International Human Rights and Asian Commitment

Human Rights Dialogue 1.3 (Winter 1995): "International Human Rights and Asian Commitment"

December 4, 1995

The following article draws from the discussion at the first workshop of the Carnegie Council s project, "The Growth of East Asia and Its Impact on Human Rights," held in Hakone, Japan, June 23-26, 1995.

Until recently, most Asian countries have displayed little interest in the subject of human rights. Yasuaki Onuma offers a number of reasons why this might be so: the diversity in the region and within societies making it "difficult to accept the common standards of human rights"; the lack of a legal tradition in most of Asia; the presence of authoritarian governments limiting the power of labor unions and the bourgeoisie; a priority on poverty alleviation and nation-building; and American support of authoritarian leaders during the Cold War.

The 1993 Bangkok Regional Preparatory Meeting to the World Conference on Human Rights marked a change in the attitudes of Asian regimes toward human rights questions. Human rights were no longer dismissed as a tool of foreign oppression but were promoted as a means of asserting Asian distinctiveness from Western-dominated norms of social and political order. In China, for example, as Xin Chunying explains, only since the publication of the government s white paper on human rights in 1991 has there been any open discussion of human rights. But as the white paper shows, the weight China gives to certain rights, such as the right to subsistence over political and civil rights, demonstrates that vast differences remain between Chinese interpretations of international human rights documents and Western interpretations. (See related article on p. 4)

What does this mean in terms of the commitments that Asian nations have made to international human rights instruments thus far? Countries often sign international documents for pragmatic political reasons, and not because the documents necessarily represent deeply held beliefs. Nevertheless, once a signatory of international law, the country is expected to fulfill its international obligations. The picture is complicated by the fact that when governments ratify international covenants, they often attach reservations. For example, when this past October Singapore made its first accession to a human rights document, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it did so with three reservations that minimize the impact the document may have on practices in Singapore:

The Republic of Singapore considers that articles 19 and 37 of the Convention do not prohibit:

  1. The application of any prevailing measures prescribed by law for maintaining law and order in the Republic of Singapore;

  2. measures and restrictions which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in the interests of national security, public safety, public order, the protection of public health or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others; or

  3. the judicious application of corporal punishment in the best interests of the child.

Since a signatory is not likely to comply with a document that conflicts with domestic law or widely accepted moral values, to be realistic about what degree of compliance can be expected, it may be equally pragmatic to consider how deep the standards of that document penetrate into society. Do human rights as enshrined in international law resonate with the values of Asian people? Many have argued that since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there has been a strong Western bias imbedded in human rights literature. Geoffrey Best, senior associate member at St. Anthony s College, Oxford University, argues that:

It cannot be denied that human rights did have a strongly Western appearance at their first launching on the world.... Western Europe, the British Commonwealth, the Americas—both Nort and South—dominated the initial definition and promotion of human rights, the participation of authentically non-Western representatives was relatively meager, and no ordinarily skeptical reader was much moved by the testimonies of foreign intellectuals rounded up by, e.g., UNESCO. [The problems with the UDHR] derive from the 1948 Declaration s model of the human being: a Western model roughly, but not unfairly describable as individualistic, secularizing, morally autonomous, acquisitive, and so on. The Western historical experiences which produced the UDHR are regionally peculiar. (Times Literary Supplement, September 22, 1995, p. 12)

In Yasuaki Onuma s words, "In the discourse of universalism versus cultural particularity, there is an implied assumption of the West signifying the universal and Asia signifying the particular. But universality is actually the Western approach in disguise." Is what is universal actually narrower in scope than what the international documents say?

In the past several years Asian governments, especially Singapore, Malaysia, China, and Indonesia, have made their views well known through speeches at the UN General Assembly and UN conferences, in privately-sponsored conferences and studies, and in writings in English-language journals and the press. To generalize, the principal arguments against what they call "Western" views of human rights are: (1) a claim to noninterference in another country s affairs; (2) an Asian priority on economic and social rights over political and civil rights; and (3) an Asian emphasis on social and community rights over individual rights. For example, China s history of Western imperialism, its Marxist emphasis on socioeconomic rights, and its Confucian prioritization of the family are all significant aspects in the regime s argument against the Western, liberal democratic vision.

