Human Rights Initiative Program (1994-2005)

Human Rights has been a cornerstone of the Council's programs since the 1970s. Our first major publication on human rights, The Moral Imperatives of Human Rights: A World Survey (University Press of America, 1980), analyzed human rights in the world's traditions. Since then, human rights has been embedded in the work of the Council.

In 1994, the Council launched a first phase of the Human Rights Initiative, a multiyear research and dialogue project entitled "The Growth of East Asia and Its Impact on Human Rights." It responded to the "Asian values" debate on human rights and the corresponding need to develop an improved international human rights regime with greater input from East Asians. The project was designed to move beyond the rhetoric of Asian values and to illuminate the meaning and priority accorded to human rights in the varied cultural, political, and socio-economic contexts of East and Southeast Asia. Ultimately, the project sought to reveal the ways in which these understandings of rights are changing in both the East and the West, and how a consensus on human rights can be better achieved across cultures.

The centerpiece of the project was a series of workshops in Asia (Japan, Thailand, and Korea), which involved intellectuals, both policy practitioners and academics, from the West and Asia. These meetings highlighted the shifting parameters of the human rights discourse by exploring three general areas:

  1. The validity of Asian values arguments

  2. Resources within East Asian cultural traditions that can promote human rights in the region

  3. Specific human rights concerns most salient to East Asians given the rapid social and economic change in the region over the past decade


From discussions at these workshops the Council produced its quarterly publication, Human Rights Dialogue and the edited volume The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 1999), co-edited by director of studies Joanne Bauer and Daniel A. Bell of the University of Hong Kong. These products helped to initiate and sustain an international dialogue among diverse individuals and organizations, whose perspectives on human rights were not often articulated in the English-speaking world.


Over the course of the project, it became increasingly clear that there exists an active and evolving discussion of rights and their implementation at the local level that is removed from the prevailing international discourse on human rights. Such discourse primarily takes place in the Western capitals where international human rights groups are based (e.g., Washington, Geneva, New York, and London) and tends to reflect Western interests and values.

In response, Human Rights Dialogue provided a venue for local voices to relate their experiences and a structure so that the implications of these experiences for human rights practice, policy, and scholarship could be easily communicated. Informed by the issues raised at the workshops, Dialogue was designed not to impose a particular point of view, but to provide opportunities for constructive debate and scholarly exploration of the realities of human rights across cultures. It was distributed to over 3,000 individuals and institutions, including non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations, universities, UN agencies, and government offices that are directly related to human rights policy, such as the ministries of justice and interior, as well as foreign ministries and the U.S. State Department.

Major funding for the first phase of the Human Rights Initiative was provided by:

  • The Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership

  • Rockefeller Brothers Fund

  • The United States Institute for Peace