Constructing Human Rights in the Age of Globalization
Constructing Human Rights in the Age of Globalization

The Challenge to International Human Rights

Mar 26, 2003

This is a chapter in Constructing Human Rights in the Age of Globalization, published by M.E. Sharpe (April 2003).

A commonly held notion among Western liberals is that Asian, African, and Arab perspectives on human rights are the greatest challenge to universality—the implication being that once the international human rights community reckons with the countries of these outlier regions, it will have eliminated the obstacle to universal human rights. This idea is mistaken. It ignores both the fact that even within the West, particularly in the United States, there are significant numbers of people who hold ideas of human rights that are in tension with the dominant liberal interpretation of international human rights, and the fact that within Asia, Africa, and the Arab world there are strong traditions that are consistent with it.

Sweeping characterizations of regions or civilizations have been widely discredited since Samuel Huntington’s publication of The Clash of Civilizations.1 The analysis has been accompanied by an “us” versus “them” rhetoric that reflects an unconscious but persistent failure to acknowledge that regions consist of diverse cultures and that all societies bear multiple and conflicting ethical perspectives. Careful observers know that any reference to an “Asian” perspective, for example, signals an ideological purpose: namely cultural nationalism, and likely a defensive reaction to Western pressure. To equate a region or society’s human rights perspective with cultural nationalism is to neglect the efforts of many brave, highly committed people around the world struggling to promote support for human rights and take a stand against abuses in the settings they call home.

In this chapter I argue that conflicts over the meaning of human rights and the priority to accord to them occur within as well as across regions, reflecting their diversity. There is not only a need but also a basis, therefore, for resisting the temptation to view conflicts as occurring primarily across North-South or East-West lines. I begin by presenting a typology of the major ideological challenges to international human rights, drawing upon the work of Rhoda Howard, to support the point that the challenges are emanating from all parts of the globe, including the West. The empirical part of this chapter is devoted to a consideration of the human rights debates within three non-Western regions—Asia, the Arab world, and Africa—and in the United States. In all four settings I contrast the caricaturized version of the debates, which emanates from cultural nationalist agendas, with the debates among local activists and intellectuals. Two observations emerge: first, that genuine disagreement takes place not so much over human rights principles, but in their implementation and prioritization; and second, that Western human rights scholars must take their cue from scholars and activists in other parts of the world and shift their focus from a preoccupation with cultural relativism to the project of cultural legitimation.

Who Is Challenging “International Human Rights”?

Typically the scholarly debate over human rights is thought to take place between two opposing camps: the universalists and the cultural relativists. The universalists build their understanding of human rights upon the liberal tradition whereby rights are accorded to the individual by virtue of being human. Cultural relativists, on the other hand, argue that values are grounded in specific communities and that the communal group, not the individual, is the basic social unit. In reality, however, the ideological spectrum is much more complex; realizing that complexity can help point us to where the challenges to international human rights actually lie.

In Human Rights and the Search for Community, Rhoda Howard describes five contemporary ideological challenges to human rights.2 Notably, each of these views is put forward within the North as well the South. “Radical capitalism,” a view held by Western liberals, dismisses social and economic human rights as irrelevant and idealistic. To Howard, this view represents a “capitalist culture’s rejection of economic rights” and confinement of rights to property rights and “the civil and political rights needed to carry out one’s own affairs in peace.”3 The behavioral manifestation of radical capitalism, according to Howard, is “social minimalism”: the belief in economic freedom without a corresponding recognition of the duty to assist those in need. The fact that social minimalism is so prevalent in the United States, a predominantly Christian society, underscores the fallacy of trying to characterize contemporary societies by their philosophical or religious roots. Clearly the conduct of American political life is not guided strictly by the principles of the “good Samaritan” or “do unto others,” and often stands in contradiction to them.

The four other challenges to human rights that Howard identifies all overlap with what in the West is called “communitarianism.” “Traditionalism” is adherence to the notion that international human rights conflict with traditional rules for orderly social behavior, and that within the confines of the group, the society protects the human rights of its members. It is this challenge that is usually presented under the guise of a distinctively “Asian,” “African,” or “Arab” perspective of human rights. “Reactionary conservatism” holds that the “excesses of contemporary freedom,” such as women’s liberation, homosexual rights, and so forth—in other words “excessive individualism”—are antithetical to social order. This view was inherent in the “Asian values” argument promoted by some Asian officials in the mid-1990s challenging the applicability of international human rights to Asia. It is also present in the West, where the argument resonated among large pockets of the population.

Howard’s fourth category, “left collectivism,” is a reaction against the West. Left collectivism holds that national self-determination and relief from Western imperialism and multinational corporations are the most important human rights. Adherents in the West can be found among ethno-religious minorities. Howard’s final category is “status radicalism.” Like the politics of identity, status radicalism is the belief that since rights are systematically denied to certain groups, one’s group status and protection of that group’s rights are more important than the protection of their individual rights. Many feminists and black activists in the Western world put forth this argument, demonstrating the failure of these societies “to incorporate all social groups in North America’s heterogeneous environment.”4 Here again the rejection of the liberal human rights philosophy is not strictly a “third-world” perspective.

