Introduction: Innovative Human Rights Strategies in East Asia

Human Rights Dialogue 1.9 (Summer 1997): "Innovative Human Rights Strategies in East Asia"

This issue of Dialogue highlights some of the inspirational approaches and continuing structural challenges to human rights implementation in East Asia. The articles that follow illustrate four interrelated, grassroots-based strategies for achieving human rights: people-initiated legal and social reforms, efforts to define and secure local autonomy or governance, attempts to engage communities in cultural mediation or religious reinterpretation, and human rights education projects.

The topics selected derive from comments made by participants at a workshop and an informal consultation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Seoul, Korea, in October 1996, and a workshop held with the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School later that year, all part of the Carnegie Council’s Human Rights Initiative. The three events dealt respectively with new issues in East Asian human rights, the future of East Asian NGOs, and the impact of economic growth on human rights in East Asia.

The strategies described here show that there is a rights enunciation and implementation process taking place outside of the United Nations, regional arrange-ments, and other international and national bodies designated to monitor and implement human rights. The article by Clarence Dias of the International Center for Law in Development in New York suggests that this process is going on in the real life struggles of people throughout Asia to achieve basic human security and dignity. Here rights are not conceptualized in a strictly legalistic sense, but rather are given meaning in unique ways by the very people at the grassroots level trying to protect them. The articles on the Filipino fisherfolk’s struggle for subsistence or Asian indigenous peoples’ struggles for cultural identity and self-determination illustrate enunciations of rights. Such bottom-up participatory approaches can result in people-initiated law reform and legislation with a strong human rights component. And, because many state instruments lack standards for increasingly salient human rights issues, such as the rights of indigenous peoples, approaches such as these have also contributed to the setting of international human rights standards.

Grassroots movements, often assisted by NGOs working with communities or people’s organizations, are frequently the engines of political reforms (or at least their implementation) intended to decentralize government and allow greater local autonomy and governance. Citizen participation, itself a human right, can spur innovation in public policy and governance, as demonstrated in the article on the implementation of the Organic Law on Villagers’ Committees in China.

Increased local autonomy can check the arbitrary power that has characterized many centralized and authoritarian East Asian governments, which have misused public trust and infringed upon civil and political rights by all too often disregarding the rights to political participation, to a fair hearing in civil and criminal matters, and to equality before the law. Articles on local government initiatives in Korea and China suggest that local government reforms, by ending corruption and mismanagement of public resources, can also assist the progressive implementation of economic and social rights. Local government, which tends to be both more transparent and more accessible to the com-munities it serves, is indispensable to determining citizens’ needs accurately and improving the accountability of government leaders to the people, especially with regard to upholding human rights standards.

A certain degree of awareness of human rights is needed in order for people-initiated political, legal, and social reforms to come into being, and to generate public pressure for the implementation of human rights. Not only is human rights education empowering for those communities struggling against abuses, but human rights training, which fosters tolerance, respect, and solidarity, is increasingly regarded as an effective means for preventing violations. The article on Dowa education illustrates how “liberation” education has helped reduce discrimination against minorities in Japan. A more general article on Asian challenges and achievements with regard to human rights education lays out examples of Asian NGOs’ supplementing their monitoring of violations with community-based human rights education programs, as well as lobbying for the integration of human rights into formal education programs. Importantly, the process of educating for human rights, along with NGOs’ role in it, has been recognized by the United Nations; on December 10, 1994, the General Assembly proclaimed a Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2005) and called on governments to work with NGOs to implement human rights education programs. Unfortunately, efforts to implement the plan of action for the UN decade have not been widespread.

Learning and empowerment are also at the heart of the article on Sisters in Islam’s work to advance women’s rights and status in Malaysia. The group seeks to engage Malaysian society in a participatory process of “cultural mediation” that, in this case, involves finding sources for internationally recognized human rights in the local Muslim culture and religious teachings, while also questioning the meaning and implications of dominant cultural norms. Sisters in Islam, like other civil society groups working within traditional societies, has found that recommendations for rights must be religiously and culturally informed if they are to confront religious, political, and community opposition effectively. This strategy, at least in the Malaysian context, has thus far provided a useful alternative to the “secular” approach of arguing for rights on the basis of universal claims to human rights, the rule of law, and democratization.

