Human Rights and Cultural Relativism

Some principles transcend political borders.

“Journalism, like politics, is local.”   This was Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo’s rationale for her government’s much criticized arrests and closures of opposition newspapers.  A variation of that theme was Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga’s explanation for the arrest of American law professor Peter Erlinder on genocide denial charges for his role in representing opposition candidate Victoire Ingabire against similar charges.

Rwanda, so they argued, has a very delicate social balance and the government must take measures that would not be acceptable in the West in order to ensure that the horrific genocide of 1994 is never repeated.

I rebut this argument in my New Atlanticist essay “Politics Is Local, Principles Are Not.”

So, yes, politics is local and so is the decision where to draw lines on competing principles. But the international community must demand that freedom of expression, including the right to dissent against the government in speech and in print, be regarded as universal rather than up to the whims of local governments.

Much more at the link.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Political Theory, World Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:


    You might want to take a look at the constitutions and laws of virtually every country in the Middle East and, indeed, many countries all over the world. Things that we think of as basic liberties have a wonderful little clause attached to them, “except as prescribed by law”, e.g. “freedom of the press will be absolute except as prescribed by law”. The second clause negates the first.

    It pertains to freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and so on. I don’t know where we’d start if we began complaining about the ignoring of universal principles of human rights. It probably wouldn’t be Rwanda.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Although Rwanda ranks pretty low on most freedom measures, I fully grant that there are societies that are even less free.

  3. James,

    The reasoning behind this — preventing another genocide — is laughable. Closing opposition newspapers is more like laying the groundwork for another genocide or other horrific move.

  4. mannning says:

    If you agree that far too many of the members of the community of nations are totalitarian, and are amoral or immoral, it is apparent, then, that this plea for freedom of speech will go nowhere. In fact, by one assessment, the majority of nations are currently governed by totalitarian regimes.

    Any quorum you might collect to issue the plea would have members who are opposed to freedom for their nation, which would be hypocrisy in their case.

    Of course it was to be a demand not a plea, but without any realistic penalties being defined for not conforming, there is no driving force behind the demand. So it is merely a plea in the end. It would fall on deaf ears.