Missing from Howard’s typology is religious fundamentalism, which while close to traditionalism, cannot be viewed as the same. Generally speaking, religious fundamentalism in its varied Islamic, Christian, and Jewish forms takes the notion of local norms much further than Howard’s traditionalism does in that adherents believe that human rights are ordained by God alone. They recognize only the codification of those norms within the religious laws of Sharia, the Bible, and the Torah and dismiss other public, local, and international law, including international human rights. Howard’s typology also does not specify the often heard critique of human rights that they conflict with societies and cultures – including many non-fundamentalist religious cultures -- that place a greater emphasis on duties and obligations over rights and challenge the notion of equality, although this argument can be accommodated within traditionalism.

This typology helps us to see that challenges to international human rights principles are not isolated to particular regions; rather human rights have multiple and shifting meanings and their contestation appears to be universal. This observation weakens the notion that there can be one or two or three outlier countries or regions that stand in the way of universal human rights, and underscores the need for analysis that is locally- situated, historical, and comparative. The rest of this chapter is devoted to an examination of rights discourses in both the non-West and the West in an effort to gain a better understanding of where genuine differences may lie.

Regional Perspectives of Human Rights

While there is no one Asian, African, Arab, or American perspective on human rights, it is possible to identify two broad types of perspectives within a given society: those wrapped up in cultural nationalism, which are often tied to and manipulated by the government; and what one might call the “activist-intellectual” perspective. The cultural nationalist perspective is easy to know: it can be found in government propaganda and policy statements aimed at both local and international audiences. The activist-intellectual perspective in many of these societies is less accessible, particularly since the people asking questions about and debating rights, governance, and social justice—intellectuals who tend to be also deeply involved in the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—often must do so within a climate of repression.

But even in the case of politically open societies, such as the United States, the human rights perspectives of the many groups extending the liberal interpretation of human rights remain little known simply because they cannot command the attention of the mainstream media. For example, even few Americans are aware of the efforts of people like Clarice Friloux of Louisiana, Richard Murphy of North Carolina, Ramona Ortega of New York City, Cheri Honkala of Philadelphia, and Loretta Ross of Atlanta, Georgia, who are leading movements to fight for the recognition of economic and social rights—relating to the right to health, the right to a clean environment, the right to housing, and welfare rights—in the United States.5

Non-Western perspectives on human rights are being heavily shaped today by several overlapping trends: globalization, secularization, urbanization, and a resulting breaking down of community. These trends are also having their effect in the West. A major distinction between the discourses in the West and in the non-West is that in the non-West the social and economic dislocation resulting from globalization is coupled with another effect of globalization: exposure to the idea of human rights. The result has been a greater emphasis on economic and social rights in the South. A salient exception to this phenomenon is Latin America, where the human rights struggle has since its inception in the early 1970s been identified with the denunciation of violations and the defense of victims of authoritarian military dictatorships. Today, with so-called democratic consolidation in the region and the gross economic inequality and poverty that pervades, there is an active debate among human rights activists in these countries over whether to continue to prioritize civil and political rights or to move toward a new agenda that would include a much broader spectrum of rights.6

Activist-intellectuals from outside the West concerned with human rights in their societies tend to focus their energies in two areas: first, to look within their cultures for values and practices that resonate with the current human rights regime; and second, to attempt to enrich the current international rights regimes with values and practices from their cultures that may also resonate with Western ideas, but are not currently part of the international rights regime. The palavar political system of communal Africa, where the chiefs routinely consulted elders, as an argument for the right to political participation, is an example of the former; and promoting Confucian ideas about respect for the elderly, a notion that cannot be found in the existing UN international human rights documents, is an example of the latter.

A new attribute of the regional discourses among activist-intellectuals is that they have become integrated into a global discourse that includes the West. There are several recent examples of cross-cultural dialogues in Asia, spurred on by the Asian values debate (discussed below), most initiated by Western scholars.7 Not only have the ideas generated from these dialogues begun to influence human rights debates locally, but they have also prompted serious reflection on the part of Western participants and observers about the validity of their own claims.8

Absent a catalyst like the Asian values argument, there has not been an engagement between Western and non-Western academics in Africa or the Middle East with the intensity of that between Westerners and Asians. But there has been a mixing of ideas of human rights through other means. Most notably, the major UN human rights conferences that began in the 1990s—Rio (environment), Vienna (human rights), Cairo (population), Copenhagen (social exclusion), Beijing (women’s rights), Istanbul (human settlements), and Durban (racism)—have brought increasing opportunities for the integration of regional discourses with global discourses. In what follows, I provide overviews of the contemporary human rights debates within four regions–Asia, the Arab world, Africa, and the United States—contrasting the cultural nationalist perspective with the intellectual perspective.9


The cultural nationalist perspective most closely associated with Asia can be found in the Asian values debate of the early to middle 1990s, which was sparked principally by the provocative writings and speeches of Singaporean senior minister Lee Kuan Yew and other senior Singaporean officials.10 The thrust of the Asian values argument is that Asia can provide a countermodel to the “American model” or way of life, which has been overrun by civil society, shattered by excessive individualism, and has left the United States ridden with violent crime, drugs, guns, vagrancy, and immoral behavior. The countermodel, which relies on the strong hand of the wise and benevolent patriarch, can succeed by instilling respect for “Asian values”—obedience, thrift, industriousness, respect for elders and authority, an emphasis on family, and restraint of immediate gratification. Underlying all this is the claim that Asians prioritize economic and social rights over civil and political rights, the community over the individual, and social order and stability over democracy and individual freedom. It is important to note that these values are not so much “Asian” as they are those most often identified with Confucianism, which leaves out Asian countries throughout South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia without a Confucian past.11 In this sense “Asian values” is a misnomer. While maintaining the “traditionalist” position on human rights, Asian governments have come to see engaging in the international debate on human rights as a way of warding off Western influence. As Chinese legal scholar Xin Chunying explains in the case of China:

