Refocusing the Human Rights Debate in East Asia: A Review of Recent Writings

Human Rights Dialogue 1.2 (Fall 1995): "About the Human Rights Initiative"

  • Daniel A. Bell, "Democracy and Community: A Zero-Sum Game?" (in the Tocqueville Review, forthcoming).

  • Joseph Chan, "The Asian Challenge to Universal Human Rights: A Philosophical Appraisal," in James T. H. Tang, ed., Human Rights and International Relations in the Asia-Pacific Region (St. Martin's Press, 1995).

  • Jon Elster, "The Impact of Constitutions on Economic Performance" (prepared for the World Bank s Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics, April 28–29, 1994).

  • Yash Ghai, "Human Rights and Governance: The Asia Debate" (Asia Foundation Occasional Paper No. 4, November 1994).

  • Sidney Jones, "The Impact of Asian Economic Growth on Human Rights" (Council on Foreign Relations: Asia Project Working Paper, January 1995).

The drafting of the Bangkok Declaration on Human Rights in April 1993 highlighted a standoff between human rights advocates on one side and East Asian governments on the other. That document, which embodied the official objections of several East Asian governments to international human rights, underscored the need for efforts to improve the human rights discourse between East and West. The Carnegie Council's human rights workshop in Hakone, Japan began work in that direction. In preparation for the workshop, these writings that explore new means of settling the debate were distributed to participants.

The politicization of human rights arose with its incorporation into the international lexicon, especially with the Cold War debates between the United States and the Soviet Union. But as Yash Ghai, professor of public law at the University of Hong Kong, writes in "Human Rights and Governance: The Asia Debate," the demise of the Soviet Union and the rise of East Asia have brought a new voice to the debate over developmental and democratic priorities. The argument, promoted by government officials such as former prime minister of Singapore Lee KuanYew, maintains that Asians prefer a different standard for human rights—an "Asian" concept of human rights.

Supporters of an Asian concept of human rights concede that some rights are universal. But, they argue, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was drawn up without their input, was founded on the Western ideal of individual autonomy; the document therefore has little meaning for East Asians, who emphasize the primacy of community. They also claim that the stress that industrialized countries place on civil and political rights is inappropriate for developing societies. Such rights, we are told, are meaningless in the absence of economic development and social stability. Consequently, Asian relativists believe that, as the Bangkok Declaration states, the interpretation of human rights standards should be left to individual states, which can consider the "significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds." Underlying the "Asian" concept of human rights then are two assumptions. First, a nation s cultural and religious traditions may preclude certain rights that Westerners find universal. Second, as a nation s economy grows and as it overcomes social or political crises, we may expect greater respect for the full range of rights of its people.

Sidney Jones of Human Rights Watch/Asia deals directly with the relationship between development and rights in "The Impact of Asian Economic Growth on Human Rights." Drawing upon an arsenal of data on East Asia, she charges that the relativist and "growth first" arguments are motivated by authoritarian governments interest in maintaining power. Proponents of an "Asian" concept of human rights cannt claim to speak for an entire region as diverse and socially complex as East Asia. Indeed, many Asian NGOs, intellectuals, ethnic and cultural minorities, and political opposition groups refute some or all of the notions of Asian relativism. Jones argues that economic development is important, but guaranteeing basic civil and political rights (such as freedom of expression) is necessary to prevent economic disasters and to encourage entrepreneurship. Development must be understood to carry with it other human rights concerns, including a healthy and safe living environment, responsible and just use of resources, and equitable distribution of economic benefits.

There is a growing number of attempts to reconcile these two positions by drawing on specific conditions in Asia. In a comprehensive survey of the debate, Yash Ghai argues that certain distinctions exist that the West must acknowledge if the discourse on human rights and governance is to move beyond their present sterile phase. While international human rights advocates have helped individuals realize their full potential through the exercise of civil and political rights, "that potential does not materialize without appropriate social and economic circumstances." He recommends broadening the defense of human rights to include social and economic rights, maintaining that these rights are equal and indivisible. Delivering growth with equity, a frequent claim of some East Asian states (and some of the worst human rights violators), must become a genuine objective of both Asian governments and Western human rights advocates. For example, the predatory activities of an American corporation overseas may undermine American efforts to promote better human rights standards in impoverished or less-developed countries. A more effective dialogue between East and West (and North and South) requires some soul-searching by the West in its relations with East Asia.

Ghai dismisses culture-specific arguments for differing human rights standards for a number of reasons: Such arguments of a united Asian identity discount the diversity of culture and religion within East Asia; they suggest that the government speaks for the community—a difficult and often false assertion; and the stated aim of these governments—economic growth—appears to undermine the community in much the same way that they claim democracy and support for human rights would.

The universalist assumption that cultural and religious traditions do not matter in rights issues is taken up by Daniel A. Bell, a visiting scholar at New York University, who writes in "Democracy and Community: A Zero-Sum Game?" that "arguments for democracy derived from the Western experience cannot be readily exported to non-Western contexts." His paper, written as a fictitious dialogue between Lee Kuan Yew and Robert Dahl s "Demo," develops a method for promoting democracy and human rights using arguments that are culturally and historically specific to East Asian nations. Bell believes this approach may require a few ideological sacrifices on the part of Western human rights advocates, adding that "there may even be a variety of democracies at the end of the road." In Bell s case for democracy in Singapore, for example, Demo withdraws expectations of certain Western-style civil liberties while promoting democracy as a means of fostering ties to the family and the nation, the latter being a value that many Singaporeans feel is weak in practice in their society.

Joseph Chan, professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, argues in "The Asian Challenge to Human Rights: A Philosophical Appraisal" that civil and political rights are justified in Western eyes by the value of personal autonomy, but that "different cultures ascribe different weights to that value." While noting the failure of some East Asian authoritarian governments to maintain the sanctity of the communitarian society, Chan contends that differences in the prioritization of social values justify differences in interpretations of which rights are universal. His essay examines culture-specific arguments both for and aginst specific rights, such as freedom from torture and the right to privacy. Some human rights, he admits, are undeniably universal, yet others should be adapted to social norms and needs.

Curiously, as Ghai and others have observed, the extraordinary growth of many East Asian states and the mobilization of their societies toward that end have undermined the very values of community and social harmony that many Asian relativists cherish. Industrialization, the growth of urban areas, and the dislocation of traditional social relationships threaten the social fabric in ways reminiscent of Western societies during the Industrial Revolution. On the other hand, due in part to Western pressure, an increasing emphasis on market economy, and resulting demands for good governance, East Asia is moving toward constitutionalism and firmer adherence to the rule of law. As Jon Elster, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, writes in "The Impact of Constitutions on Economic Performance," fundamental improvements in economic efficiency and security require these changes.

If it is true, as both Elster and Jones claim, that these developments lead to more democratic systems of governance, then East Asia may be on the verge of a substantial change in its attitudes toward human rights.

Read More: Democracy, Development, Human Rights, Human Rights, Asia, Southeast Asia, Singapore

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