Human Rights and Cross-cultural Management

Extant cross-cultural management theory by implication questions universals. If one has a cross-cultural perspective, one must question the implication that management theory is universal. One must question the assumption that ideas, values and knowledge are universal. Yet there is a stark contradiction in making this assumption, while not having a well-developed concept of power. Universals are only such through global power dynamics. The dominance of Western management theory is now extensively discussed, yet rarely critiqued within a thoroughgoing theory of geopolitics in cross-cultural management scholarship. Similarly, the value structures and assumptions that scholars take with them into their research, and the idea that theories and scholarship are situated, are not value-neutral, and that social and behavioural science is a political activity, is rarely discussed. This can be applied to a discussion of the universal nature of universal human rights

There are three main issues concerning the universal nature of universal human rights. The first is the extent to which those countries, which are in the best position to influence the nature of ‘universalism’, are the most flagrant ignorers of the human rights that are declared to be universal (although this point is somewhat oblique to the current argument, it does have implications for the way power is used in universals). The second issue is whether or not human rights are indeed universal, or whether their universal nature is dictated by cultural norms that are asserted through world power relations. The third issue, in part connected to the second, is, what happens when the exercising of these (individual) human rights are at variance to the interests of wider groups or nations, for example, longer term development plans.

I gave my own potted history of universal human rights in my International Management Ethics (Jackson, 2011) outlining what I thought to be the important landmarks, as follows:

  • The ‘Declaration by United Nations’ was signed by the Allies to unite them during the Second World War in 1942, and is considered to be a pre-runner of the concept of the UN.
  • The Second World War ended in 1945.
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the UN in 1948, prefaced by the statement that the ‘disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind’. Article 2 affirms that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political and other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’. Eleanor Roosevelt was chair of the Commission that drafted the Declaration.
  • Other Articles provide for basic civil rights, such as Article 4 ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude’, Article 13 ‘ Everyone has the right to freedom of movement’ and, Article 1 ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’; for political rights such as Article 21 ‘Everyone has the right to take part in the Government of his [sic] country’; for rule of law such as Article 9 ‘ No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile’ and Article 10 ‘Everyone is entitled to full equality to a fair and public hearing’; for material well-being such as Article 17 ‘everyone has the right to own property’.
  • In 1957 Ghana became the first country in Africa to gain its independence. Zimbabwe gained its independence as late as 1980, with South Africa attaining democracy in 1994.
  • In 1960 the Belgian Congo obtained its independence. Patrice Lumumba became its first democratically elected leader. He was very outspoken against the West, believing that political independence was not enough, but only through economic liberation could the continent cease to be an economic colony. Belgian, British and America corporations by then had large investments in the Congo with its vast resources of copper, cobalt, diamonds, gold, tin, manganese and zinc. Lumumba, with his increasing influence in the area was setting off alarm bells in Western capitals. He could also not be bought, but also, finding no friend in the West turned to the Soviet Union for help. It is now a matter of public record that the US National Security Council subcommittee on covert operations, which included CIA Chief Allen Dulles, authorized Lumumba’s assassination. The democratically elected Prime Minister of the newly independent nation of the Congo was arrested, beaten and finally shot in Elizabethville in January 1961, with a CIA agent driving around the city with Lumumba in the boot of his car trying to find somewhere to dispose of the body. Following a US supported coup in 1965 Mobutu remained dictator for 30 years, with US military help repelling several attempts to overthrow him. The United States provided over a $1billion in military and civilian aid during this time, with France contributing even more to what was regarded as a brutal and corrupt regime, with Mobutu salting away in foreign banks far in excess of the total national debt, his personal fortune put at $4 billion, while driving his country into bankruptcy (adapted from Hochschild, 1998).
  • In 1989 the World Bank published a document arguing that ‘underlying the litany of Africa’s development problems is a crisis of governance’. This led to the advent of conditionality in development aid in order to introduce liberal democratic government, and Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) with an emphasis on reductions in government spending. This policy is fully endorsed by one of the most influential donors, the US Agency for International Development, holding that ‘there is growing evidence that open societies that value individual rights, respect the rule of law, and have open and accountable governments, provide better opportunities for sustained economic development than do closed systems which stifle individual initiative’ (Decalo, 1992:23). Yet Agbese (1994, and cited in Ahluwalia, 2001) asserts that SAPs require a repressive regime to implement, and tend to reflect imperial interests rather than those of the country’s citizens.
  • In 1980 the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights was adopted by the Organization of African Unity, to ‘reflect the African conception of human rights, [and] should take as a pattern the African philosophy and law to meet the needs of Africa’ (Amnesty International, 1991, cited in Ahluwalia, 2001). The main difference to the UN Declaration is the stress on community: ‘collective rights to national sovereignty free from external influence.’ (Paul, 1990, cited in Ahluwalia, 2001).
  • In 1981 the Iranian representative to the UN criticized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as ‘a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition’.
  • In 1990 the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam was adopted by 45 foreign ministers of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. The predominance of Shar’ia Law can be understood by Article 1(a) ‘All human beings form one family whose members are united by their subordination to Allah and descent from Adam. All men are equal in terms of basic human dignity and basic obligations and responsibilities, without any discrimination on the basis of race, colour, language, belief, sex, religion, political affiliation, social status or other considerations. The true religion is the guarantee for enhancing such dignity along the path to human integrity’.
  • Since 2002 Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, has been used by the Americans as a detention camp for detainees from Afghanistan and around the world believed to be al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters. President George W Bush asserted that detainees were not entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention. Operations and conditions at the camp have been internationally criticized, often as infringements of basic human rights. In 2009 the new US President Barack Obama declared that the camp be closed. It should also be noted that the America occupation of Guantanamo Bay is considered illegal by the Cuban government, asserting that the 1903 American-Cuban Treaty was agreed to by threat of force, in violation of international law.
  • Although an original signatory to the UN Declaration China have long contested its principles and application, particularly in contradistinction to the USA, and in its trade off with national and economic development. Schech and Haggis (2000) provide a useful illustration of this by reference to an article in the Guardian Weekly outlining, from official reports from the US State Department and from China, how the two countries view each other’s human rights.
US sees China as follows China sees the US as follows
Rights deteriorated with a crackdown on political dissent Human rights abuses of the poor and blacks
Harsh prison conditions, often with executions following summary trials Prison population are huge, and includes around 200,000 mental patients
Blocked websites and foreign broadcasts Texas death row cells have unbearably high temperature
Compulsory abortions and sterilization Lowest voter turnout among developed world
Crackdown on Muslim activity in Xingjian One percent of Americans own 90 percent of the wealth
Sex workers number up to 10 million in China No medical insurance for 41.7 million Americans
Female infanticides are reported Racial discrimination, particularly in the jobs market place, abounds
Outlawing of independent trade unions, often with union activists being  jailed Female comprise only10 percent of US Congress members
Tibetan monasteries are under tight control and schools closed down

