Multiculturalism and human rights go hand in hand. As supporters of multiculturalism we believe everyone should have equal rights to live in accordance with their own values, to enjoy freedom of association, religion and expression, and to pursue creative, intellectual and spiritual development. We are taught that economic liberalism and democracy will guard our basic rights as national citizens and a strong system of law and order will protect us. Most of us would agree with this – more or less.
The global media often presents us with the graphic images of mass human rights violations in developing or transition countries – such as ethnic cleansing, war, and torture. These images have led some to argue that the universality of human rights in a global context is nothing more than wishful, Western liberalist thinking. It has even been argued that some cultures are just innately more aggressive than others and we have a duty as Western citizens to show by example that a culturally diverse and dynamic society can equally respect the rights of all its citizens.
There is deep hypocrisy in the arguments. Firstly, the concept of universal human rights is not necessarily a Western ideal. Despite the immense cultural diversity in the world, who can deny that there is an equal worth and dignity of all human beings based on our common humanity? An increasingly influential strand of development theory recognises that respect for human rights is the central pillar of the stable development of any society. Starting with the UN Declaration of Human rights in 1948, a common understanding of human rights and freedoms has been given legal force in international conventions, enshrining principles of the right to human survival, physical security, liberty and development in dignity. Hundreds of states sign up to these principles, even if they are only partially implemented. Development agencies such as UNDP and the World Bank have shifted their approach away from solely economic growth to focus on the individual as a rights holder. This should be given more credit.
Second, as supporters of multiculturalism we should look a little deeper at the impact our own capitalist and democratic system on the rest of the world. Perhaps we should not forget that the legacy of our own development, particularly our colonialist heritage, which has defined the state borders over which some societies with distinct cultural identities dispute so viciously today. Perhaps we should also be more conscious of how global capitalism, which we tacitly accept, can undermine the sustainable development of entire countries. If we are pro-multicultural and believe in the equal rights of other cultures and societies then we might also think about our duties as global citizens. This does not mean we have to join anti-capitalist demonstrations if we do not wish. But it does mean that as global citizens we could do much more to understand and support the international institutions that protect the rights of individuals everywhere and challenge our own international economic and foreign policy when it is in blatant violation of those rights.