Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 5 (Summer 1996): Cultural Sources of Human Rights in East Asia: Articles: Building on the Existing International Human Rights Regime

Jun 5, 1996

In "An Intercivilizational Approach to Human Rights," Yasuaki Onuma directly questions how Asians can locate themselves in the human rights discourse. According to him, the goal of attaining a common human rights regime across cultures remains unmet in part because for Asians, claims to universality tend to shut down debate regardless of whether or not the right is truly universally recognized.

As a methodological approach to improving the existing rights regime, Onuma suggests the development of an index similar to Charles Humana's World Human Rights Guide, which assesses the rights conditions of all states with a population exceeding one million, concentrating on civil and political rights. Unlike Humana's guide, however, Onuma's index would include economic, social, and cultural rights. Although this index would have cultural underpinnings, by focusing on the parameters and methods of measurement, human rights thinkers would inevitably confront the cultural elements that stand in the way of commonly accepted conceptual definitions of these rights. In the process, they may come up with alternative, perhaps more open-minded frameworks. In addition, since the thrust of the index approach is to produce some sort of common measuring scale, the process of building consensus will have begun, albeit toward a more specific goal than consensus on a broader international rights regime.

Abdullahi An-Na im suggests that we assume the universality of humankind and, with it, the dignity and rights accorded to human beings, accepting at the same time that human rights standards are and ought to be grounded in specific cultural and historical contexts of specific societies. He gives a number of reasons why different cultures can find compatibility with the present human rights regime:

  • Although international standards evolved from Western tradition, this tradition was universalized through colonial and post-independence relations;
  • Present human rights standards do apply to many conditions in non-Western societies and, indeed, enable these societies to create the space they need to develop domestic human rights regimes;
  • Non-Western contributions to international rights regimes, brought about not only through the United Nations but also via nongovernmental organizations, are increasing in importance; and
  • From a pragmatic viewpoint, it is easier to improve the present rights regime, even "if only as point of departure and framework of critique," than to replace it altogether with a new one.

While there may be disagreement over the first three points, the last argument for building on the present system was widely accepted. Onuma agrees that the existing human rights regime is an inescapable starting point, even while stressing its inadequacy. In arguing for an "intercivilizational approach" to human rights, he sets out several conditions that must be met in order to universalize the human rights discourse, including: overcoming "West-centric" thought and operating instead on a plurality of civilizations and worldviews; departing from the "civil rights–centric" view by expanding human rights concerns to the economic, cultural, and social spheres; and moving away from an "individual rights–centric" focus, which tends to define the individual in terms of Western historical experience.

At the same time, Onuma asserts that human rights are necessary to protect human beings. He does not believe that criticism by outsiders of human rights practices in another country constitutes unjustified intervention. To support this latter position, Onuma invokes contemporary international law. Yet, this is part of the very regime he also questions. His dilemma clearly demonstrates the need to anchor human rights discourse onto some standard which, unless it is replaced, would be the current international human rights regime. It is evident that even as they seek to construct a framework that takes into account non-Western cultures, both Onuma's intercivilizational approach and An-Na im's "cultural mediation" of human rights build upon, rather than reject, existing international standards.

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