Compared to Western societies, China places much less emphasis on individual rights and significantly more emphasis on the value of the individual in terms of his or her contribution to harmony in society. In fact, there is a strong reaction against the younger generation which thinks more about their “selfish” rights than the good of society. This is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. But today, in contrast to the past, human rights is not perceived as a threat to China’s cultural identity. Rather, engaging in the international human rights discourse is seen as a way of resisting foreign influence and keeping Chinese culture distinct.12

The Asian values rhetoric can thus be seen as a manifestation of this desire on the part of Asian governments to engage the international community in a debate on human rights while attempting to enjoin their people in an affirmation of the cultural nationalist perspective.

The primary target of Lee and his Singaporean colleagues was his home audience, and to some extent Western audiences. Yet his remarks were well received throughout Asia, notably even in the democratic (and non-Confucian) Philippines, where Lee gave a major speech on the subject. But many Asian activist-intellectuals remained unconvinced. For example, Japanese political philosopher Tatsuo Inoue argued that Asian values are an extension of Orientalism or what he terms “Asian Orientalism.”13 And as Singapore legal scholar Kevin Y. L. Tan noted at the height of the Asian values debate, “Asians appear to be speaking from a position of strength—strength drawn not from the merits of intellectual arguments but from their economic success.”14 The financial crisis that struck many of the East and Southeast Asian economies in the late 1990s put a hole in the argument that Asian economic success is due to the stability of the authoritarian and neoauthoritarian governments. But the unexpected recovery of the region just a few years later allowed the Asian values argument to regain some momentum.

Among Asian activist-intellectuals and human rights activists, two perspectives of human rights stand out. The first perspective is found in the NGO statement during the Bangkok regional preparatory conference leading up to the 1993 UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, which supports the universality and indivisibility of human rights:

We affirm our commitment to the principle of indivisibility and interdependence of human rights, be they economic, social and cultural, or civil and political rights. There must be a holistic and integrated approach to human rights. One set of rights cannot be used to bargain for another.15

Support for the indivisibility of rights can also be found in the Bangkok Declaration, the statement crafted by Asian government officials at the conference, although it was not picked up within the official rhetoric once conference representatives returned home and received little attention within the ensuing “Asian values” debate.16

The second perspective put forth by Asian NGOs is that the Asian values argument should not be dismissed as cultural relativism, but rather that it is important to remain open to the possibility that justifications for human rights can be found in local traditions.17 The project of cultural legitimation has been a primary endeavor of Asian activist-intellectuals in recent years, at times carried out together with their Western counterparts. An example is the work of the Malaysian women’s group Sisters in Islam. This group advocates for the right of women to hold public office, protection of women from domestic violence, and other campaigns for women’s rights that rely chiefly upon the technique of locating the justification for those rights in the Quran.18

The Arab World

Among the common misperceptions of the Middle East is that Islam is the only factor in the attitudes one finds toward human rights. The impression is fed by the manipulation of Islam by conservatives, who invoke Islam in denying the applicability of international human rights, much the same way the proponents of Asian values use Confucianism. As Ann Elizabeth Mayer writes, “The precepts of Islam, like those of Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and other major religions possessed of long and complex traditions, are susceptible to interpretations that can and do create conflicts between religious doctrine and human rights principles or that reconcile the two.”19

A significant difference between the use of Islam in Arab rights discourses and the use of Confucianism in Asia is that whereas principally the governments of East Asia have used Confucianism in defense of their derogation of rights, in the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world (including Southeast Asia, as seen in the example above) the NGO community invokes Islam in protesting repression by regimes. In fact, the debate over human rights within the Arab world is, in the most basic sense, between reformists (be they Islamists or secularists) and conservatives.

The discourse among Muslims in the Middle East can be summarized as follows. Globalization has revitalized cultural identity, but it has also helped the spread of ideas and information about other religious and cultural traditions. Overall, Muslims are concerned about losing their ability to control their own economies, their position in world power, and perhaps most importantly, their cultural assets. With respect to this set of issues, there are three identifiable perspectives: to Muslim conservatives, individual rights are immaterial to social justice; to Muslim liberals, the Muslim world must adjust to universal standards of human rights, an adjustment that requires a transformation in Islamic thinking; and to Muslim reformers, the revolution in information and communications technology, along with higher incomes and educational opportunities, offers new standards against which to assess progress toward the realization of human rights ideals.20

Contrary to popular belief, with a few exceptions, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, modern Muslim politics has generally acquired a pragmatic dimension, and radical Islam has been relegated to the fringes of Muslim societies.21 Current reformist thinking in the Muslim world focuses on tolerance, civil society, minority rights, women’s rights, cultural identity, and social welfare. Women’s struggles for freedom in the Middle East have turned them into agents of modernization and globalization. Many reform-minded women in Iran take their lines from the transnational women’s rights movement.

