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October 1, 2001

Speaker: Some See Human Rights
as Western Notion

Human rights, which many Americans see as a strong symbol of freedom for people everywhere, may be viewed as just the opposite in some countries, according to a noted sociology professor and human rights advocate from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

In fact, Rhoda Howard-Hassmann said in a lecture Sept. 20, pressing for human rights may be seen by some governments as a form of Western imperialism.

She spoke at the Dodd Center at the start of the University's Human Rights Semester.

Some Asian, African and Muslim critics reject individualism and a rights-based approach to social order, she said, instead favoring collectivism and a "duty-based" approach to life. Such issues as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, women's rights and gay rights may be seen in these countries mostly as causes of social disorder and the breakdown of public morality.

When pressing for human rights causes changes in the traditional society, some political and cultural leaders blame the West, and specifically the United States, she said. While it is difficult to know how widespread such resentment is, "we do know it is a tool of ideological and political discussions," Howard-Hassman said.

She added that stronger societies may try to punish the West by asserting their economic power, while weaker societies may respond with terrorism.

Howard-Hassmann, the Marsha Lilien Gladstein Visiting Professor in Human Rights, is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and associate director of McMaster University's Research Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition. An advocate of universal human rights, Howard-Hassmann has frequently argued against the perspective of cultural relativism in human rights. "I hold to a definition of universal human rights which is fairly standard in the literature - which I thought at the beginning of my career 22 years ago would be non-problematic," she said.

According to Howard-Hassmann, over the past 50 years, three generations of human rights have evolved: civil and political, including the right to vote and the right to a fair trial; economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to healthcare, housing and food; and collective rights of the developing world, including the right to peace and a clean environment.

She said many people, especially those in the non-Western world, believe these categories reflect different world views. "In this debate, the Western world is promoting a kind of society that other people don't want; it's a society where the individual is removed from the community and asserts individual rights against society."

She said there is a " general belief that the spread of Western, but not entirely American, culture - movies, food, baseball caps, and so on - is an imperialistic attempt to undermine the cultures of non-western societies."

Sherry Fisher

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