Human Rights in the Post-Cold War Era: The cases of North Korea, China, and Burma

Human Rights Dialogue 1.1 (Spring 1994): "Human Rights in the Post-Cold War Era"

May 4, 1994

With the end of the Cold War, as the global trend toward democratization proceeds, governments are giving more attention to human rights in foreign affairs. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, only the second of its kind, provided an opportunity for governments and the growing number of national human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to sharpen the debate. But since Vienna, tensions among nations over implementing human rights principles have hardly subsided.

Against a backdrop of continuing human rights violations and protests against mostly Western governments accused of meddling in another country's internal affairs, the burgeoning international debate suggests that while human rights have been widely agreed upon in form they have not been accepted in substance.

In the end the World Conference reaffirmed the universality and interdependence of rights embodied in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent conventions. But there was considerable resistance from a number of nations insisting upon a much more flexible, culturally sensitive translation and application of human rights principles. The most intense challenge came from Asia, where a majority of governments argued that the rights of an individual are not absolute. They maintained that human rights must be placed in the context of different economic and social realities and the distinctive value system of each country.

The assertiveness of Asian governments reflects a rising economic self-confidence of the region and consequent growing nationalism. Citing a distinct set of Asian values—such as stability, consensus, and respect for authority—some prominent government officials are claiming an Asian concept of human rights. They continue to resent Western lecturing on human rights, holding out their records of robust economic growth as evidence that a different development strategy works for Asia.

In recent months the media has drawn attention to the schism between Asian and Western views on human rights. Some commentators have lamented that at Vienna and the preparatory meetings leading up to it there was no real communication between Asia and the West. As the subject of human rights grows more prominent in the region, a series of unanswered questions lends urgency to a dialogue: What is the appropriate place of human rights in interstate relations? Are human rights universal or culturally determined? What are the relationships between human rights, democratization and economic development? Do human rights undermine economic prosperity and political stability? What is the relationship between human rights and the principle of state sovereignty?

On December 2, 1993, over thirty academic, NGO, and government specialists on human rights in Asia from the United States, Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines, and Burma gathered at Merrill House, the Carnegie Council's headquarters in New York, for a one-day seminar. The objective of the seminar was to consider the human rights environment in the region and the moral obligations and policy options for donor countries, namely the United States, Japan, and the new regional economic aid donor, South Korea. Entitled "Human Rights in the Post–Cold War Era: The Cases of North Korea, China, and Burma," the seminar was divided into two sessions, one examining the range of human rights policy considerations for donor countries in the context of regional policy objectives and the otherexamining the dynamics of the human rights situations in three countries—North Korea, China, and Burma.

During the course of the day participants honed a conceptual framework for understanding human rights circumstances and attitudes in the region and identified a number of specific measures the international community can take to improve the discourse between Asia and the West. Under the leadership of Andrew Nathan, professor of Chinese politics at Columbia University, participants suggested methods to improve the dialogue and to build institutional capacity in target countries.

The following is a summary report of the issues raised by the seminar. All opinions reported herein are those of the speaker only, and do not necessarily represent the views of the organization with which he or she is affiliated.