While the preceding discussion emphasizes the perspectives and dynamics among Muslims, it is important to note that Islam does not characterize the entire Arab world. In Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, for example, there are strong Christian populations, and in many cases it is the Christians who are at the forefront of the local human rights movement.

Compared to Asia, there appears to be greater popular pressure on the governments of the Middle East to change. Unlike in East Asia, where economic success is closely correlated with a fairly equitable distribution of educational and income opportunities, in the Middle East, failed economies and the rising gap between the rich and the poor have swelled the ranks of the discontented. In particular, a growing middle class are demanding better jobs, housing, educational opportunities, political pluralism, transparency, and accountability, especially in the context of a globalizing world. Whereas Asians attribute their economic success to stable governments, in most Arab countries such stability today is hardly defined in these terms; rather, people tend to speak of a crisis of governance. The lack of consensus on modernization and social change in the Arab world has resulted in a “cultural politics” that reflects an ongoing internal struggle over who defines cultural meanings, symbols, and ideas.


The social and political concerns of Africans are shaped mainly by the legacy of colonialism and postcolonial instability together with the severe socioeconomic conditions the continent faces: staggering international debt, the highest number of refugees in the world, widespread starvation, and severe resource depletion. Despite this situation, the local African debate on human rights today is not as active as either the Asian or Middle Eastern debates. This is likely attributable to the fact that there are relatively few locally based human rights NGOs in Africa. With the exception of a very small number of activist organizations, most African NGOs are either church-based or law-oriented, such as legal aid groups or bar associations.22

Foreign scholars of Africa and international human rights groups, therefore, generate much of the human rights activity and debate that takes place in Africa today. The few indigenous human rights groups that do exist, which are for the most part not membership-based organizations, are stigmatized within Africa as “elitist” and “out of touch.” African social justice advocates, in particular, criticize them for their dependency on foreign funds and for having stronger ties with the international elite than with the common African people they claim to serve.

This critique has fueled the perception among Africans of the human rights regime as not just Western-inspired, but as something foreign and even imperialist. The support that Western powers gave over the years to Africa’s dictators—perpetuators of massive violations of human rights—has raised suspicions about the intent of Western governments and NGOs in advocating for human rights. Some observers see the crisis of local legitimacy of the international human rights movement in Africa as stemming from its failure to build coalitions with the local human rights movement, thereby rendering the international movement (also known as “secondary activism”) vulnerable to being hijacked by other political agendas.23 The fact that in the 1990s the international human rights community was ineffective in stopping the genocide in Rwanda further discredited human rights in the region. But perhaps the greatest failing of the international human rights community, according to some Africans, is not exposing the human rights abuses of the imperialist system that Africa has long been subject to, and not promoting Africa’s main human rights problem: the violation of the right to self-determination. It is this failing that has brought the human rights movement to the point of near irrelevance, according to a number of African critiques.24

Most recently, some scholars have argued that there was in Africa’s past a vibrant rights discourse that has been lost in the contemporary debate on human rights, which if drawn upon can become the basis for a renewal of a genuinely local debate on human rights.25 They point out that as early as the 1960s, when most African countries became independent, African leaders and activist-intellectuals from Nyerere of Tanzania to Nkrumah of Ghana were involved in a continentwide discussion about how to best guarantee human rights in their respective postcolonial states. In 1981, well before the Asian values debate gained currency in the West, the Organization of African Unity adopted the African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights, which emphasized economic, social, and cultural rights, the rights of people to self-determination, and the right to existence, equality, and nondomination. According to human rights historian Bonny Ibhawoh, “At a time when the rest of the world was more concerned about civil and political rights, the African charter reflected the human rights concern about equality and non-domination of most Africans.”26

To the extent that there remains a local debate about the possibilities of human rights, its characteristics are remarkably similar to those of the Asian values debate in several respects. Cultural nationalists arguing against the applicability of international human rights for Africa claim that the notion of the individual, upon which human rights rest, does not exist in Africa. Instead the individual’s worth can only be found in the context of the community. Here again, primacy is placed on the communal nature of rights and social harmony, with an emphasis on duties and obligations over rights. Standing opposite the proponents of those claims are activist-intellectuals, such as Ibhawoh, Abdullahi An-Na’im and Makau wa Mutua, who are seeking to identify a foundation for the legitimation of universal human rights in the African context and to inform the cross-fertilization of ideas between Africa and the rest of the world. A third prevalent argument made by some African scholars is that human rights in the West developed over a long period of struggle for democracy and that Africa has yet to go through these stages.

Also in Africa, as in other Southern Hemisphere contexts, the claim that economic and social rights should take priority over civil and political rights is prevalent. Yet, while many African activist-intellectuals hold the position that the two sets of rights are equally important, they tend not to dispute the claim as forcefully as their counterparts in other regions do. This attitude reflects the long-standing Marxist approach that still has many adherents in Africa today.

The United States

The split between the cultural nationalist perspective and the intellectual perspective of human rights is also found in the United States. The American rights debate centers around four main issues: what priority to accord economic, social, and cultural rights; the applicability of international human rights law to the United States; when, if ever, to use capital punishment; and most recently, whether there is justification for curtailing civil liberties in the interests of national security.