Perceptions of human rights: China-US, US-China (Adapted from Schech and Haggis, 2000: 161)

Although there is a certain irony in many aspects of this potted history, this is not my main point.  I have previously made reference to the ‘invisibility’ of culture and values when it comes to American scholars studying other countries (the United States appears to be one of the most under-researched countries in cross-cultural management research, other than in comparative studies that compare two or more countries, but in these cases the American cultural context is normally assumed). Yet it is not just American management scholars (although they are the biggest population in the total population of management scholars) to whom the cultural aspect of human rights is invisible. I know that this is a subject normally beyond the remit of cross-cultural management studies. Yet management ethics is not. Nor is the study of work practices, an area where human rights issues often figure large.

I would recommend Schech and Haggis’s (2000) excellent book Culture and Development, where they critically discuss issues such as child labour within the context of ‘universal’ assumptions of morality and human rights, where for example they say ‘The issue of child labor brings out several contentious questions within the broader human rights debate, from the question of what constitutes childhood in different historical and cultural settings, to the question of whether a child’s right to a childhood should take precedence over a child’s right to a basic standard of living’ (p.157).

To cross-cultural management scholars, culture should not be invisible. Yet with issues outside our normal remit, yet which often impacts indirectly on what we study, we so often make assumptions that perhaps we should not.


Agbese, P O (1994) The state versus human rights advocates in Africa: the case of Nigeria, in E. McCarthy-Arnolds, D Penna & J Cruz Sobrepena (eds) Africa, Human Rights and the Global System, Westport CT: Greenwood Press.

Ahluwalia, P. (2001) Politics and Post-Colonial Theory: African Inflections, London: Routledge.

Amnesty International (1991) Protecting Human Rights, London: Amnesty International

Decalo, S (1992) The process, prospects and constraints of democratization in Africa, African Affairs, Vol. 91, No. 362, 7-35

Hochschild, A (1998) King Leopold’s Ghost, London: Macmillan

Jackson, T. (2011) International Management Ethics: A Critical, Cross-cultural Perspective, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Paul, J. (1990) Participatory approaches to human rights in sub-Saharan Africa, in A A An-Na’im and F Dong (1990) (eds) Human Rights in Africa: A cross-cultural Perspective, Washington DC: Brooking Institute.

Schech, S. and Haggis, J. (2000) Culture and Development: A Critical Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell.

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