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Pushing Back on a Western Universal

By: Hannah Martens

July 20th, 2016
LSJ 321: Human Rights Law in Culture and Practice

Some lines should never be crossed. There are some acts which are too atrocious to ever

justify if one believes in the intrinsic value of human beings. International law has become a

forum for establishing and upholding a set of values, norms, and standards which no nation,

however autonomous by right of the ultimate power and authority over itself which sovereignty

implies, may disregard because to do so violates the principle of intrinsic human dignity and

worth. This appeal to a universal moral standard which sets certain rights, and claims which flow

from those rights, as inalienable to all humans is incredibly compelling. It speaks to the

fundamental and basic value inherent to the humanity of every person, their claim to freedom

and their entitlement to justice and wellbeing. The principle of a universalizable moral minimum

which is respected for every human, no matter their context in the world, forms much of the

official rhetoric behind the human rights practice globally. This idea itself is a noble one, yet the

conceptual basis upon which it standsthat of universalityhas come to carry a very narrow

meaning in practice.
Makau Mutua, in his article Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human

Rights, articulates the human rights corpuss regulation of States as a cultural project pushing to

move away from the savage other towards a universal moral culture of human rights (Mutua,

221). I will further the claim for human rights as a cultural project which uses the savages,

victims, saviors metaphor of human rights advocacy in order to inculcate a global culture of

universal human rights by examining these rights in practice, using this analysis as a foundation

for problematizing the contemporary usage of universal as a implying a homogenized moral

culture which speaks in terms of Western, Eurocentric values and norms and is thus an unideal

practice of human rights advocacy. I will then attempt to posit a more representative conception

of universal which could guide human rights advocacy away from a west knows best

without advocating for a cultural relativist perspective on human rights.

Mutua describes a Savages, Victims, Saviors (SVS) narrative which he claims lies at

the heart of the human rights project. It is the existence of this metaphor upon which his claim of

human rights as a cultural project is contingent. I will briefly describe the premise of SVS and

articulate the relationship Mutua creates between the three aspects of the metaphor and the

understanding of human rights in practice as a cultural project as a foundation for my own

argument as to the current application of universality and its problematic impacts on the practice

of human rights advocacy.

SVS and Human Rights as a Cultural Project:
A critical element to Mutuas claims surrounding the aim of human rights as a cultural

project is embodied within the metaphors savage category. Mutua describes the relationship

of this designation to human rights as a project of cultural transformation by stating that, at the

surface level, human rights law frames the state as its primary target, yet he articulates that the

state is in fact a construct and a disinterested instrumentality ready to execute public will a

mere proxy for the real savage which, by Mutuas analysis makes the historically

accumulated wisdom, the culture of a society, the only other plausible place to locate the savage

(Mutua, 219-220). The way in which SVS demonizes certain cultures as savage or barbaric is

essential to understanding human rights as a cultural project, as it dictates clearly what the

project seeks to transform. Yet this demonization of certain cultures and the states with which

they are associated does not alone comprise a project of cultural universalization, which is the

push towards fitting human rights advocacy to a narrow definition of universality, is contingent

upon both the role of victim and of savior.

The metaphor of the victim is the giant engine that drives the human rights movement.

Without a victim there is no savage or savior, and the entire human rights enterprise collapses

(Mutua, 227). The victims role is essential to motivating any human rights project. The necessity

for humanitarian action is added to the equation by this aspect of Mutuas metaphor, because the
basic characteristic of the victim is powerlessness, an inability for self-defense against the state

or culture in question this is the aspect which endows the legitimacy and justificatory power to

actions of applying the human rights project to savage cultures (Mutua, 229). In order for any

group to take action against a savage state or culture, there must be an incredibly compelling

reason to do so, for it is an effort which often requires actions which undercut state sovereignty,

disrupt deep traditional norms, and/or go head to head with incredibly powerful actors, and thus

such actions not seem to require not just any motivation, but one so dire as hordes of nameless,

despairing, and dispirited masses (Mutua, 229).

