Refining Definitions of Human Rights

Human Rights Dialogue 1.1 (Spring 1994): "Human Rights in the Post-Cold War Era"

Some Asian leaders today are calling for a concerted Asian effort to remove once and for all the cloak of Western imperialism and to develop an Asian identity independent of Western images. According to their writings and public speeches, they see human rights pressures from the West and particularly the United States as extensions of Western aggressive behavior of the past and they are calling for resis-tance throughout the region.

This is apparent in the arguments of Asian governments at the Bangkok and Vienna conferences. For example, according to seminar participant Yutaka Yoshizawa, former director of the Human Rights and Refugee Division of the Foreign Ministry and Japan's representative to the Asian regional human rights meeting in Bangkok in 1993, Asian governments at Bangkok were eager to discuss the need to avoid double standards and the politicization of human rights. They pressed the argument that the state has the primary responsibility to protect human rights, free from the interference of other states, and that ODA (official development assistance) conditionality is unacceptable.

While there is agreement in the West that human rights are absolute, there is a diversity of opinion regarding the place of human rights in foreign affairs. The debate involves questions about the best path toward improving human rights, specifically how political liberalization affects economic development. In the United States, many critics of American policy toward Asia see human rights as getting in the way of otherwise good relations. This is apparent in the most prominent case today, that of China. While the Clinton administration has remained steadfast in its commitment to press for human rights progress in China as a condition for trade privileges, there are a growing number of voices from the American business sector with stakes in China calling for the United States to relent. They argue that economic development will inevitably lead to greater political freedom and that, therefore, economic conditionality ultimately jeopardizes human rights. Furthermore, American public reaction to the Singapore plan to flog an American teenager for vandalism suggests growing ambivalence in the United States toward notions of civil society and, by extension, human rights policy. As the New York Times reported, a poll taken after the incident suggests that the American middle class, "fed up with crime in their own neighborhoods," supports stronger state control over individual behavior.

The increasing popularity of the notion that economic development leads to the protection of human rights worries Liu Binyan, prominent Chinese journalist in exile in the United States and head of the Princeton China Initiative. He told the seminar, "If China continues to thrive, the message to the developing world is that political repression is the grease that can lubricate the economic machine." In fact, in China's case, according to Liu, despitewhat some commentators are saying in the West, China's economic record is distorted. "During the Mao era, there was unprecedented famine that was unreported at the time. Likewise, today as many as eighteen million people don't have enough to eat or clothe themselves." Liu went on to argue that the notion that economic development automatically leads to political development is erroneous. "Even the middle class does not feel secure; money is rapidly flowing out of China," he said.

Other seminar participants expressed similar doubts about the "Asian values" argument of Asian officials. Generally, they viewed the promotion of cultural relativism as a smoke screen, a political ploy of Asian governments to defend their practices. According to Sidney Jones, executive director of Asia Watch, the difference of opinions between Asian NGOs, who assert the universality of human rights, and their governments undermines the credibility of the "Asian values" argument.

Yutaka Yoshizawa reported that at Bangkok, Asian governments making the claim to cultural relativism were selective about the issues they were willing to discuss—colonialism and racism—but not freedom of the press or detention without trial. This, he said, revealed a problem in distinguishing "values per se and the way those values are implemented." Overall, the dominant view among participants was that there are greater differences on approaches to implementing human rights standards than on the concepts themselves.

The question of the relationship between civil and political rights on the one hand and economic and social rights on the other was not contested. Rather, participants took as a given the principle of the indivisibility of rights, that all rights are important and need to be protected. Yet there was considerable debate over whether the question of what comprises human rights has been laid to rest or needs to remain open for discussion. Some maintained that there is no consensus on this in terms of their specific application and that this is the crux of the problem. According to James Morley of Columbia University, "We ve gotten ourselves into a situation where everyone's aspirations have been thrown into international covenants. They are not equally enforceable and governments have different priorities." While there may seem to be agreement on general concepts, such as development and democracy, this impression begins to disappear when these concepts are examined more closely for their specific meanings within different societies.

One seminar participant pointed out an example of this from Bangkok and Vienna where the Bangladesh government purportedly proclaimed support for democracy and human rights. Since Bang-ladesh is not a liberal democracy but a military democracy, the Bangladesh statements can be understood as more formal than substantive in support of democracy. Without clarification of terms, such statements can be misleading and result in further miscommunication.

