Reverse Moderate Relativism Applied: Third Generation International Human Rights from an Islamic Perspective


This article develops my reverse moderate relativist theory on the universality of human rights, which I proposed in an article forthcoming in the ILSA J. Intl. & Comp. L. In this prior work, I argued that the debate over the universality of international human rights norms is too constrained, and that the three most popular theories in the universality debate – universalism, strict cultural relativism, and moderate cultural relativism – are each conceptually flawed. Universalism is untenable, because it eliminates the tensions between various cultures simply by ignoring them. Strict cultural relativism is unsatisfactory, because it discredits the whole field of human rights, which may not be necessary. Moderate cultural relativism, such as that practiced by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im at Emory University, first appears the most attractive, because it accepts differences in culture but still strives to find a core group of universal norms. But, moderate cultural relativism cannot be complete because, in attempting to create and expand this list of core shared rights, it treats the international norm as the neutral benchmark to be achieved, with dangerous neo-colonialist implications. I proposed a new theory, reverse moderate relativism, which seeks also to develop a core set of shared rights concepts across cultures, but does so “in reverse,” beginning with other legal systems as the neutral benchmark to be achieved by international human rights law.

This present submission is the culmination of a year of Fulbright research in Morocco, in which I attempt to develop my theory of reverse moderate relativism in the Islamic paradigm, analyzing the extent to which the newest generation of human rights, the third generation solidarity rights, represent developing universal values based in non-western traditions. Finding a strong basis for, and rich understanding of, third generation rights in Islamic law, this article concludes that whereas other scholars have noted the complexities posed by the status of third-generation solidarity rights as “group rights,” the real complexity lies in their component of individual duties. In Islam, where the individual is the vicegerent of God, a steward responsible for the interests of the community, individual duties to fulfill third generation solidarity rights become significantly stronger than their aspirational equivalents in international human rights law. Because the secular human rights movement lacks any equivalent unifying force or compliance pull on individuals, the move towards solidarity rights is all the more remarkable, but also significantly more fragile. Rather than criticizing the development of third-generation solidarity rights, international human rights commentators should recognize them as developing universal values, supported by traditions such as Islamic law.


Human Rights Law | International Law | Religion Law

Date of this Version

April 2004