Similarly, the distinction of the savior is crucial to the conception of human rights as a

cultural project, for it is from this metaphorical role which the conception of universality as it is

understood in the contemporary human rights effort finds its roots. Mutua describes the savior

metaphor as deriving from universalist pretensions of the Enlightenment, as well as constructed

from two intertwining characteristicsEurocentric universalism and Christianitys missionary

zeal (Mutua, 233). It is within this final aspect of SVS which the human rights as a

transformative cultural project finds its purchase, for it the righteous savior who creates the

project of of universality or proselytism [which] seeks to remake the other in the image of the

converter, (Mutua, 233).

Mutuas metaphor plays an essential role in the forward motion of the human rights

project, and structures it fundamentally, for the human rights corpus expresses a cultural bias,

and its chastening of the state is a cultural projecthuman rights, as it is currently conceived, is

an expression of a particular European-American culture" (Mutua, 221). It is a western, liberal

bias which guides the modern human rights project to express a particular conception of

universality in its practices. Essentially, as Mutua claims, the advocacy of human rights

across cultural borders is then an attempt to displace the local culture with the universal culture
of human rights, in which universal moral culture is constrained in practice to a specific set of

western, Eurocentric values and human rights to the project of universalizing within those

bounds (Mutua, 221).

Universal in Letter, Western in Practice:
The language of universality has deep echoes in the history of colonial practices, and

often the ongoing project of universalization has taken on a structure where the goal is the

conquest of the primitive and his introduction and delivery to civilization (Mutua, 234).

Today the universalization project is not a drive towards civilization so much as human

rights. The drive toward a universal culture of human rights that is based in a belief in the

inalienable rights that are afforded to any and all by virtue of their humanity is incredibly

persuasive, and I take no direct argument with the concept of inalienable and indiscriminant

human rights. It is the ways the idea is mobilized in practice such that rights have been

interpreted or designed towards an understanding of western universality which must be

problematized. I shall seek to examine the practice of human rights advocacy within the different

contexts where culture and human rights seem to clash, specifically the issues of female genital

cutting, reintegration of child soldiers in Sierra Leone, and the process of land redistribution to

indigenous populations, in order to illuminate some of the ways human rights advocacy has

come to mean the application a western universal in practice, and to use these analyses to

identify the different ways this narrowed reading of human rights can be distinctly problematic in

Female Genital Cutting:
The practice of Female Genital Cutting (FGC), or Female Genital Mutilation as it is often named

by human rights activists, is a deeply polarized issue, one that is often understood by academics

and activists alike as solved only by requiring the people who practice to understand its true,

harmful nature. The Western opinion on the practice is clearly presented in the World Health
Organization (WHO)s statement on it:
FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of
discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation
of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person's rights to health, security and
physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading
treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death. (Female Genital
Mutilation, WHO 2016).
The human right advocacy focusing on this issue epitomizes FGC as the ultimate form of

misogynistic values and oppression against women, as well as the foundation for deep public

health concerns. In the international discourse the intention is on ending the practice, so much so

indigenous explanations for genital cutting are presented out of context, simplified, and
hyperbolized, then dismissed as irrational or based on superstition. The voices of affected
women and children are either absent or carefully chosen for horrific impact; rarely do
we hear from those who wish to maintain the practice, and when we do their concerns are
trivialized (Boddy, 53)
This silencing and minimizing of non-western perspectives seen in the tensions around FGC is

one of the problematic ways in which human rights universalizes towards western values,

inherently objectifying those victims the advocates seek to free from oppressive, savage

cultural practices in the process.

Additionally, western norms and values have been universalized in the discourse and

actions surrounding FGC by arguments focusing on a western idea of free female sexuality as

inherently deterministic of feminism and freedom of women, an argument that is ultimately a

reflection of western conceptions on the idea. The FGM discoursetypically describes

circumcised women as having been robbed of all sexual pleasure a great loss to the western

ideal of a free woman, and one which horrifies liberated women living in western democracies.

