The Validity of a Cultural Approach to Human Rights

Human Rights Dialogue 1.5 (Summer 1996): "Cultural Sources of Human Rights in East Asia"

In his paper on human rights in Malaysia, Abdullahi An-Na'im, professor of law at Emory University and a noted human rights scholar, addresses the need for considerations of culture in human rights debates, arguing that culture is an integral part of any human rights question:

Like all normative systems, human rights regimes must necessarily be premised on a particular cultural framework (including philosophical and religious perspectives as well as material circumstances) of specific human societies in their respective historical context. In other words, the issue is not simply how to find local cultural sources for a "given and culturally neutral" human rights regime. Rather, it is that since all and every conceivable regime of rights necessarily and by definition derives from some cultural sources, what are (and ought to be) the source of a regime of "universal" human rights?

With the linkage of culture and human rights in mind, workshop participants examined human rights practices in different East Asian contexts and their convergence and divergence from international standards. The working definition of culture at the workshop, reflective of Alasdair MacIntyre, was "an ongoing, historically extended argument about the good of a community." This definition makes it clear that we are talking about: conceptions of human flourishing and social and political ideals, as opposed to trivial things like eating habits; a living tradition that draws on history and still has relevance for contemporary individuals; and arguments that may be interpreted differently and change over time, not static and incontestable values "written in stone."

While rights concepts are culture-based, their cultural specificity does not necessarily preclude universal application. Identifying and examining the norms in various cultures that shape conceptions of rights can deepen local support for human rights. Furthermore, the process can enhance the current human rights regime so that it better reflects the visions of human flourishing held by all peoples. A conception of rights derived in this way would be easier to enforce across cultures because it would have the legitimacy of coming from within rather than being imposed from the outside.

Recognizing the cultural basis of human rights provides an additional tool for human rights advocates, who typically rely on law, state power, and, at times, international pressure and sanctions. In "Chinese Human Rights: Can They Be Improved Upon?" for example, Roger Ames points out that many human rights concepts have parallels in Confucian philosophy, and that shame, the traditional method of enforcing values in Confucian China, may be a more potent means of social control than law.

There is a danger, however, of using culture in such a way as to glorify some aspects (and conveniently ignore others) to justify the denial of rights. In this case, culture becomes a weapon of the state, possibly more powerful, and certainly more lasting, than the force of arms. With the state as the arbiter of culture, local advocates of human rights sometimes find themselves derisively labeled as creatures of the West and betrayers of their culture. In "An Intercivilizational Approach to Human Rights," Yasuaki Onuma, professor of law at Tokyo University, criticizes this use of culture to justify the denial of human rights. Arguing that human rights are an integral part of modernization in the East as in the West, he says that "to accept the sovereign nation-state, a produt of modernity, and to reject human rights, another product, is an arbitrary and convenient selection of modernity, merely pleasing power elites."

Of course, no government is publicly against all human rights. There is a general public consensus on what Michael Walzer calls the "minimal universal code," or "thin rights," such as freedom from arbitrary killing, slavery, and genocide. When nations are confronted for violating these rights, they seldom admit to the violations, or, if they do, they seldom try to justify them on cultural grounds. It is beyond this core of agreed-upon rights where culture plays a larger role.

Frequently, even in the case of "thick rights"—those lacking universal agreement—the differences across cultures are questions of prioritization rather than content. The most commonly cited example is an alleged tendency of human rights advocates in the West—particularly in the United States—to focus primarily on civil and political rights, versus the tendency of many East Asians—particularly in developing countries—to argue that economic and social rights are a more pressing issue in their societies. In fact, there is little evidence that Asian governments actually give special attention to economic and social rights. In his paper on "Buddhism and Human Rights in Siam," Sulak Sivaraksa discusses what may be a more valid example of actual difference in practice. The absolute right to free speech, explains Sulak, is secondary in Siamese society to reverence for the king. Punishment for the crime of lèse majesté is therefore acceptable, even though it infringes on the right of free speech as it is framed in the West.

Examining the cultural basis of human rights cannot proceed from the assumption of a single "national" culture. Every country in East Asia, for example, has a substantial number of ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities, as well as diverse historical traditions. When a government or a group within a state claims that a particular cultural value demands a certain treatment of rights, it is important to be clear which culture is in question and who is setting the standards for interpreting that culture. Furthermore, within every country, conceptions of human rights are continually changing. In the United States, for example, women and ethnic minorities now take for granted rights that were not even considered a few generations ago, while courts are actively considering rights of disabled people and homosexuals. The goal of human rights advocates, therefore, should be not just to come up with another statement on universally accepted rights but to enlarge the field of representatives to the ongoing dialogue.

In "Do Asian Values Exist?" Donald Emmerson, a specialist on Southeast Asia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, takes up the hotly debated notion that Asians hold a distinct set of values that justify somewhat different positions on human rights. He argues that if we genuinely want to know what citizens in any society believe, it is necessary to look at empirical evidence. "Recourse to [empirical] evidence alone will not resolve the controversy over the existence or efficacy of Asian values, " he says, but it may help "to narrow the range of disagreement." Using data from the World Values Survey (1990) which covers four Asian countries (China, India, Japan, and South Korea) and eighteen Western countries, Emmerson tentatively concludes that as a group the Asian respondents, compared with their Western counterparts, gave a "somewhat higher priority to order and a somewhat lower one to participation and freedom."

The use of empirical data has its limitations, of course, as Emmerson admits. Relying on the World Values Survey raises further questions: How representative were the samples? Did respondents believe in the guarantee of anonymity? Did they disguise their real preferences with answers they thought would not get them in political trouble, or would please the interviewers? Did they respond arbitrarily in the absence of any real preferences at all? Could translating a key concept such as "order" or "freedm" into the many languages of the survey have so diversified its semantic field that respondents were no longer responding to the same general idea?

For Emmerson, these questions are incentives for scholars not to abandon but to improve survey research as a way of exploring the existence (or nonexistence) of "Asian values." One ought not, in his view, make perfection the enemy of the good. A person who asserts or denies the existence of "Asian values" irrespective of empirical evidence as to what Asians and others do or do not think will always be able to cast doubt on survey conclusions. Survey research will never be able to settle the "Asian values" question to the satisfaction of all involved. By suggesting that certain answers are more plausible than others, however, in the sense of reflecting actual patterns of belief, surveys can narrow the range of plausible disagreement.

Some participants objected that a survey that asks respondents to rank choices—in this case maintaining order in the nation, giving people more say in decision-making, fighting rising prices, and protecting freedom of speech—assumes these options are viewed by the respondents in an unrelated or compartmentalized way. But where poverty is rampant, the choice between fighting the escalating cost of living and speaking one's mind might mean no choice at all; alternatively, the two could be inextricably linked, since one can hardly resist high prices by keeping silent. Such a survey, moreover, does not allow respondents to say they want both, when both are indispensable human concerns. Asian peoples have time and again been forced to face choices not of their making: colonial offers of modernization without freedom of sovereignty, or post-colonial choices of civil liberties or land. These are false choices, critics argue, created not only by outsiders, but also by their own governments. Emmerson counters that survey research is widely practiced by Asians themselves, and that it is Asians who have made the argument that they prefer order to freedom. Emmerson sees nothing neocolonial about testing this assertion by actually giving the choice to Asian respondents to see what they would choose.

Read More: Ethics, Human Rights, Cultural RightsHuman Rights, , Asia

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