These strategies are interdependent components of the multifaceted process of realizing human rights. For example, receptive local government structures are needed to listen to and act upon local rights enunciations and people-initiated legal reforms. Human rights education is needed to raise rights awareness and assist people in developing local strategies to prevent abuses and claim their rights; this is true for the simple reason that people cannot claim rights they do not know they have or resort to legal mechanisms they do not know exist. At the same time, effective human rights education, if it is to build “a universal culture of human rights,” as envisioned in the General Assembly’s proclamation of the Decade for Human Rights Education, must be a participatory learning process that includes cultural mediation so that human rights are given meaning and made effective within each local context.

As a corollary to the above-mentioned grassroots-based strategies, this issue of Dialogue explores positive strategies undertaken by corporations. Corporate responsibility and corporate accountability can be defined respectively as companies’ recognition of their own interests within a human rights framework, and their legal obligations to abide by human rights standards and operate in the interests of society. At the Harvard Law School workshop, participant Thomas Donaldson of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School suggested that “it is false to assume that corporations act only when sanctions are imposed” or when economic trade-offs make it attractive to do so and that “with more clarity, corporations could also be a progressive force with regard to a number of human rights issues.” The article and interview on Reebok’s initiative—one that seeks not only to end the use of child labor in its Pakistani soccer ball factories, but also to improve education possibilities for village children—suggest the possibility of such progress.

These positive trends in corporate responsibility are only a beginning. Publicity for Reebok’s initiative, which is less than a year old, provides few details on the quality and effectiveness of the education, the ages of children targeted, and where it will leave the children once the program ends. In a telephone interview, Arvind Ganesan, a research associate at Human Rights Watch, cautioned that the remedies for child labor, at root a development problem, are complex. Reebok and other prominent companies, such as Levi Strauss, that have forbidden child labor in their “human rights standards” or “terms of engagement” and see education projects as a panacea should be cognizant of the numerous logistical problems that NGOs throughout the world have faced in similar education efforts.

Without a doubt, greater dialogue and cooperation among NGOs and corporations in addressing human rights issues are needed. NGO initiatives, like the Korean Economic Justice Institute’s ranking of companies according to social responsibility criteria, as described in this Dialogue, or the U.S. Council on Economic Priorities’ announcement of its 1997 Corporate Conscience Awards on the editorial pages of the New York Times, are encouraging dialogue and proving to be an effective way to motivate ethical corporate behavior. This would appear to be especially true in countries like Korea and Japan where corporations figure prominently in public life and where there is a special sensitivity to “losing face.” Cooperative initiatives, such as the Clinton administration’s task force on the apparel industry, that bring together government, NGOs, trade unions, and business are also a positive indication of where trends in corporate responsibility are going. But at the moment, these efforts are limited to specific industries where dialogue is in the interest of all parties and where negative publicity from NGOs and the media has brought abuses into the spotlight. Echoing opinions expressed by many activists working to improve human rights standards in the corporate sector, Ganesan said that until there are real international standards for corporate accountability and NGOs have increased monitoring capability, corporate responsibility will always be a cyclical process that arises in response to crisis.

The common goals of all of the human rights strategies discussed in this issue are capacity building, dialogue, learning, and the achievement of greater accountability and responsibility with regard to human rights; these goals apply to individuals as well as institutions, to state and nonstate actors, be they corporations or religious authorities. The central actors are local people attempting to give voice and meaning to their rights, and their NGO partners in this process. Moreover, the rights enunciations being made by these grassroots collectivities and the NGOs working with them throughout East Asia place an equal emphasis on economic, social, and cultural rights on the one hand and civil and political rights on the other. This suggests that giving priority status to the civil and political rights of individuals, as the international human rights regime is wont to do, may unfairly overlook the rich human rights implementation experiences to be found throughout East Asia and the world.

Read More: Human Rights, Cultural Rights, Human Rights, International Relations, Asia, East Asia

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