Courtesy Reuters

Are Human Rights Universal?

THE RISE OF CULTURAL EXCEPTIONALISM

In May 2000, the Taliban, who rule most of Afghanistan, ordered a mother of seven to be stoned to death for adultery in front of an ecstatic stadium of men and children. The year before, the House of Lords -- Britain's highest court -- had allowed two Pakistani women accused of adultery to claim refugee status in the United Kingdom, since they risked public flogging and death by stoning at home. Women today are denied the vote and the right to drive cars in several Arab states, and harsh versions of shari`a (Islamic law) punishment are spreading to Sudan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

Still, the Taliban's repression remains in a class by itself: denying women the right to leave home except when accompanied by a brother or husband and forbidding them all access to public education. Not only do the Taliban seek to spread their militant vision to other states, they also demand to be left alone to implement their own religious and cultural values at home without foreign interference. Leaders in Kabul insist that they not be judged by the norms of others -- especially in the West.

Of course the Taliban are not the only ones to reject outside scrutiny. Florida's government, after frying several prisoners in a faulty electric chair, has only reluctantly turned to other methods of execution to conform to the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment." Yet when America's Western allies tell it that the U.S. system of capital punishment is barbaric, local politicians and courts reply that it is their way and no one else's business. Which is precisely what the Taliban say.

This is not to indulge in what Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former U.S. permanent representative to the U.N., has called the "sin of moral equivalence." The United States is not Afghanistan. What the Islamic fundamentalist regime is doing there violates well-established global law. Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political

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