Vedran Maslic

‘If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes ‘culture’, and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible…’

– Donald Symons in Pinker (2002, p. 273)

‘Deeds which they would atone for with their lives if committed in peace, we praise them for having done under arms.’

– Seneca


The international liberal order has failed! The world is growing more divided each day, dialogue between belligerent nation states is morphing into open hostilities, global institutions are a paper tiger and evolutionary scientists tell us that another major conflict is inevitable. At least, that seems to be an ever-more present narrative in geopolitical and domestic discourse. As a result, our global commitment towards the upholding of universal human rights has dwindled into a sinkhole of identity-based and oversensitive progressive liberalism or, conversely, into the divisive and fear-driven hypernationalism of conservative politics. Whether we accept the radical notion of the former that leads to cultural relativism asking us to—essentially—become tolerant of intolerance, or the equally preposterous ethnocentric and tribal power-grab of the latter, the result is a continued indifference to human suffering couched under the banner of ‘culture’.

This essay will argue that ‘culture’ should never be allowed to justify blatant breaches of human dignity, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This means that we need to curb the offensive radicalisation of otherwise noble progressive ideals. Equally, we must protect against the ongoing re-emergence of political realism tearing the world into distinct ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ alliances. Instead, as will be discussed, we ought to invest our time and efforts into reinventing and reinvigorating the very mechanisms established for the protection of human rights regardless of cultural ‘baggage’. This, however, requires tactical patience and strategic acumen, lest we find ourselves relearning the hard-won lessons of the first half of the 20th century. This is particularly important to us, military leaders, who face the inevitable burden of wielding combat power

A vital, yet imperfect, endeavour

Drafted and adopted in the shadow of two world wars, the UDHR should be viewed as an aspirational document that serves as a moral guide and a common standard that all nations ought to strive to uphold. Most importantly, despite deep and profound differences in ideology, political systems and levels of development, ‘virtually all states have embraced—in speech if not in deed—the human rights standards enunciated in the [UDHR] and the International Human Rights Covenants’ (Donelly, 1984, p. 414). The signing of these documents must be understood as a giant leap in our global consciousness and a recognition of the fact that preservation of human dignity is in fact a universal responsibility. However, despite its significance, the UDHR is mired by myths of Western homogeny and grossly overstated influence of prevailing powers, and is often cast by postmodernists as another display of colonial ambitions and foreign meddling in a state’s sovereign affairs. But this representation of the declaration’s origins and its subsequent covenants is outright false. As aptly summarised by Waltz (2002), the UDHR finds its roots in non-state actors of both small and large nations promoting the political idea of human rights from the early 1920s. While it is undoubtedly the case that the United States (US) became the rhetorical rallying cry for the UDHR across the world, the role of smaller states was equally significant. In fact, the construction of the declaration spanned across two years (1946-48), seven drafting stages and was guided by a diverse group of 18 states comprising the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Commission[1] before being presented to the UN General Assembly, leading to 168 amendments. Finally, after another round of debate and amendments, the UDHR was adopted on 10 December 1948 without dissenting vote and only eight states abstaining[2] (Morsink, 1999, pp. 4-11).

Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly true that human rights abuses continue in many parts of the world, giving many of the naysayers ammunition against the effectiveness and utility of the UDHR. However, we cannot lose sight of the importance of having a common standard that applies across all of humanity as this risks it becoming a mere relic of the 20th century—one to be studied, romanticised and ultimately discarded as a product of naïve fiction. This is exactly the approach taken by many contemporary cultural relativists as well as proponents of Machiavellian realpolitik, both of whom risk becoming immune to the immense human suffering around the globe. While both ends of the spectrum have different motivations, some of which are grounded in unquestionably noble ideals, it is their manifestation and centrifugal pressures that are shrinking and silencing voices of reason in our geopolitical as well as domestic political discourse.


Before we look at the two ends of the spectrum, it is important to firstly define what we mean by ‘culture’. While countless definitions of the term abound, Hoffman and Verdooren (2018) define it as a ‘[c]omplex set of habits that characterize a social group. This set of habits encompasses cognitive resources (knowledge, beliefs, values) and behavioural patterns’ (p. 24). This definition is particularly useful as its reliance on ‘habits’ contains within it an implicit notion of the impermanence of culture. That is to say, culture is not a fixed entity resistant to permutations and change. Rather, it evolves in concert with the socials groups that embody it through a mutual and reciprocal shaping across time. This is an important point because it is through this lens that we can anthropologically trace the development of every culture and the human species as a whole. While cultural shifts arguably occur over vast time spans, we can point to definitive changes in our cultural landscape even at the relatively small scale of our own lives (eg. Women’s rights, gay marriage, abortion, etc).