This challenge to the practice is both factually inaccurate, as scientific studies are equivocal as

to the effects of the operations on sexual response, even when infibulated, and directly ignores

the deep traditional and social roles that the practice plays (Boddy, 54). This deeply western

concern used to argue for a universal ban of a practice exclusively on the grounds of western
norms and values the ultimately problematic impact of narrowing the human rights response to

the focusing all humanitarian efforts on one symbolic oppression, as seen in the example of FGC

where too often the social and historical contexts of African womens lives go unexamined, and

their enduring political and economic hardships remain unaddressed. This has engendered

resentment towards those who identify female genital cutting as the ultimate form of woman

abuse under patriarchy and presume to define the circumcised as hapless victims of male

control (Boddy, 52, emphasis added).

Reintegrating Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone:
In the discourse of FGC, the interpretation of the savage culture and its victims is cut and dry,

and the challenges for human rights created by the overwhelming effort to universalize abolition

of the practice under the reasoning of a westernized moral culture is clear. Less straight forward

is the issue of child soldiers. The SVS narrative is obvious in its goals: protect the victims and

punish the savage, yet what happens when these roles become deeply entrenched in each other as

they have in the context of child soldiers in Sierra Leon? The process of reintegrating child

soldiers in post war Sierra Leone as envisioned by NGOs and activists relies on applying western

conceptions of childhood as inherently innocent and vulnerable for its success, as it is hoped that

in some ways, [it will] ease the reintegration of child ex-combatants by buttressing these

discourses of abdicated responsibility in childrens narrations of their war experiences, thereby

facilitating forgiveness and acceptance (Shepler, 176). Despite this ideal for universalizing the

conception of the child, a reintegration which epitomizes the western views of childhood and

innocence also narrows and inhibits the work which humanitarian activists, such as NGOs, are

able to do because while the notion of child innocence that forms the basis of Western

constructions of childhood ought to make it easier for Sierra Leoneans to forgive children during

wartime, there are many ways in which the development of childrens identities towards a
universal child as conceived in western norms in the form of the childrens rights discourse and

the practices of child protection NGOs that can make reintegration more difficult (Shepler,

In this context the problematic application of a westernized universality leads to the

narrowing of human rights advocacy such that it ignores competing claims to humanitarian aid,

which ultimately works against the human rights project as the communities surrounding child

begin to distrust the international focus put on the demographic of child soldier and the

additional resources this provides, asking: how can we be expected to help these children when

we cannot even help ourselves? ...our own children are suffering. We have children in this

community without a mother or father, what can you do for them? (Shepler, 179-181). These

concerns are dismissed; NGOs respond with: We dont have that kind of program now. Maybe

some other group will cater to that, (Shepler, 181). The narrow scope of human rights advocacy

in this context, especially in the ways in which it exerts a coercive pressure on communities to

support and reintegrate these children based on their instrumental value for bringing resources

into the community, is problematic. The narrowed focus can, and does, direct the entire post war

aid effort towards the western import placed on the violated child, who can be conceived in

western norms as a victim above victims, such that when NGOs do development workshops with

communities there is little regard for the members responses, which were health centers, good

roads, good schools, peace and love, rather, NGO workers steered the discussion towards the

problems of children in the community, and they seemed to have specific answers already in

mind (Shepler, 181). This narrowing towards the preconceived solutions which seek to interpret

this human rights project in terms of a universal idea of childhood is specifically problematic in

this context as it excludes other possibilities of reintegrating child soldiers within a more holistic

approach to aiding impacted communities, allowing the missions of NGOs promoting western
universality to only provide aid such that fulfill the sort of programmes their NGO funded, i.e.

those sharing their mission and values (Shepler, 181).

Land Distribution and Recognition for Indigenous People:
Situations in which Indigenous people struggle to gain recognition as distinct groups

within the countries that colonized them are best understood as struggles oriented around the

question of landstruggles not only for land, but which is deeply informed by what the land as a

mode of reciprocal relationship ought to teach us about living our lives in relation to one

another and our surroundings in a respectful, nondominating and nonexploitative way,

(Coulthard, 60). The issue of land redistribution is incredibly important because it is one in

which the individuals conceived as the victims, specifically the nations who have lost their

indigenous lands, call out and fight the westernizing universal which is being applied in the

process of their saving from colonial oppression via recognizing their sovereignty through the

redistribution of land. The land claim is our fight to gain recognition as a different group of

peoplewith our own way of seeing things, our own values, our own lifestyle, our own laws

