Sources of Human Rights in Asian Cultures

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

In discussing culture, participants recognized that behavioral norms are articulated in various modes, which are themselves products of distinct cultures and histories. The Buddhist duty of avihimsa (nonviolence); the importance Islam places on umma (community) and equality before God; and Confucian ren (humanity) each lead to ethical norms that can form the basis of human rights.

Jack Donnelly of the University of Denver emphasizes that these concepts are not sources of human rights per se. Rather, they provide the basis for "functional equivalents" of human rights. To him, human rights are independent of culture, having arisen from the developments of a nation-state system and market economies. Thus, according to this view, these equivalents are valuable more as resources for advancing human rights as they are understood in the West.

In their examination of culture, many of the authors focus primarily on dominant religious and philosophical traditions—particularly Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam—that are often considered to be inimical to human rights. Authors argue for ways of looking at those traditions to find support for human rights values, even though they do not necessarily lead to the same conceptions of rights as Western traditions. They also acknowledge, however, that to rely solely on these traditions may not be an adequate method of understanding the basis of human rghts in a particular society, given that beliefs change over time and are held by some, not all, of the population. For example, although Abdullahi An-Na im and Norani Othman both focus on Islam in their papers on Malaysian society, it is important to keep in mind the substantial non-Muslim minority in considering the relationship between culture and human rights in that country. As An-Na im points out, material conditions are a component of culture, as are other human struggles with modernization. This view was shared by other participants who also noted the impact of markets on human rights.

Sulak Sivaraksa argues that although classical Buddhist texts refer to duties rather than to rights, human rights values may be inferred from the core principles of Buddhism, namely: dana (generosity); sila ("the ability not to exploit oneself or others"); and bhavana (cultivating "seeds of peace within the mind"). He illustrates these concepts as he draws a distinction between establishment Buddhism (with a capital "B") and non-establishment buddhism (with a small "b") and situates this distinction within the rural setting of Thailand (or Siam, as he prefers to call his country). Establishment Buddhism, says Sulak, attributes the inequitable distribution of harvest between landlord and peasant as the workings of karma: on the part of the peasant, the consequence of misdoings in his previous life; and on the part of the landlord, the result of having performed good deeds. On the other hand, non-establishment buddhism opposes the inequitable harvest arrangement because "if the landlord understands and practices dana he will know that it is wrong to take 70 percent of the harvest when the workers do not have enough to sustain them."

In response to Sulak's paper, participants questioned the impact of either vision of Buddhism in shaping contemporary Thai society and political life. As Sulak's Thai compatriot Soraj Hongladarom pointed out, "To look for sources of human rights in culture requires one to look not only at the main established religion, but at the normal ways of life of the people, too." Participants also noted that apart from its principal tenet, which deals with the individual's release from suffering, Buddhism makes little reference to political life—whether democratic or authoritarian, egalitarian or hierarchical—instead concentrating on the spiritual pursuit of the path of Buddha. This does not mean, however, that there is no support in Thai culture for human rights, only that it may need to come from a different cultural source besides Buddhism.

In "Participating in the Cultural Mediation of Human Rights: The Case of Al-Arqam in Malaysia," Abdullahi An-Na im examines the Malaysian government's suppression of the Al-Arqam religious sect, a controversial Islamic group that rejects secular life. The sect operated dozens of communes throughout Malaysia. It was banned from Malaysia in 1994, and the spectacle of its leader, Ashaari Muhammad, seeking asylum in neighboring countries, made the question of whether it was justifiable to ban the sect a public controversy throughout the region. Although the Malaysian government claimed to be acting in the name of Islam, An-Na im argues that in the manner of banning the sect, it violated not only international human rights but also Islamic law. He points to human rights concepts provided by Islam, including the rights to found a family, to freedom of religion and of movement, and to practice one's culture.

Norani Othman looks at the compatibility of Islam and women's rights in Malaysia, asserting that women's rights have roots in Islam, particularly in the Qur anic concept of human dignity (fitrah), which refers to humankind as "an undifferentiated whole," and Islam's inherent respect for pluralism and diversity. She contends, for example, that Islamic law forbids domestic violence against women, and that it requires that property be inherited equally among male and female descendants.

Turning to Confucianism, a commonly held perception is that it is inherently authoritarian where weaker members of societyare often vulnerable to abuse of more powerful members. Here is a culture which, by virtue of a built-in tendency toward hierarchy and control, internally generates the need for human rights. Like Roger Ames, Joseph Chan focuses on Confucianism as a primary source of moral values in China. Both authors assume the relevance of Confucianism in Chinese social and political life today and its positive potential for promoting human rights. In "A Confucian Perspective of Human Rights," Chan contends that the decline of Marxism has left China in a moral void, and that with resurgent nationalism Confucianism is a natural successor to fill that void, while generating a respect for human rights. Dorothy Solinger, professor of political science at the University of California-Irvine, raised doubts about this prediction, suggesting that it may be more likely we "will see human rights emerge via capitalism, skirting around Confucianism altogether."

Disputing the notion that Confucianism is intrinsically incompatible with human rights, Chan argues that human rights are necessary for the protection of ren (humanity), although in the Confucian view these rights are to be applied only in the last instance, as a fall-back when virtue fails to uphold social relationships. Furthermore, while Confucianism would support certain basic freedoms, such as freedom of expression and religion, its perspective would differ from the Western, "rights-based" view, particularly in matters of civil liberties.

Chan argues that in Confucian societies human rights cannot replace virtuous behavior that accompanies valuable personal relationships as a means of guiding conduct. However, not all relationships in society are close personal relationships, and human rights are needed in their absence. He also argues that rights, especially civil liberties, should not protect nonvirtuous conduct. He illustrates his view with reference to such issues as pornography and the rights of the elderly. Chan's view that Confucian ethics are not purely "role-based" contrasts with Ames's emphasis on the "roles and relationships as they are performed within the context of one's family and community" as the defining parameters of the human being in the Confucian perspective.

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

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