According to Jack Donnelly the official rhetoric either demonstrates basic "confusion about human rights or is a cover for repression." In the first instance, there is the perception that state sovereignty takes precedence over human rights and this leads to tension with human rights. "Although sovereignty provides protection against certain kinds of external human rights violations, it does not ever address internal human rights protection and violation." The case Asians make for greater emphasis on social and economic rights is "empirically problematic," says Donnelly. While Asian governments may make development a policy priority, they do not provide legal or other guarantees to ensure that needy individuals are provided with basic goods and services that constitute economic rights. Finally, Donnelly argues that if Asians emphasize the family and community over the individual, then harmony and social order should not be threatened. And if harmony and social order are genuinely rooted in the culture, then people should be trusted with rights that protect their interests and the interests of society.

Should the West even respond to the official assertion of Western cultural hegemony? After all, these views come from the foreign ministries of only a few Asian governments; as such, they are aimed primarily at a foreign policy audience, namely the West, and may have little to do with the realities of human rights and its discourse within countries throughout the region. For the purposes of promoting human rights and improving foreign relations, there may be good reasons to respond to official Asian assertions of Western cultural hegemony. But while "Asian human rights" put forth by governments is the dominant voice from Asia, it is by no means the only one, nor in terms of human rights standard setting is it the most important one.

Given the restrictions on freedom of expression in many of these societies, there is no doubt that the voices of Asian citizens are obstructed by the political control of the state. Still, that does not necessarily mean that these citizens give meaning and priority to human rights in the same way as do people in the West. Is it a people s will to defer to government and society at large to make policy deisions that impose cultural preferences, or should passivity in political circles be read as resignation? Might there be a distinction rooted in Asian culture between some Western and some Asian cultural views of human beings as active agents versus wards to be looked after by others in society?

The weaknesses of Asian government arguments against Western notions of human rights may be apparent, but what about the Western arguments for human rights? Participants at the Hakone workshop pointed out the flaws of Western theoretical arguments if they are to have universal applicability. For example, Donnelly argues that human rights were as foreign to premodern Europe as they are to Asian traditions and that they are a particular formulation of the pursuit of human well-being born in response to the emergence of the modern nation-state system and modern markets. On the one hand, the implication of this argument is that just as premodern Europe adopted human rights in spite of the lack of a tradition, so too can Asians accept human rights. On the other hand, it implies that human rights are conditioned on capitalism, and if so, they are not universal. Such arguments would have little appeal to anti-modernists.

Similarly, prevailing human rights theory argues that the source of human rights is anthropocentric, as opposed to theocentric: that is, they apply to humans simply because they are human and not god-given. But as Daniel A. Bell argues, "If human rights must rest on secularist foundations, this can only strengthen the hands of religious fundamentalists." An added hurdle for many Asian societies to embracing human rights, with the exception of the Islamic societies of Indonesia and Malaysia, is the lack of a legal tradition. As Onuma points out, even though there was a mature capitalist economy and culture in pre-Song China and pre-Edo Japan, these societies did not respond to these developments with human rights. Without a legal tradition, ideas of human rights are not easily formulated in these societies.

In order to reach authentic agreement on human rights—what philosopher Charles Taylor calls an "unforced consensus"—it is probably not necessary to agree on the foundation of human rights so long as we can agree on the norms. The purpose of the Carnegie Council s human rights project is to try to move in this direction by calling primarily on Asian nationals to locate justifications for human rights in local Asian contexts. This involves an exploration of what Amartya Sen calls the "proto" ideas or sources for human rights that are found in Asian cultural traditions as a means of cultivating local support for human rights, as well as understanding how the specific set of contemporary circumstances countries face impact the way human rights are given meaning and prioritized.

If human rights proponents can agree that human rights have been undergoing a continual process of refinement since 1948 and before, then it is possible that Asians may have something to contribute to this process. Going back to a question posed at the beginning of this article: Would this mean a narrowing of human rights? Not necessarily. As participants at the Hakone workshop pointed out, some East Asians from Confucian societies may endorse a wider set of rights that includes respect for the elderly. In the Philippines, there are indigenous rights recognized in the Philippine Constitution, such as the rights of cultural communities to ancestral domain, which are not reflected in the Universal Declaration and similar international covenants. In response, some Philippine nongovernmental human rights groups recently prepared a Philippine Declaration of Human Rights that incorporates these indigenous values. These are potentially valuable contributions to international human rights that could enhance Eastern and Western mutual understanding of and commitment to human rights, while reducing confrontation.