People often oppose the universal application of democracy and human rights because they believe that in some places, some of the prerequisites are absent. Their point of view is not that democracy and human rights are in themselves objectionable or undesirable, but that some countries are not mature enough yet (as in the case of economic prerequisites for example) or will perhaps never be mature enough (as in the case of cultural prerequisites for example). Instead of being undesirable, democracy and human rights are (as yet) impossible.
One has to deal with this line of argument, for two reasons. Firstly, because we will dispose of a reason to universalize democracy and human rights if we can show that the argument is incorrect. Secondly, because we will know what to do or change in order to universalize democracy and human rights if it is established that the argument is correct.
In some cases it is correct. Democracy and human rights are indeed conditional. They depend on certain prerequisites for their existence, survival and development. However, this is not a reason for fatalism or for the rejection of universality. It does not mean that democracy or human rights are forever impossible. The necessary conditions can invariably be created, with more or less effort. An example of this is the absence of media monopolies. It is impossible to introduce democracy if the pre-democratic and authoritarian monopoly ownership of the media is maintained. If this monopoly is not abolished with the introduction of democracy, then the old rulers will use their monopoly of the media in order to maintain or to return to power. The absence of this kind of monopoly is a prerequisite for democracy but it is a prerequisite that can be created. The same is true for most if not all the other prerequisites.
What is most interesting is that democracy and human rights do a lot themselves to create or promote the conditions necessary for their survival and development. Instead of “fit for democracy”, we should say “fit through democracy”, in the words of Amartya Sen. You can only become fit for democracy when you already have a democracy. Once democracy and human rights begin to win ground, they improve the chances of their own survival and future development. Here’s a post on peace, which is obviously a precondition for but is also promoted by democracy and rights.
However, it remains a fact that, without important efforts, democracy and human rights are not universally possible yet, even if they are universally necessary or desirable. Fortunately, there are many different kinds of prerequisites and the absence of one can be compensated for by the presence of others. Furthermore, many so-called prerequisites are in fact no more than excuses for rights violations and authoritarian government. If some people claim that a particular country is not yet mature enough for democracy and human rights, then it is very likely that these people have an interest in rights violations and authoritarian government. Those who suffer never claim that they are not mature enough for rights. We should not rush to conclusions. It is very tempting to call something a prerequisite, especially for opponents of democracy and rights.
Among the prerequisites that are not really prerequisites, culture is probably the most important one. Democracy and human rights develop somewhere and have their origins in the life of a community, but this does not mean that their development in this community was necessary or that their development in other, very different communities, is impossible. Democracy and rights can develop in communities with very different cultures, even in communities that do not have a democratic tradition (take the case of post-war Germany for instance). They are connected, not to a culture, but to mankind and to the values of mankind. Of course, there can be elements in some cultures which promote the development of democracy and rights and elements in other cultures which hinder this development (perhaps Protestantism and Catholicism respectively). However, the main causes and prerequisites, namely the values which need democracy and human rights, are present everywhere.
The argument for cultural prerequisites implies that certain cultures are destined for democracy and that other cultures can never be democracies. At an even deeper level, it implies that cultures cannot and should not change. The different cultural identities must be protected against more powerful and hostile cultures engaging in cultural imperialism. A culture which is supposed to be incompatible with democracy must remain undemocratic for its own sake. However, this obscures the fact that cultures and traditions do change and often even want to change. On top of that, many traditions are not as old as they seem. They are often recent creations (anti-democratic traditions are in most cases inventions of authoritarian rulers). So why not create a democratic tradition?