Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 4 (Spring 1996): Three Years After the Bangkok Declaration: Articles: What Asians Think About the West's Response to the Human Rights Debate

Mar 4, 1996

The recent debate on "Asian values" and human rights has developed into a cottage industry. At every turn politicians, academics, and opportunists of all ilks are jumping on the bandwagon giving their version of what human rights are all about and whether Asia should be unique in its approach to human rights issues and its quest for democracy and modernity. Unfortunately, in issues of this kind, the debate attracts all sorts of people, each with their own specific agendas, and neither "Asian values" proponents nor opponents speak with one voice. As a result, the real issues become clouded in blistering rhetoric, name calling, and finger pointing.

What is perhaps most surprising is how quickly the debate has polarized the camps, reviving the age-old divide between East and West. Taking a step back, however, is it really just cultural differences that separate the two camps? I think the real interests underpinning the debate have nothing at all to do with questions of culture, or indeed, even human rights. Rather, they are related to Asian economic success and confidence and Asia's continuing reaction to colonialism.

I doubt very much if this debate would have even started were late twentieth-century Asia nothing but a sea of poverty, degradation, and squalor. But it is not. Asia is booming, and economists and analysts alike are calling the next century the "Pacific Century," an obvious reference to the tremendous growth in the Asia-Pacific region. The Asian "economic miracle" has been linked to so-called Confucian and Asian values by no less venerable an institution than the World Bank. The linkage between economic growth and cultural values has given Asian leaders and intellectuals a new-found confidence in two ways. First, Asian voices, particularly those emanating from countries like Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, are standing up to their detractors with a confidence buoyed by their countries double-digit growth. Second, economic success cloaks many of these Asian governments in what Carl Freiderich calls "performance legitimacy." Countries in Asia are modernizing and growing at an unprecedented pace, and Asian leaders and their people are justifiably proud of their achievements.

In the face of such overwhelming success, new-found national pride pits Asian countries against the "decadent West," which constantly preaches to Asian nations to conform to what it believes to be universally established standards of human rights practice. Constant pressure to observe human rights obligations, often applied with threats of economic sanctions, is regarded by many as a slap in the Asian face and, more importantly, an attempt by the West to hold the East ransom. The vociferous debate generated over President Bill Clinton's decision to renew China's most favored nation (MFN) status in 1993 is a case in point. Beyond a cursory flat denial of human rights violations, Asians must justify their actions, and one powerful way to do this is by claiming historical, cultural, and religious exception. At the same time, some Asian states push the cultural line to support their soft authoritarian form of governments, which have, together with their social and economic agendas, also come under attack from Western leaders and intellectuals. In this sense, Asian states are really fighting for the right to be modern, not to forge their own version of human rights.

Most Asian scholars are very keen on the "Asian values" debate because it is an opportunity to take on the West in an intellectual exchange where the West does not have a clear and distinct advantage. One noted Japanese academic at the Hakone workshop*1* told me he was tired of the West setting the rules and that it's time to give them "a taste of their own medicine" (telling others how to run their own lives) even though he did not agree with the "Asian viewpoint." He was als proud of the fact that an Asian like Lee Kuan Yew could stand up to the West and "give it to them."

The positions the West is taking in the debate are no different from those the West has always stood by. Media coverage in recent years, however, has impassioned the debate and has thus highlighted and, in some respects, shaped the divergence of interests between East and West. The stakes in the debate have come to be planted along civilizatioinal lines that cut deep into the national and hemispheric pride of both parties. When the debate is couched in these terms, then all the other baggage is imported along with it. So I don t believe the West is overreacting in its response to the debate. I do, however, detect a sense of panic among many Western scholars and politicians—a result of the fact that many Asians appear to be speaking from a position of strength; strength drawn not from the merits of intellectual arguments but from economic success.

Can the Western response be improved? It's difficult to say. The West is primarily concerned with the merits of the conceptual arguments. I think Jack Donnelly's arguments are rigorous in this regard. While the West is concerned with whether it is at all possible to take a relativist approach to human rights issues, Asia is more concerned with power politics. The East's reaction to this must, I think, be viewed in its proper context. The problem as Asians see it is this: How can the West—especially America —preach democracy and human rights as fundamental values when the West can t even get its own house in order? Asia, on the other hand, is less the hypocrite because it takes a culturally relativist approach to the situation and does not pretend to be the champion of human rights. Such is the view of many in Asia.

It is interesting to note that the human rights debate has without a doubt attracted more scholars, intellectuals, and politicians in the West than in Asia. There are two possible reasons for this. Western liberalism and its ideals are under threat, and this siege on the Western citadel has drawn more and more Western leaders and intellectuals into the fray, compelled to stage a spirited defense against Asia's confident and well-considered alternative worldview. But, it could also be true that Asian intellectuals are just having too good a time enjoying their newly acquired wealth to worry so much about such conceptual debates.

*1* This is a reference to the first workshop of the Human Rights Initiative, "Changing Conceptions of Human Rights in a Growing East Asia," held in Hakone, Japan, June 23-26, 1996.

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