[It] is a fight for self-determination using our own system with which we have survived until

now, this depicts the human rights project of liberating indigenous people as a cultural project

one which ultimately undermines the protections and rights the vulnerable group was seeking

(George Barnaby, 1976). The Indigenous groups efforts for their own way of life were

undermined by the application of a narrow human rights effort within the project of recognizing

the group and freeing them from oppressive colonial conditions the group:
for the state, recognizing and accommodating the cultural through negotiation of land
claims would not involve the recognition of alternative Indigenous economies and forms
of political authorityinstead, the state insisted that and institutional accommodation of
Indigenous cultural difference would be reconcilable with one political formation
namely, colonial sovereigntyand one mode of productionnamely, capitalism
(Coulthard, 66).
This counterintuitive effort to protect the liberty and self-determination of the Indigenous groups

by applying a western value set to their way of life is based in the idea that the way of life they
wish to safeguardsuch as in the case of the Dene Nations quest for self-determination

violated the liberal view of equality underwriting universal representation (Coulthard, 70).

Here the universalization towards a western norm is crystal clear, and it allows that states which

push a western moral culture to wield the incredible rhetorical weight of the universal

representation and equality ideals in order to support their values of capitalism and development.
This process can be encapsulated specifically within the struggle of the Dene people to

settle their land-claims for more than just property, but their place based ethics which holds

their landsplacesas having the highest possible meaning, and respects the ethic of

reciprocity and sharing underlying Dene understandings of their relationship with the land

(Coulthard, 62). Philip Blake, a Dene member and advocate explains the Dene way

surrounding their relationship to the land and to capitalist values, stating

If our Indian nation is being destroyed so that poor people of the world might get a
chance to share this worlds riches, then as Indian people, I am sure that we would
seriously consider giving up our resources. But do you really expect us to give up our life
and our lands so that those few people who are the richest and most powerful in the world
today can maintain their position of power? That is not our way. (Blake).
In the case of land-claims struggles, it can be seen how the universalizing effort works through

the process of of making land claims, restricting the terms of treaties to recognize self-

actualization and relationship the the land as understood by indigenous people as purely an

expression of culture distinct from a way of life that encompasses economic modes and

political structures, and thus only provides protections for the culture not the holistic,

independent way of life, (Coulthard, 66), depicting how the land-claims process itself has

also served to subtly shape how Indigenous peoples now think and act in relation to the land

(Coulthard, 78). The use of debt-traps and other forms of structural violence embedded in the

land-claim process can also drive nations towards the acceptance of western values and systems

such as capitalism and open their reclaimed lands to exploitation in order to survive. Here, the

universality of the western value systems which tend to derive meaning from the world in
historical/developmental terms, thereby placing time as the narrative of central importance, is

taken up as universal due to the way the reclamation of lands and politics of self-determinism

structure Indigenous peoples lives (Coulthard, 60, 77). This context depicts the problematic way

in which the goals of human rights can be toward self-determination and protection of diverse

culture, and still appeal to and result in a narrow universality under western values, norms, and

Mutua articulates the way in which the SVS metaphor forms the foundations of human

rights as a project of cultural transformation. This project has come to use a language of

universality which is distinctly western in its rights advocacy efforts, it is my attempt to further

Mutuas claim by analyzing this effect on three distinct human rights advocacy projects, and

isolating some of the highly problematic impacts the universalizing under western norms, values

and structures have had in order to generate thinking on and change of the particular conception

of universality which underscores the contemporary practice of human rights. My analysis does

not seek to condemn all human rights advocates, and increasingly careful efforts in much

humanitarian work have been taken, and work to approach human rights issues with a broadened

understanding of the fundamental, universal moral culture are developing. I intend to focus the

impact of this analysis in advocating for a universality which draws upon a multitude of

moralities, takes input from many moral cultures, and seeks to tread carefully especially in

situations where the victims do not perceive themselves as being harmed.


"Female Genital Mutilation." World Health Organization. World Health Organization, Feb. 2016.
Web. 20 July 2016.