In one of his many recent writings on the human rights movement, Michael Ignatieff reminds his readers that the American vernacular of justice—civil liberties, civil rights, labor rights—is not the international language of human rights.27 The fact that Americans and the international human rights movement based in the West have long equated human rights with civil liberties is precisely the cause of so much resistance to “international human rights” throughout the world. And when human rights advocates in the West rebuffed genuine efforts to promote a more expansive notion of rights, they only fueled this sentiment. Such was the response southern NGOs in Asia and elsewhere faced in the early 1990s when in the wake of the end of the Cold War they sought to fight the historical tendency—particularly strong in the United States—to delink civil and political from economic, social, and cultural rights. At that time, then–executive director of Human Rights Watch Aryeh Neier reportedly pointed out that human rights activists in a number of Third World countries, especially Asia, have long held the view that both kinds of concerns are rights. Their argument has not proved persuasive in the West, however, and none of the leading international nongovernmental groups concerned with human rights has become an advocate of economic and social rights. 28

Much has changed in the last decade, however. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the world’s first and second largest human rights organizations headquartered in London and New York respectively, have put major effort into thinking through and developing an effective strategy for championing economic, social, and cultural rights.29 In addition, in the 1990s a new organization, the Center for Economic and Social Rights, which also houses the International Network for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, was established in New York, devoted entirely to promoting these so-called second-generation rights.

Americans are accustomed to thinking of human rights as a foreign policy issue, not as a matter of domestic concern. A minority group of left-leaning activists and intellectuals have long been pushing for the recognition of a broad range of rights for Americans, not only civil and political but also, increasingly, economic and social rights. Yet as in other domains of international affairs, American cultural nationalists resist the notion that international human rights rules should apply to the United States. The latter view appears to have won out in Washington, where the Senate has ratified few international laws and, most notoriously, has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child—the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history, with 191 participating nations—making the United States the only country not to do so.30 Together with the efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the area in which American exceptionalism has most infuriated the international community has been in its refusal to support the International Criminal Court.31

One treaty upon which there has been recent action in the U.S. Congress is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW.32 The debate on ratification of this treaty has touched a nerve among conservatives not unlike the reaction that has been taking place to the treaty in societies throughout the developing world. They have attacked the treaty, which the United States was instrumental in drafting and which President Carter signed in 1980, as “the work of international forces promoting abortion rights, sexual freedom, and promiscuity, while undermining motherhood” and “one more attempt to impose global norms on the U.S.” 33 To date, the United States is the only industrialized nation that has not ratified the convention.

Another area of significant controversy is the use of the death penalty in the United States. Protests against the death penalty have been taking place since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, after overturning the death penalty in 1972. In 1985, the Council of Europe adopted Protocol 6, which outlawed the death penalty during peacetime; in 1994 ratification of Protocol 6 was made a precondition for EU membership. In recent years activists have used the tactic of shaming the United States by drawing attention to the company it keeps in its liberal use of the death penalty. In 2001 the United States, along with China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, accounted for 90 percent of the world’s executions.34 The United States has the dubious distinction of being the only developed country that still has and actively imposes the death penalty.35

The American perspective on human rights priorities is also becoming remarkably similar to that of nations the United States and the international human rights movement have long targeted in the arena of curtailing civil rights for the sake of national security. Such is the domestic fallout of the Bush administration’s worldwide campaign against terrorism in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist incident. Public criticism of the Bush administration and its measures to curtail civil liberties immediately following the World Trade Center attacks was limited to groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other, smaller civil liberties organizations. In fact, the public tolerance for detention of terrorism suspects and open discussion of the merits of torture during interrogation in left-leaning publications, such as The Atlantic Monthly, shocked many American rights advocates. Pundits at all points on the political spectrum argue that the U.S. government’s policies in the aftermath of September 11 reflect a necessary trade-off between freedom and security. Wire tapping of phone calls and e-mails is now acceptable; cable repairmen, truckers, and meter maids are encouraged, through the TIPS program, to report “suspicious activity” to a government hotline; and the Freedom of Information Act has been effectively thrown out with the issuance of Executive Order 13233, barring public access to presidential documents from the past four presidents. The justification for these measures resonates with arguments once heard only in places such as China and Singapore, which have long used public security as an excuse to limit individual rights. Similar claims to be protecting “more important rights” are being echoed in Malaysia’s renewed usage of the Internal Security Act,36 and in the campaign slogan “firm hand, large heart” of Álvaro Uribe, the newly elected president of Colombia, who sees greater state authority—not negotiations—as the first step toward resolving Colombia’s crisis.37


In this brief overview of regional perspectives of human rights in four regions I have tried to show that conflicts over human rights are taking place across the board, not along civilizational lines and not primarily between North and South as so often assumed. The challenges to human rights, including the suspension of civil liberties, resisting economic and social rights, and the denial of rights to certain groups, are taking place in our own backyards. At the same time we see a creative borrowing of ideas and unplanned convergence of human rights debates worldwide among what I have been calling “activist-intellectuals.”

