Thinking About Human Rights and Asian Values

Human Rights Dialogue 1.4 (Spring 1996): "Three Years After The Bangkok Declaration"

Amartya Sen Amartya Sen

While it might not be clear what "Asian values" are, they seem to have gained a place in the standard analysis of contemporary events. In a provocative essay, entitled "Japan's Nice New Nationalism," published in 1995, the Economist poses a question in a rather stark form—a query that has often been stated, albeit less clearly: "Is the combination of nationalist confidence and a growing economic interest in Asia likely to pose a threat?"*2* The threat referred to relates to the concerns of the Western countries. The reference here is not only to—not even primarily to—Japan's dominance in trade and world markets, but to Japan's possible role in tolerating and supporting some policies and practices in Asia that may be quite unacceptable in the West. The Economist identifies "human rights and press freedoms" as "the most frequent battlegrounds."

This way of seeing the "clash of cultures" is increasingly prevalent now. But to see the conflict over human rights as a battle between Western liberalism on one side and Asian reluctance on the other is to cast the debate in a form that distracts attention from the central issues, which concern Asia itself. In the battle over the role of human rights and such matters as press freedom (a battle that is certainly forceful in contemporary Asia), the primary parties are Asians of different interests and convictions, even if occasionally a visiting American might get caned in an Asian country. This is not to deny that America or Europe has legitimate reasons to worry about the outcome of this and related contentions about ideas and politics in Asia (I have nothing against the Economist posing this "Western" question—one of some interest to its readers), but this dispute over principles and practice is really about the lives of Asians—their beliefs and traditions, their rules and regulations, their achievements and failures, and ultimately their lives and freedoms. The Western concern—legitimate on its own—may even contribute to misspecifying the central features of the debate.

There is a further reason for removing this debate from the perspective of Western anxiety about Asian practice. That often-invoked perspective gives the immediate impression that the primacy of human rights is a fundamental and ancient feature of Western culture, and one not to be found in Asia. It is, as it were, a contrast between the authoritarianism allegedly implicit in, say, Confucianism vis-à-vis the respect for individual liberty allegedly deeply rooted in Western culture. There are good historical reasons to doubt each of the two claims implicit in the contrast. As to when the notion of individual liberty first became explicit in the West, Isaiah Berlin has noted: "I have found no convincing evidence of any clear formulation of it in the ancient world."*3* And insofar as we do find arguments championing freedoms in some generic sense in ancient Greek treatises (as we clearly do, for example, in Aristotle's Politics and also in Nicomachean Ethics), it is not hard to discover comparable championing of generically described freedoms and tolerance in the writings of many Asian theorists, such as Ashoka, whose inscriptions from the third century b.c. emphasize tolerance and liberty as central values of a good society. Indeed, the rhetoric of freedom is abundantly invoked in many of the Asian literatures. Buddha even explains nirvana in the language of "freedom," to wit, the freedom from the miseries of life. If there is a real gap today in the acceptance of freedom and liberty in the West vis-à-vis those in Asia, the roots of a hard division lie much closer to our times.

Nor is it helpful to see the contrast in terms of the practical traditions of "Oriental despotism" that had once so fascinated European scholars in the heyday of the historial emergence of democratic commitments of the West. If the despots of the Orient were more despotic than those in the West (it is not obvious that this was the case), the political limits of today's Asia are not clearly bound by those traditions—not any more than the political possibilities in Europe are confined by the heritage of the Spanish Inquisition or the history of Nazi genocide.

Many Western commentators find it deeply unacceptable that some people who argue against human rights in Asia try to gain inspiration from specific interpretations of "Asian values." This is an understandable concern, but that search for inspiration is a close cousin of the tendency in the West to see ideas of democracy and liberty specifically in terms of "Western" traditions. Even the language used in recommending to Asia what is called "Western democracy" imposes a geographical mode of divisiveness that springs not only from Asian intransigence but also from Western "priority complex." If the grabbing of "Asian values" by the champions of authoritarianism has to be effectively and fairly questioned, what is needed is not the claim—often implicit—of the superiority of what are taken as Western values, but a broader historical study of Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Arabic, and other Asian literatures (in relation to corresponding writings in the Western classics). And nearer our times, acknowledgment would have to be made to the contributions of national leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who were, already a hundred years ago, cogently vocal in defense of the widest forms of democracy and political and civil rights.

I am not, of course, disputing that at a truly deep level, cultural comparisons based on real history could be extremely interesting in diagnosing the balance of focal concerns in different regional traditions in the world and in dealing with the principles and reasonings that have a bearing on the contemporary formulations of human rights. But neither the rapid invoking of "Asian values" in defense of suppressing human rights, nor the expression of Western anxiety and consternation about "Asian" ways, helps to advance critical scrutiny of the role of human rights and their consequences in Asian societies. The subject has a contingently regional dimension, but it is not a foundationally regional issue.

*1* This is an excerpt of a paper entitled "Human Rights and Economic Achievements," presented at the Hakone Workshop of the Human Rights Initiative, June 23-26, 1995.
*2* "Japan's Nice New Nationalism," Economist, January 14, 1995, p. 13.
*3* Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford university Press, 1969), p. xl. Even as far as the idea of democracy itself is concerned,as Benjamin Schwartz notes, "in China, the model of the natural and sacred hierarchy of the patrilear family may have lenbt its own coloration to the concepts of hierarchy and authority, but we must again remember that even in the history of the West, with its memories of Athenian democracy, the notion that democracy cannot be implemented in large territorial states requiring highly centralized power remained accepted wisdom as late as Montesquieu and Rousseau." ( The World of Thought in Ancient China [Cambridge: Harvard university Press, 1985], 69).

Read More: Human Rights, Human Rights, Asia, East Asia, Japan

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