The Problem of Unity and Diversity in International Human Rights

20 Pages Posted: 10 Dec 2011

See all articles by Louis E. Wolcher

Louis E. Wolcher

University of Washington School of Law

Date Written: November 28, 2011


Although the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity declares that the defense of cultural diversity is an “ethical imperative,” it also states that “no one may invoke cultural diversity to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law, nor to limit their scope.” The Declaration’s fulsome praise for “good” cultural diversity is therefore hedged by a prior commitment to upholding universal human rights. What is diverse is precious, it seems to be saying, but what is universal is even more precious. This essay attempts to unpack the meaning and significance of the distinction between these points of view for the discourse and practice of international human rights. It aspires to move the discussion of cultural diversity in the sphere of human rights to a level that is deeper than that which is allowed for by the usual (and ultimately sterile) verbal opposition between “universalism” and “cultural relativity.” The goal is to clarify as much as possible the relevant points of agreement and disagreement about the nature of the inherently limited ethical imperative to tolerate and protect cultural diversity. The essay does this by reflecting on the dialectically linked concepts of unity and diversity and by investigating what it really means to say that different groups of people have different “beliefs” about what is morally and legally permissible or mandatory. The international law norms that protect human rights are, like all normative systems, expressed in general (i.e. abstract) terms. The essay contends that if one wants to discover whether differently situated people agree or disagree about the significance of these norms the right place to look is not at the words expressing the norms themselves, but at how those words are actually applied to real, concrete cases.

Keywords: cultural diversity, human rights, philosophy, ethics

Suggested Citation

Wolcher, Louis E., The Problem of Unity and Diversity in International Human Rights (November 28, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Louis E. Wolcher (Contact Author)

University of Washington School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98105-3020
United States

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