Several lessons can be drawn. The first is the most obvious, but also one that bears repeating: while some regions are more diverse than others—the characterization of “Asian values” is a particularly big stretch—all regions consist of diverse cultures and carry differing viewpoints on human rights. Those views range from the assertion that local values are compatible with human rights principles; to the claim that human rights values are a product of Western culture—or in the case of American critics of CEDAW, liberal international forces—and therefore alien to the local culture; to in-between views that local values are not so much inimical to international human rights, but that in the application of rights they receive different priority. We need to recognize the diversity of human rights views existing within a society and avoid construing a government’s human rights rhetoric as “the Asian,” “the American,” “the African,” or “the Arab” perspective. To do so is to undermine the genuine debates on human rights happening within these cultures, and worse, to be complicit with states in silencing these voices.

Second, at the same time that we are seeing convergence of perspectives, different societies continue to have different human rights priorities that stem from their distinct histories and experiences. It is a mistake, however, to interpret the difference of priorities as a disagreement over norms. Investigations of rights discourses in different regions rarely turn up a conflict over principles. The death penalty and abortion—areas in which U.S. policy is heavily influenced by perspectives that go against the grain of the emerging international consensus—are two of the exceptions. Instead the area of difference almost always lies in the implementation and prioritization rights.

The third message is to scholars of human rights: cultural relativism is not where “the action” is. Rather than be sidetracked by the politically motivated statements of cultural nationalists, human rights scholars would do well to turn their attention to the projects of cultural legitimation that activist-intellectuals are engaging with in virtually every corner of the globe. Human rights advocates in the United States are among the newcomers. In 1997, with core support from the Ford Foundation, an initiative called “Human Rights USA” was started with the stated goal of demonstrating “that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights documents are as relevant to life in the U.S. as they are to life in other countries, and to improve the protection of human rights in American communities by increasing Americans’ awareness of these rights.”38 There is plenty of work to be done in this area, and focusing on cultural legitimation rather than cultural relativism is a surer way of meeting the many challenges to international human rights everywhere.


I would like to thank Jess Messer, Erin Mahoney, and Yesim Yemni, who provided valuable research assistance, and Bonny Ibhawoh, Jess Messer, Mahmood Monshipouri, Andrew Nathan, and Kavita Philip for their helpful comments. In 1999 I published with Daniel A. Bell a collection called The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights (New York: Cambridge, 1999). In the opening paragraph we explained that the preposition “for” in the title was used deliberately to indicate that we did not take the view that East Asia is a threat to international human rights; rather the book was an appeal to the human rights community to be receptive to the contributions East Asian intellectuals could make to the evolving rights regime. In this chapter’s title, however, the preposition “to” does refer to the threats—perceived and real—to the idea of universal human rights.

