The relationship between a commitment to universal children's rights and a recognition of cultural differences in child-rearing practices has been an issue of debate for over sixty years. International documents attempt to perform the dual roles of both upholding the legitimacy of cultural differences whilst simultaneously attempting to institute a universalised norm or standard. In order to do this they must battle divergences not just of definition, but also between various ideologies in such a manner that reconciles concepts of 'otherness'.
Cultural differences present a number of problems for those seeking to understand the 'other', thus it is especially important that alternative value systems be viewed in their cultural and historical context. Most issues pertaining to international human rights also applies to that of universal children's rights, for example it is important to delineate between authentic cultural differences and those used to further political agendas.
Further hindering international acceptance of any universal standard are those perceptions that link human rights activism to an attempt to enforce Western standards and thus global domination. Thus there are many factors which contribute to the difficulties of resolving the conflicting ends of instituting an international value system that is both culturally pluralist and universalist. The near universal ratification of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) demonstrates a global acceptance of the existence of children's rights (Maley, 1999: 17).
However international debate regarding the content of such rights has remained at a constant and great level since the conception of its founding document, the 1959 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child (UNDROC). Such debate suggests that a recognition of cultural differences could only come into relation with 'universal' principles in a tenuous and difficult manner at best, if at all.
At all levels of society, be it structural, economic, religious or political, there remain cultural differences that have proven to influence human rights conceptions in a manner which makes it difficult to apply any universal rule. For example, whilst at a structural level the modern changes of developing societies, such as the growth of the middle class in Asia, has brought a certain convergence in human rights perceptions with the developed West, the dialogue that has evolved also demonstrates a great divergence of such perceptions (Milner, ed. , 1993: 25).
The United Nations Charter itself implicitly stresses the validity of different cultural approaches, even so the Vienna Declaration, adopted by the Second World Conference on Human Rights, states: "While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of the States, regardless of their political, economic, and cultural systems to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
" The extent to which states should interpret their responsibilities whilst still observing prevailing traditional community values is unclear (Douglas and Sebba, 1998: 16). Few positive references to culture may be found in UNCROC, the most direct reference to the state's duty in regard to culture seeks to eliminate negative aspects of tradition (Freeman, 1997: 134). Article 24 deals with health and services, here the issue of cultural difference is confronted in paragraph 3, which states:
"State parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children. " Douglas and Sebba describe the three underlying principles that decide whether traditional practices may be judged to be in conflict with children's rights and contrary to intentional law: firstly, if they are prejudicial to the health of the child; secondly, if they are discriminatory to the child on the basis of gender or any other status; and thirdly, whether they violate any other principles in UNCROC (Douglas and Sebba, 1998: 19).
As UNCROC simultaneously seeks to both uphold cultural differences whilst eliminating those traditional practices considered in violation of its principles, often it may come down to only a thin line of definitions and meanings which divide perspectives as to whether a particular practice is in violation or not. In children's human rights issues, other than those claims regarding extreme brutality, there is often a proliferation of resulting viewpoints as to whether the act was justifiable, this makes language very important for it shows even 'universal' principles may be interpreted in the multiple.
According to Veerman: "The most striking feature of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child is that there is no definition of 'child' or 'child's rights' and in consequence... there is no way to elicit its scope from the wording of its Preamble or its ten Principles. " (Veerman, 1992: 167) Just as Principle 2 of UNDROC states that "the child shall enjoy the benefits of special protection" yet does not state against what the child must be protected (Veerman, 1992: 170), in its last paragraph it refers to "the best interest of the child", a statement of arbitrary value.
Any international law that attempts universalism will be plagued by such generalisations of language, thus even those principles which are supposedly globally accepted may in reality vary widely through the lenses of cultural interpretation. In creating a shared sense of any 'universal' human rights there is a gulf of 'otherness' which must be transcended in order for differing ideologies to meet at, or agree upon, any one point.
The '1993 Australian-Asian Perceptions Project Working Paper Number 2: Perceiving "Human Rights"' (AAPP) stressed the importance of coming to an understanding of the ideas and values that underpin various states' approaches to the world (Milner, ed. , 1993: i). The AAPP attempted to tackle Asian-Western 'otherness' by defining how a national character and position are viewed by those outside that society, and how attempting to conceive of a different 'world view' could cause misunderstanding.
A primary exponent breeding such misunderstanding between those of differing human rights perspectives was identified by the AAPP as 'cross-cultural reporting', for rarely do news stories based upon human rights incursions give the whole story (Milner, ed.. 1993: 12). The problem of comprehending the 'other' must deal not only with divergences in definitions between societies, but also with how culture may shape the portrayal and apprehension of human rights abuses.
It is important to remain aware of the different belief systems, histories and cultural assumptions that provide a context for any human rights issue. Further it must be recognised that "all parties involved in the reportage of a rights abuse have values, mores and political agendas from which they work" (Milner, ed. 1993: 12). Thus on all sides there exists a shaping of the 'truth', a subtle element of invention that ensures there is unlikely to be any single 'truth' regarding complex social or political issues.