The Language of Human Rights in East Asia

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

The historical origins of human rights present a significant challenge to the contemporary human rights debate. Since the concept of human rights resulted from a very specific set of conditions that arose in early modern Europe, human rights would appear to have minimal resonance in Asian culture. Although this may be the case, there are two significant factors that would mitigate such a cultural rift. First, culture encompasses a continuously changing set of beliefs and traditions, and no society is immune to internal and external influence. Second, as Asian societies become more modernized, they are affected by Western liberal values, although these may be advocated in a different manner from the West. At the same time, it is important to recognize that even though non-Western societies may not conceive of human rights in the same language and manner as that of the West, this does not deny the fact that Asian societies do have proto-ideas of human rights in their traditions where the welfare and the dignity of the human being are genuinely addressed.

Throughout Asia, human rights are often not advocated for their intrinsic worth but rather as a means for achieving some other value. Thus, NGOs from some parts of the region often make appeals for both human rights and democracy on the grounds that they provide a means for promoting public-spiritedness or economic development and not on the grounds that leading an autonomous life may be the fullest expression of human well-being. For example, Liang Qichao, one of China s leading nationalists of the early twentieth century, argued in favor of democracy so as to "build the nation." Hoiman Chan asserts in his workshop paper, "Confucian Influences on Human Rights: Backward Toward the Society of Affect," that the "cultural barrier can be so deep-rooted that even the dissident proponents of human rights can only understand and propagate their endeavor in an instrumental...manner." It is unclear whether these advocates take an instrumentalist approach because of the desire to achieve some ulterior goal or because their political space for free expression is largely limited. In either case, to the extent that instrumental arguments are prevalent in Asia today, it may be less controversial for Asians to accept justifications for certain violations of human rights in order to protect what are more cherished values.

However, the idea that instrumental arguments for human rights in Asia are put forth simply to further other goals needs to be clarified. Instrumentalist arguments may be a way of adapting the human rights vocabulary to a specific cultural context. Such societies may simply envision Western ideas of human rights in different terms, such as through the strengthening of the community s livelihood rather than through targeting of the individual. Furthermore, it is difficult at this point to gauge the effects of modernization. That human rights are widely being advocated for their instrumental worth is not to deny that such a strategy may ultimately change, or that political and civil rights may eventually be championed for their own worth after a certain amount of material well-being has been achieved.

Read More: Human Rights, Human Rights, Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, China, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, North Korea

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