The Issue | Universality

The universality of human rights is one of the most important principles codified in international law during the twentieth century. It is the central idea of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a foundational aspect of the entire human rights system. Universality greatly enhances the lives of all human beings everywhere and advances equality, dignity and rights. Simultaneously, respect for cultural diversity is also threatened. For some, cultural diversity is still wrongly understood as being in opposition to universality. The resurgence of cultural relativism represents a particular threat to human rights, including the human rights of women, people facing discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, and members of minorities.


In conjunction with 73rd session of the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, the Due Diligence Project co-convened, with amongst others, the United Nations Special Procedures and the Association of Women’s Rights in Development, a side panel on the Universality of Human Rights, Cultural Diversity and Cultural Rights: A Cultural Rights Celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Panellists: Due Diligence Project Director, Zarizana Abdul Aziz, UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights and Nobel Laureate for Literature, Wole Soyinka. 

Cultural rights

Culture is neither static nor monolithic. Cultural rights are essential to the recognition and respect of human dignity and must include non-discrimination and equality principles. The State has a role to play in mediating these competing and, at times complementary, interests. Whereas the right to express and enjoy one’s culture and religion is protected by international human rights law, it cannot be fulfilled at the expense of other fundamental human rights, nor at the expense of the fundamental rights of others (irrespective of whether they are from the same or different culture or religion). Furthermore, the right to culture also includes the freedom to contribute in its creation and replication in everyday live.


The Due Diligence Project convened an Expert Group Meeting: The Due Diligence Principle and the Role of the State – Discrimination  against Women in Family and Cultural Life. Participants included members of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and in Practice.

The Due Diligence Project also made a submission to the United Nations Working Group on Discrimination Against Women in Law and in Practice: The Due Diligence Principle and the Role of the State – Discrimination  against Women in Family and Cultural Life toward their thematic report.

Social Norms

Social norms that tolerate and accept discrimination and violence against women and supports unequal gender power relations needs to be addressed and challenged. Laws and policies cannot only be effectively implementated unless accompanied by mindset change. Social norms that support gender equality and non-violence are a needed to be created to foster a more enabling environment in order to create a reality where women and girls are free from discrimination and violence against women. 


The Due Diligence Project convened a side event in conjunction with 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women on Challenge and change social norms to prevent violence against women and girls and support policy implementation jointly with OXFAM.

Jointly with OXFAM, the Due Diligence Project also convened together with Oxfam convened a panel on Legislative Victories but then what? Influencing for the implementation of VAWG/GBV legislation at 13th AWID Forum, 8-12 September 2016, Bahia, Brasil. Due Diligence Project and Oxfam had earlier collaborated in Oxfam’s seven-country research on legislative “implementation gaps” to eliminate violence against women and girls, with an emphasis on key lessons and tools that civil society can use to more effectively influence governments to live up to their commitments. The research was inspired by and utilized the Due Diligence Framework.

Engaging Community Leaders

Societal acceptance or rejection of discrimination and violence against women is shaped by those who are in positions of power and influence. Discrimination and violence is a structural discrimination against women that negatively affects them in the family, community, national and international spheres. In order to “modify social and cultural patterns of conduct”, States need to engage with those in positions to influence mindsets. There have been various strategies, by States; civil society; inter-governmental organisations; and development and rights agencies to engage with leaders who may in positions to power and influence to shape the social narrative with varying results.

The ability to incarnate and perpetuate a culture free from discrimination and violence against women is embedded in the power to shape public perception. Transformative change in social attitudes and behaviour is best achieved when the State and society maintain joint ownership of the human rights agenda and integrate women’s human rights issues in the regional, cultural and religious value systems.

Effective engagement with community leaders goes beyond specifically targeting violence and discrimination against women by aiming to transform social perceptions, attitudes and behaviours that cause, support and tolerate discrimination.


The Due Diligence Project convened an Expert Group Meeting on Creating a violence free culture: Due Diligence and Effective Engagement with Community Leaders to End Violence and Discrimination against Women. The goals of the meeting are: (1) To identify and critically

examine the essential elements that make for effective engagement with community leaders based on human rights principles; (2) To critically explore and analyze the essential elements of “good practice” for effective engagement with community leaders; (3) To develop a framework on good practices which is both nuanced and multifaceted in engaging with community leaders; (4) To critically explore the role of community leaders and good practices for States in combatting extremism and communal fundamentalism. Participants included the UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights. The expert meeting also provided input to the Special Rapporteur toward her thematic report of cultural fundamentalisms and radicalism.