Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 7 (Winter 1996): New Issues in East Asian Human Rights - A Conference Report: Articles: Challenges to and Prospects for Implementation

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.

Implementation of human rights instruments is often complicated by the fact that victims and the groups working with them do not readily identify their problems and causes as rights issues. What can human rights proponents do when victims, say prostitutes, see their work not so much as a violation of their dignity—let alone a violation of their rights—but rather as a duty to their family? How can their rights be protected when they do not view them as rights? What can external forces—international activists, foreign governments, the United Nations, and international human rights instruments—do to foster human rights consciousness? These are some of the issues that participants struggled with throughout the workshop.

In seeking solutions, one participant observed that three voices dominated the workshop discussions: that of the philosopher concerned about the logic and language of rights; that of the international lawyer concerned with operationalizing systems and identifying a violated and violator; and that of the activist concerned with the very real situations they face day-to-day. An important aspect of the workshop and the seminar held in conjunction with it on "The Future of NGOs in the Region" was to take the discussion of rights from the stratospheric realm of academe to the realities faced by activists working in the field. The programs sought to facilitate constructive dialogue and forge consensus between the positions held by practitioners, academics, and activists as a way to overcome divisions among the ranks working for the realization of human ights.

Some participants went so far as to liken academics and activists to "oil and water." The implications of this division for evaluating and implementing rights, however obvious, cannot be ignored. Without the empirical data that activists can bring, cross-disciplinary research is left to generalizations; and without the conceptual frameworks based on generalizations, it is difficult to make sense of the particulars. Bringing the two spheres together in one room at the three workshops enabled the discrepancies between theory and practice to be scrutinized or, to paraphrase one NGO participant, to "get real" by injecting greater awareness of local realities into the discussions.

Benedict Kingsbury suggested that an "intermediate, complex relationship whereby theory derives from practice, and the two pull and nudge at each other," would be most fruitful. The case of the antinuclear movement in Taiwan illustrates how theorists and activists "pulling and nudging" each other can animate the discourse on rights. Author Mab Huang writes that "to the extent that it [the Union leading the antinuclear movement] spoke of the use of natural resources in a sustainable could be interpreted as being sympathetic to...the rights of future generations." Taking this as their cue, Huang and other academics at the workshop went on to consider the viability of the rights of future generations and whether it could rightfully be adopted by activists to promote their causes. In this way, by engaging in the discourse on the level of practice, academic arguments can do much to advance solutions to the rights in question.

Difficult divisions also exist within the academic and activist camps and between East and West. Traditional thinking on human rights derives largely from the practices of international human rights organizations in the West and the writings of Western (especially North American) scholars and professionals over the past 50 years. Clarence Dias argued that this thinking all too often overlooks the practices of Asian human rights organizations, the writings of Asian scholars and professionals, and, most importantly, the exemplary experiences of diverse human rights struggles and social movements in Asia over the past several decades. All the divisions described above only exacerbate the continuing hindrance to the realization of rights posed by the unfortunate divergence between the words and deeds of many governments regarding their commitments made to international human rights instruments.

One way to address the gaps between actors, between theory and practice, and between rhetoric and action is to include equally the various constituencies that should rightfully be involved in setting up and enforcing human rights instruments. In this regard, Dias noted that the right to development and recent environmental laws have not been subject to a challenge based on Asian values precisely because their evolution had been "balanced and participatory and cut across many of the divides."

Most important to realizing human rights is the recognition of and support for a greater role for NGOs. This includes their increased input into the United Nations and other international fora, as well as access to domestic and international resources. From an academic standpoint, Dorothy Solinger suggested a need to study power structures and why some societies are more amenable to change through NGOs. Where NGOs do not exist, as is the case in China and North Korea, she saw a need for research on how best to assist the creation and empowerment of NGOs. From an activist standpoint, Arief Budiman suggested that, in the face of globalization, NGO capacity must be enabled to work across international borders, what he called "P to P" or people-to-people exchanges. Citing recent labor violations by a Korean company in Indonesia, Budiman suggested that Korean NGOs lobby their government to control their overseas businesses. Others endorsed an important NGO role in education and advocacy on economic, social, and cultural rights. To ensure greater respect for and effectiveness of their work, NGOs themselves must progress from working in isolation o single-issue areas and develop a more holistic vision of rights as interrelated and indivisible. "Members of NGOs have a responsibility to do this melding in their own minds," said Brian Burdekin, "even if it weakens the moral force of their specialization."

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