However, seminar participants from NGOs cautioned that the question of what comprises human rights is a Pandora's box that should not be opened. They maintained that such an exercise is unnecessary since the definition of human rights has already been enunciated in the International Bill of Human Rights, as the Declaration and subsequent documents are known. According to Sidney Jones, executive director of Asia Watch, "Asian governments know, even better than most Americans, the international covenants on human rights. Americans tend to think of human rights as rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights."

Others felt that in order to facilitate dialogue, at a minimum, rights that everyone can agree upon, such as freedom from torture, must be distinguished from those that are negotiable, such as freedom of the press. Alluding to the more contentious rights, one participant noted that even in theUnited States citizens disagree over the need to place limits on people, as in the cases of the possession of handguns and pornography.3 Singapore and other governments often point to the high rate of crime in the United States as evidence that Americans have yet to get their own house in order.

Yvonne Thayer, director of the Office of Bilateral Affairs of the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs at the State Department, suggested that it might be best to get away from an abstract discussion of rights and get down to specifics about good governance, what governments do or can do and what they should not do:

Perhaps it would be better to shift the whole discussion to another level and start talking about what you really want: pluralism, political participation, trans-parency, accountability, and an end to impunity.

Cecilia Jimenez of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates took a different tack. She asserted that promoters of universal human rights should not merely dismiss the cultural relativist argument but should rise to the challenge to locate human rights values in all cultural traditions. Rather than ignoring claims of cultural distinction, she asserted, it is by embracing cultural diversity that human rights can best be served.

Participants considered the American tendency to associate the protection of human rights with an American-style democratic system and what this means to Asian governments accused of human rights violations. The insistence on democracy as a prerequisite for protecting human rights in this context makes the pressure to improve human rights performance a threat to authoritarian, military-led regimes. A better way to promote human rights might be to work with a regime to explore how it might loosen controls on its citizens without necessarily changing its political system. Some participants recommended that empirical research be conducted that would examine the practical consequences of political freedom in terms of its effects on economic growth and political stability. Another participant proposed that Korea and Taiwan share their experiences in balancing economic development and political liberalization with other Asian countries.

Participants generally agreed that, as a matter of strategy, encouraging universal ratification of human rights covenants would greatly support a human rights dialogue and should be a priority. In addition, to avoid a mere public relations show, dialogue should involve as much as possible those with direct responsibility for human rights policy: officials connected with the legal system, such as judges, lawyers, and the police. This would be more effective than bringing together officials from the foreign affairs offices, who typically represent their governments in international human rights fora yet have little power to bring about changes in their systems.

Participants agreed that for one state to effectively influence another state, it is necessary to differentiate among the political components of that government and identify individual actors, both governmental and nongovernmental, who can be useful advocates of its position. In Yvonne Thayer's words about State Department thinking:

      We are more and more developing strategies in which we try to identify potential partners because we understand one thing: there is going to be no change with any society, with any government, unless it comes from within.



Participants also discussed the need for both private and public diplomacy. The example of the Clinton administration's diplomacy with China, particularly during the APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Council) summit in November 1993, was raised with some participants expressing the concern that the United States maylose leverage with the Chinese government by bringing too much out into the public.

In her statement on North Korea, Francoise Vandale, formerly of Amnesty International and one of the only human rights activists to have ever visited North Korea, said that she believed just "meeting with government officials and asking questions on human rights" is effective in reducing misunderstanding. One of the benefits of asking questions, she said, is that the government sets up a forum and assigns someone to respond to the questions. Yozo Yokota, UN special rapporteur on Burma and professor at International Christian University, made a similar comment in his statement to the seminar on Burma, stressing that it would be useful to urge governments to set up a committee on human rights: "[Burmese officials] say they are not violating rights. We should say, prove it . We need this kind of forum," he said.

*1* For example, Bilahari Kausikan, the doirector of the East Asian and Pacific Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, made this claim in "Asia's different standard," which appeared in Foreign Policy, no. 92, Fall 1993.
*2* "To Justify Flogging, Singapore Cites 'Chaos' on U.S. Streets," New York Times, April 13 1994, p. 2.
*3* It should be noted that neither the possession of handguns nor pornography is a human rights issue in a legal sense; they are constitutional issues. the point the speaker was making is that the values underlying these issues are changing in the United States, opening these subjects to debate.

Read More: Human Rights, Human Rights, Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Myanmar, The Philippines

Search Our Site

People  |  Advanced Search

Join our Mailing Lists
SOCIAL MEDIA
Online Magazine

Online Magazine

Social Network

Social Network

The Journal

The Journal