Introduction investigates notions of culture and relativism by mapping the geography of human rights. In contending that individuals everywhere, regardless of location, are simultaneously bearers of rights and engaged with culture, this overview locates culture and identity within the human rights paradigm, rather than in opposition to it. By positing that we are all holders of rights and agents of culture, this overview also challenges the twin assumptions that (1) nation-states which are geographically located in the West are culturally neutral, and (2) Western states are therefore not susceptible to relativist behavior.