The Bangkok Declaration Three years After: Reflections on the State of the Asia-West Dialogue on Human Rights

Human Rights Dialogue 1.4 (Spring 1996): "Three years After The Bangkok Declaration"

March 4, 1996

In March 1993, Asian state representatives from Iran to Mongolia met to finalize the Bangkok Declaration, a statement that would represent the Asian region's stance on human rights at the World Conference on Human Rights to be held that June in Vienna. What surprised many observers, including Asian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), was the bold opposition to universal human rights contained in the Declaration, made on the grounds that human rights as such do not accord with "Asian values." This marked the first of many messages Asian state representatives would send to the West saying that Asia intends to set its own standards for human rights. And intellectuals and officials in the West have responded in kind.

As the Asia-West dialogue on human rights engendered by the Bangkok Declaration approaches its three-year mark, this issue of Dialogue is devoted to an assessment of its progress. It contains contributions from participants in the Carnegie Council's Human Rights Initiative*1* who are concerned with the quality of the debate. What are "Asian values" and how have they played into the debate? Has the West responded appropriately? Should "Asian values" be dismissed as a cloak for authoritarian leaders to hang on to a monopoly of power? Or is there something more to the concept that the West has missed?

In the first article Amartya Sen, Lamont University Professor at Harvard University, argues that the Western observer should not eschew the importance of the fact that Asians are taking a new interest in their own traditions and intellectual heritage. What is needed is a deeper understanding of Asian cultures, he says, bearing in mind that freedom and democracy were expounded by some of Asia's ancient philosophers as well as modern leaders.

To Kevin Y. L. Tan, senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore and author of the second article, Western scholars and politicians seem to be "panicked" by the Asian challenge to human rights because "Asians seem to be speaking from a position of strength." The debate in his view—both the Asian offensive and the West's reaction—is shaped almost entirely by the rise in economic power of Asia and not by the merits of the conceptual arguments that Western intellectuals are trying so hard to make.

In the final article, Joseph Chan, associate professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, begins by echoing Kevin Tan that Asians have been unable to provide "vigorous arguments for their claim to distinctiveness." But, he goes on to say, "the debate is not over." The problem with the West's response to the debate, according to Chan, is that it has placed too much emphasis on refuting Asian claims against universal human rights, and has "tended to downplay the importance of substantiating international human rights law" for the Asian context. Chan's prescription? As a basis for human rights, Asia needs to develop a coherent political morality appropriate to Asia, involving moral justifications for rights and responsibilities.

"This dispute over principles and practice is really about the lives of Asians," says Sen. "The search for a political morality is ultimately a soul-searching exercise for Asians themselves," says Chan. But perhaps, as Tan suggests in his final statement, the West is doing some searching itself.

*1* The Centerpiece of the Initiative is a multiyear research and dialogue project on Human Rights in East and Southeast Asia, "The Growth of East Asia and Its impact on Human Rights."