Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 7 (Winter 1996): New Issues in East Asian Human Rights - A Conference Report: Articles: Balancing Rights, Duties, and Underlying Values

Dec 5, 1996

This article is part of a report of the Carnegie Council's workshop, "New Issues in East Asian Human Rights," held at Seoul National University in Korea from October 2-5, 1996.

In their reluctance to unconditionally embrace rights language and logic, some participants turned to the concepts of duty and responsibility, which are commonly believed to be deeply embedded in East Asian cultures. In the case of the antinuclear movement in Taiwan, the right to a clean environment might be redefined as a duty to protect land from those claiming a right to do what they want with it. In relation to the issue of justice between generations, Emmerson raised doubts over "imputing an abstract right of our devising to individuals who do not yet exist, instead of assuming responsibility today for future generations." Likewise, the relationship of rights to duties came up in the paper on Thai prostitution. Again, Emmerson asked whether "alongside the sex worker's rights, her and her clients responsibilities, to each other and to themselves, should also be taken into account."

Individual rights and collective duties are often di-chotomized and manipulated in the discourse on human rights in the region. But, there can be no viable notion of a right without a corresponding notion of responsibility and vice versa. Yasuaki Onuma of the University of Tokyo criticized the simplistic abandonment of rights and resort to the "opposite" notion of duty. Onuma argued that in both Eastern and Western traditions the concept of an individual exists, but "not in an isolated manner." Rather, the individual "coexists with a concept of collectivity." Arguing that "dichotomized rights and duties as well as individuals and collectives are the same modern construct," he maintained that the exclusive emphasis placed on responsibility and duty by many Asian or African leaders is wrong-headed.

In his paper on the right to political participation in China Xia Yong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences portrays rights and duties in a different light, as fluid concepts and part of a continuum. Describing the transformation of the traditional notion of "sacred duty" into individual right, Xia Yong writes that in ancient China,

  • there was not any legitimacy for seeking individual interests and advantage by taking part in public affairs.... Political participation was a sacred individual duty to be fulfilled for the people, for the country, and for self-realization, rather than a right.

Until the introduction of rights language from the West, "the idea of collective rights overshadowed and, in many cases, replaced individual rights, creating a correlative individual duty." Duty-bearers were regarded as shareholders of collective rights. This concept of a sacred duty has since been used to legitimize the contemporary Chinese regime. As a result, "participation has become a no-choice-duty rather than a chosen duty."

Daniel Bell of the University of Hong Kong warned that given present realities in China, the writings of ancient Confucian sages may have little bearing on con-temporary Chinese attitudes toward political partici-pation. Bell added that an interest in public affairs, with a certain degree of commitment to the common good, will evolve once ordinary Chinese "feel they can make a difference." Whether this interest will manifest itself as a right to democratic participation or as a duty within an increasingly democratic society has yet to be seen.

Participants suggested moving beyond the binary concept of rights and duties to examine the values that sustain and give them meaning in a given society. Onuma suggested a reconsideration of "notions of virtue, prudence, consideration, and thoughtfulness," while Chandra Muzzafar of Just World Trust in Malaysia emphasized the values of "justice, compassion, restraint, and spiritual balance." The pursuit of individual rights, said Muzzafar, will "erode the very values needed to sustain them in the long run." The human righs discourse may need to develop a holistic understanding of the individual, the family, and the community, and the explicit values that can invigorate not only rights and responsibilities, but also roles and relationships.

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