1 Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996). For critiques, see contributions by Liu Binyan, “Civilization is Grafting; No Culture is an Island,” (pp 46- 49), Jeanne Kirkpatrick, “Modernizing Imperative; Tradition and Change,” (pp 50-53) and Kishore Mahbubani, “The Dangers of Decadence; What the Rest Can Teach the West,” (pp36-40)in The Clash of Civilizations? The Debate, A Foreign Affairs Reader (New York: Foreign Affairs, 1996), pp. XX–XX; Fouad Ajami, “The Summoning,” Foreign Affairs September–October 1993 (Ajami’s response to Huntington’s first publication on the topic); Edward Said, “The Clash of Ignorance,” The Nation, October 22, 2001; John Esposito, Unholy War in the Name of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); and Stanley Hoffmann, “Clash of Globalizations,” Foreign Affairs, July–August 2002. [Back to Top]
2 Rhoda Howard, Human Rights and the Search for Community (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 3–5. [Back to Top]
3 p. 3, This position and its prevalence in North America is Howard’s main concern in this book. [Back to Top]
4 Howard, Human Rights and the Search for Community, p. 212. [Back to Top]
5 To learn more about these efforts, see Human Rights Dialogue ser. 2, nos. 1, 2, 6 (New York: Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs). To learn about the work of Cheri Honkalu to promote welfare rights in the United States, see [Back to Top]
6 See Eduardo Cáceres, “Building a Culture of Rights,” and Carlos Bosombrío, “Looking Ahead: New Challenges for Human Rights Advocacy,” both in NACLA Report on the Americas 34, no. 1 (July–August 2000): 6-8 XX–XX; and Carlos Bosombrío, “Crime: A Latin American Challenge for Human Rights,” Human Rights Dialogue ser. 2, no. 1 (Winter 2000) (New York: Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs). [Back to Top]
7 These dialogues resulted in a number of book-length volumes including Joanne R. Bauer and Daniel A. Bell, eds., The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Peter van Ness, ed., Debating Human Rights: Critical Essays from the United States and Asia (London: Routledge Press, 1999); William Theodore de Bary and Tu Wei Ming, Confucianism and Human Rights (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); and James T. H. Tang, Human Rights and International Relations in the Asia-Pacific Region (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995). In addition the Korea Journal, published jointly with the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) out of Paris, carried a debate recently on Asian values in its Summer, Autumn, and Winter 2001 issues that involved both Westerners and Asians. [Back to Top]
8 See, for example, Roger T. Ames, “Continuing the Conversation on Chinese Human Rights,” Ethics & International Affairs 11 (1997): 177-207. [Back to Top]
9 For this section I have relied upon several texts, which are noted, as well as conversations with the following regional experts: Daniel A. Bell, Alex de Waal, Bonny Ibhawoh, Tony Lang, Mahmood Monshipouri, and Chidi Odinkalu. [Back to Top]
10 See, for example, Kishore Mahbubani, “The United States: Go East, Young Man,” Washington Quarterly 17, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 5-23; Kishore Mahbubani, “The Dangers of Decadence: What the Rest Can Teach the West,” Foreign Affairs, September–October 1993; Fareed Zakaria, “Culture Is Destiny: A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew,” Foreign Affairs, March–April 1994; Bilahari Kausikan, “An East Asian Approach to Human Rights,” Buffalo Journal of International Law 263 (1995–1996): 5-23; and Bilahari Kausikan, “Governance that Works,” 8 , Democracy (April 1997): 24-34. During the mid-1990s, there were also media reports of speeches on the topic given by Malaysian and Singaporean officials in both Western and Asian capitals. Examples accessible on the Internet include Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Bin Mohamad’s speech at the Twenty-ninth International General Meeting of the Pacific Basin Economic Council, Washington, DC, April 21, 1996,; Anwar Bin Ibrahim’s speech at the International Conference on Rethinking Human Rights, Kuala Lumpur, Malasia, July 12, 1994,; and a speech by Malaysian law professor Rohimi HJ Shapiee, “Third Generation Human Rights: Rights of the Third World—Conception and Policy Considerations,” Dwan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1994, as cited in Glyn Howells, “Which Way’s South? Asian Values and Universal Human Rights,” [Back to Top]
11 In fact, even the assertion that such values are “Confucian” has been subject to intense debate among Confucian scholars. See, for example, Daniel A. Bell and Hahm Chaibong, Confucianism for the Modern World (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming); William Theodore de Bary and Tu Wei Ming, Confucianism and Human Rights ( (New York : Columbia University Press, 1997) and Theodore de Bary, Asian Values and Human Rights (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998). [Back to Top]
12 Xin Chunying, “A Brief History of the Modern Human Rights Discourse in China,” Human Rights Dialogue ser. 1, no. 3 (December 1995) (New York: Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs). [Back to Top]
13 See Tatsuo Inoue, “Liberal Democracy and Asian Orientalism,” in Bauer and Bell, The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, pp. 27–59. [Back to Top]
14 Kevin Y. L. Tan, “What Asian Think About the West’s Response to the Human Rights Debate,” Human Rights Dialogue ser. 1, no. 4 (March 1996) (New York: Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs). [Back to Top]
15 “Bangkok NGO Declaration on Human Rights and Plan of Action: Joint Statement of Several Human Rights and Development NGOs Presented at the Regional Meeting for the Asia-Pacific in Preparation for the UN World Conference on Human’ Rights,” March 29, 1993, (accessed August 12, 2002). [Back to Top]
16 “The Bangkok Declaration,” adopted at the Asia Intergovernmental Meeting, Bangkok, March 29–April 2, 1993, in preparation for the Second UN World Conference on Human Rights, (accessed August 12, 2002). The Preamble reads: “Reiterating the interdependence and indivisibility of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, and the inherent interrelationship between development, democracy, universal enjoyment of all human rights, and social justice, which must be addressed in an integrated and balanced manner.” Article 10 reads: “[The Ministers and representatives of Asian States . . . ] Reaffirm the interdependence and indivisibility of economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights and the need to give equal emphasis to all categories of human rights.” [Back to Top]
17 See comment by Philippines human rights activist Cecelia Jimenez in “Human Rights in the Post-Cold War Era: The Cases of North Korea, China, and Burma,” Human Rights Dialogue ser. 1, no. 1 (May 1994) (New York: Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs). [Back to Top]
18 For a more detailed description of the advocacy activities of Sisters of Islam and examples of their arguments, see Norani Othman, “Grounding Human Rights Arguments in Non-Western Culture: Shari’a and the Citizenship Rights of Women in a Modern Islamic State,” in Bauer and Bell, The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, pp. 169–192. For another example of cultural legitimation in Asia, see the chapter by Suwanna Satha-Anand in Bauer and Bell, The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, pp. 193–211. [Back to Top]
19 Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), p. xi. [Back to Top]
20 See Mahmood Monshipouri and Reza Motameni, “Globalization, Sacred Beliefs, and Defiance: Is Human Rights Discourse Relevant in the Muslim World?” Journal of Church and State 42 4 (Autumn 2000): 709–736. [Back to Top]
21 Ibid. [Back to Top]
22 See Issa G. Shivji, The Concept of Human Rights in Africa, Codesria Book Series (London: Codeseria Book Series, 1989). [Back to Top]
23 See Chidi Odinkalu, “Why More Africans Don’t Use Human Rights Language,” Human Rights Dialogue ser. 2, no. 1 (Winter 1999) (New York: Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs). [Back to Top]
24 Shivji, The Concept of Human Rights. [Back to Top]
25 See Bonny Ibhawoh, “Human Rights and Cultural Relativism: Reconsidering the Africanist Discourse,” Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights 19, no. 1 (2001): 43–62; Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Makau wa Mutua, “The Banjul Charter and the African Cultural Fingerprint: An Evaluation of the Language of Duties,” Virginia Journal of International Law 35 (1995): 339–380; and Makau Wa Mutua, “Reformulating the Discourse of the Human Rights Movement,” East African Journal of Peace and Human Rights 3, no. 2 (1996): pp 317-324. [Back to Top]