It is without a doubt, however, that these shifts rarely occur organically but are rather driven by social forces applied by those seeking a change to the status quo. To recapitulate this point with Lewin’s (1947) well-trotted change theory, a culture exists in a ‘frozen’ equilibrium until such time that social forces cause an ‘unfreezing’. It is during this ‘liquid’ state, as competing social forces battle for primacy, that movement to a new status quo can rapidly occur. As the dominance of one social force over another becomes evident, the system fundamentally ‘refreezes’, allowing a new equilibrium to be established. That is, until the next social force seeks to destabilise the newly established status quo. Viewed this way, it becomes clear that culture is merely a heuristic tool through which humans make sense of the world they live in. Thus, if we return to Pinker’s quote at the start of this essay, we can view the objectively barbaric act of female genital mutilation as a social practice ‘frozen’ within a cultural context. That is to say, social pressures existing within this cultural system are insufficient to create a movement towards a new equilibrium. Importantly, there is insufficient pressure from our global culture, or at the very least there is indifference to it, allowing barbaric practices like these to continue. We take this reality as our point of departure.

The problem with cultural relativism and its implications on morality

The fundamental principle of cultural relativism is rather simple: ‘Judgments are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his own enculturation’ (Herskovits, 1972, p. 15). That is to say, no culture can be regarded as more privileged or authentic in its manifestation of reality than any other and each holds some valid moral judgements about right and wrong. However, no moral judgement is universally true (Chandler & Munday, 2020). In short, ‘[e]very moral judgement is culturally relative’ (Tilley, 2000, p. 505). As a result, we should neither judge nor interfere with any behaviours or practices, regardless of how inhumane or abhorrent these may be. While fundamentally well intentioned due to its seemingly progressive and inclusive respect for cultural diversity, the problem with relativism is the inevitable acceptance of grave and unnecessary suffering under the banner of ‘culture’. In other words, a cultural relativist will have ‘neither the intellectual tools nor the moral certitude to condemn unconditionally even the most reprehensible acts—genocide, torture, child abuse, slavery, to take just a few examples—so long as such actions are seen as part of the fabric of the social and cultural life of the people who commit them’ (Baghramian, 2004, p. 211).

Such an orientation leads us to the inescapable ‘paradox of intolerance’, which cautions us that tolerance of the intolerant ultimately leads to intolerance (Popper, 1971). In other words, as Popper (1971) further explains, tolerating those who are intolerant to the needs and wants of others will eventually lead to an intolerant society, where all tolerate the intolerance of others, leading to the ultimate destruction of the tolerant, together with tolerance. To combat this paradox, Rawls (1971) argues convincingly that we ought to tolerate the intolerant only to the point where the liberties of others are not threatened. In other words, we must protect individual freedoms and liberties, even at the cost of restricting those of the intolerant. The self-evident benchmark of these freedoms ought to be the UDHR, which at its core has enshrined human dignity as important in nearly all cultures (Donelly, 1984). Thus, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle, adopting the UDHR as its foundation, should be the ‘normative instrument of choice for converting shocked international conscience about mass atrocity crimes into decisive collective action’ (Evans, Thakur, & Pape, 2013, p. 199).  We cannot let the very foundation of post-war international law—equal rights and self-determination for all people (United Nations, 1945)—be the reason we tolerate the intolerant. While building international consensus against human rights abuses is slow and wrought with geopolitical manipulation and great-power dynamics, the alternative leads to apathy and a ‘frozen’ status quo. There is, however, a third option—alliance-based interventions—which, as will be discussed next, risk ‘unfreezing’ towards cultural hegemony and ethnocentrism.

Ethnocentrism and return to realpolitik

September 11, 2001 transformed the world and our collective conceptualisation of conflict. It brought home the message that not even the heart of the most powerful nation on earth was safe from the hands of terror. The justifiable immediacy of the US response, and its ‘coalition of the willing’, not only set in motion a new kind of intractable war—the Global War on Terror—but, more importantly, fuelled a resurgence of ethnocentrism—‘A deep human habit, an altogether commonplace inclination to divide the world into ingroups and outgroups, the former characterized by virtuosity and talent, the latter by corruption and mediocrity’ (Kam & Kinder, 2007, p. 321). At no point was this appeal to moral status and sense of belonging more evident than by President Bush’s proclamation that ‘[e]very nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’ (Washinton Post, 2001). The morally loaded force of this statement, echoing Huntington’s (1997) ‘clash of civilisations’ doctrine, ushered in a resurgence of ethnocentric political realism. We were done with globalist idealism—‘the well-intentioned but impractical or fainthearted approaches to world problems’ (Holmes, 1989, p. 56). We needed powerful no-nonsense men to stand up and save Western civilisation and culture. While a known motivator for collective violence (Martin, 2018), to march in an exclusive alliance was also another nail in the hypothetical coffin of the UN. Not only did we go to war without a UN mandate—itself a snub at established conventions—but we became part of an ‘alliance of values’—to use Tony Blair’s (2006) parlance—ultimately responsible for multiple wars, reintroduction of torture, arbitrary detention and countless civilian casualties, among other significant breaches of the UDHR (Danchev, 2006; Greer, 2006).