26 Author’s e-mail exchange with Bonny Ibhawoh, August 8, 2002. [Back to Top]
27 Michael Ignatieff, “The Rights Stuff,” New York Review of Books 49, no. 10 (June 13, 2002): 18. [Back to Top]
28 Cited by Chris Jochnick in “Human Rights for the Next Century,” Human Rights Dialogue ser. 1, no. 10 (September 1997) (New York: Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs) p. 6.. [Back to Top]
29 Today, Human Rights Watch’s Web site reads: “Since its formation in 1978, Human Rights Watch has focused mainly on upholding civil and political rights, but in recent years we have increasingly addressed economic, social and cultural rights as well. We focus particularly on situations in which our methodology of investigation and reporting is most effective, such as when arbitrary or discriminatory governmental conduct lies behind an economic, social and cultural rights violation.” (accessed August 21, 2002). How to “skill up” on economic, social, and cultural rights was a major agenda item at Amnesty International’s 2002 general meeting. For a report of that meeting, see (accessed August 21, 2002). [Back to Top]
30 Only two countries, Somalia and the United States, have not ratified this celebrated agreement. However, since Somalia currently does not have the governmental capacity to ratify a treaty, the United States stands alone as the only remaining nation that can ratify the convention. [Back to Top]
31 In the eyes of the international community, the current U.S. administration has “launched an all-out effort not just to win an absolute exemption from the court’s jurisdiction for Americans but, in the view of the court’s supporters, to strangle it at birth” (“Tipping the Scales of Justice,” The Economist, July 1, 2002, p. 1.) Since the Bush administration on May 6, 2000, “unsigned” the treaty signed by President Clinton on the eve of his departure from office, the United States has been launching an aggressive campaign to exempt itself from prosecution by the court. Most recently, this has manifested in the “Hague Invasion Act,” which became law on August 3, 2002. Officially titled the American Service Members Protection Act of 2002, the law, according to some of its critics, is “intended to intimidate countries that ratify the treaty for the International Criminal Court (ICC)” and authorizes the use of military force to liberate any American or citizen of a U.S.-allied country being held by the court in the Hague. [Back to Top]
32 On July 30, 2002, the treaty was favorably voted (12–7) out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The convention was reported out of committee on a 13–5 vote in 1994 but was held by the full Senate and sent back to the committee with reservations. In 1995 the United States made a public commitment at the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing to ratify CEDAW by the year 2000. For more information on the history of American involvement with CEDAW and American groups supporting ratification, see (accessed August 27, 2002). [Back to Top]
33 “Women’s Treaty Revives Old Debates,” Christian Science Monitor, July 30, 2002. For a discussion of reactions to CEDAW in Malaysia, see Norani Othman’s chapter in Bauer and Bell, The East Asian Challenge fo rHuman Rights, pp. 188–189. [Back to Top]
34 “Worldwide Executions doubled in 2001,” Amnesty USA press release, April 9, 2002, (accessed August 26, 2002). [Back to Top]
35 Notably in 2001, Harold Hongju Koh, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, led a group of former ambassadors in a protest of the practice of some states of executing mentally retarded criminals. The memo, drafted by Koh and signed by a number of current and former ambassadors who had encountered outright hostility in their international travels, highlighted how the U.S. policy of executing people, particularly the mentally retarded, increasingly lead the United States into isolation internationally. More than half the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty, and, according to Koh, the United States is “completely isolated” in executing the mentally retarded. Recently, Koh has pointed out that this is a difficult position to be in while simultaneously trying to mobilize foreign opinion for the battle against terrorism. “Veteran U.S. Envoy Seeks End to U.S. Executions of Retarded,” New York Times, June 10, 2001. [Back to Top]
36 According to Elizabeth Wong, secretary-general of the National Human Rights Society (HAKAM), and member of the secretariat of Suara Rakyat, Malaysia (SUARAM): “Shortly following the September 11th attacks, government officials launched an aggressive promotion of the ISA against the backdrop of a growing anti-ISA movement and a popular campaign with the general population, arresting scores for their alleged ‘terrorist’ activities and links to Al-Qaeda. As a result of government propaganda, public support has dwindled alarmingly as the general population became increasingly subdued by the dubious arguments of ‘human security’ over ‘human rights.’ Even the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission publicly advocated that human rights have to take a backseat for the moment. While Malaysia’s human rights record has its glaring blemishes, the events of September 11th have given an added impetus for the government to justify their own crackdowns on political dissidents and religious groups allegedly linked to opposition parties. Overnight, governments such as the United States and Australia who were formerly critical of Malaysia’s human rights record are now silent, providing tacit support for growing violations of civil liberties.” Memo to the Carnegie Council, March 2002. See Wong’s essay in “Public Security and Human Rights,” Human Rights Dialogue ser. 2, no. 8 (Fall 2002–Winter 2003, forthcoming). [Back to Top]
37 For a discussion of security and human rights in Uribe’s Colombia, see Adam Isacson in “Public Security and Human Rights,” Human Rights Dialogue ser. 2, no. 8 (Fall 2002–Winter 2003, forthcoming). [Back to Top]
38 (accessed January 14, 2003) [Back to Top]

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