Further, this values-based identity that has set us apart from the ‘axis of evil’ has also led to dehumanisation— ‘[c]onceiving of others as subhuman creatures’ (Lvingstone Smith, 2014, p. 815)—of those we have pronounced as enemies. While a well-established term in relation to systematic exterminations or genocides such as those of the Holocaust, or more recently in Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the same kind of dehumanisation plays a significant role in our own contextualisation of the ‘enemy’, spread through wartime propaganda that presents our mission as morally righteous: ‘we kill to save the world, to stamp out evil, to liberate, to keep us free’ (Livingstone Smith, 2020, p. 11). Although this cognitive neutering may be completely justifiable when bridging the psychological barrier of killing the archetypal terrorist, hell-bound on destroying us and our way of life, it becomes morally ambiguous when the enemy wears no uniform, hides within the population, and uses asymmetric warfare as the weapon of choice against a superior military opponent (Baker, 2015). This makes the distinction between friend and foe infinitely more difficult and has unsurprisingly led to the inevitable desensitisation to the suffering of those deemed ‘collateral damage’ and to the dehumanisation of entire social groups (Braender, 2015). Equally, it has resulted in moral injury within our own troops, who have had to contend with child soldiers, female combatants, ‘turncoat’ local allies and bear witness to unspeakable suffering of innocents brought upon as much by the enemy as by our own doing (Neilsen, 2015).

Moral imperative for conscientiousness

The Australian Army, as the service charged with carrying the biggest burden of combat, conceptualises its fighting power through the integration of the intellectual, physical and moral components (Australian Army, 2017). The former two respectively provide the arguably easily conceptualised and understood software and hardware—metaphorically speaking—of a fighting force. The moral component, however, is a far more nuanced undertaking requiring extensive deliberation over the legitimacy of a war. Doctrinally at least, the Australian Army deploys its fighting power under the auspice of ‘just war’ doctrine (Australian Army, 2017), which predicates the resort to war on seven fundamental principles[3]. The problem is that these principles are inherently—or perhaps by design—extremely difficult to define, allowing the political elite to stretch their limits through rhetorical gymnastics, alluring us into questionable wars to say the least. It is here that we, military leaders, need to recapture the moral pillar of our fighting power.

This imperative was neatly captured by Lieutenant General Mark Evans, who outlined three scenarios we must guard against that expose the modern soldier to grave risk of moral injury: 1) participating in a war that does not meet the principles of just war doctrine, 2) pursuing an ambiguous mission with a vague mandate and 3) loss of moral high ground through indifference to rule of law (Evans M. , 2015). These neatly capture, I think, many of our recent conflicts and I would therefore add only one more scenario—4) reluctance to apply collective pressure in the face of grave abuses of human dignity on the grounds of cultural relativism. We must take the R2P principle seriously and let our voice be heard, even at the risk of armed intervention—for which we ought to remain appropriately postured. However, most importantly, we need to do so collectively, as a united front representing the combined wisdom of the human race. To do any less risks a regression towards the perils of ethnocentrism.


The world is at a dangerous crossroad, where identity politics and tribalism are pulling much of our geopolitical and domestic discourse ever further to the extremes, while at the same time we bear witness to gross disregard to human dignity we collectively agreed to uphold. Lest those evolutionary scientists predicting another major conflict be proven right, we must become more sophisticated in our approach by reimaging the possible. We must not idly stand by, and through inaction, condone abuses of human rights. Equally, when we do go to war, we must do so under agreed principles that protect the conscience and wellbeing of both our own forces and those we have set out to protect. Although imperfect, the UDHR, more than any other collective endeavour thus far, stands apart as a global set of rules that have sufficient coherence and critical mass that ought to guard against indifference to, as well as breaches of, human dignity. To the sceptic out there, we need to remember that, in the words of the second Secretary-General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN ‘was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell’ (United Nations, 1954). And, as anyone who has witnessed the atrocities that we are capable of—whether as a combatant or civilian—can attest to, we’ve already been to hell. Let us not go back again.  


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[1] The countries comprising the Human Rights Commission were Australia, Belgium, Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Chile, China, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, Philippine Republic, United Kingdom, United States of America, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Uruguay and Yugoslavia.

[2] The states that abstained were Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, South Africa and Yugoslavia.

[3] The seven principles of Just War Theory are: having a just cause, being the last resort, being declared by a proper authority, possessing right intention, having a reasonable chance of success, and the end being proportional to the means used.