Cultural Sources of Human Rights in East Asia: Consensus Building Toward a Rights Regime

Human Rights Dialogue 1.5 (Summer 1996): "Cultural Sources of Human Rights in East Asia"

June 5, 1996

This issue of Dialogue is devoted to a report of the second workshop of the Carnegie Council's project on "The Growth of East Asia and Its Impact on Human Rights." Held in Bangkok from March 24–27, 1996, the workshop brought together thirty-five scholars and activists from throughout Asia and North America to examine the "Cultural Sources of Human Rights in East Asia." It was hosted jointly by the Faculty of Law and Child Rights ASIANET at Chulalongkorn University (Bangkok).

This was the second in a series of workshops that seek to understand how the societies of East Asia are dealing with human rights issues as they undergo rapid social and economic change. An earlier workshop in Hakone, Japan in June 1995 used case studies drawn from the region to explore the major theoretical issues constituting the burgeoning East-West debate over human rights. It was a first step in an effort to understand how East Asians locate themselves in the human rights discourse.*** Like Hakone, the Bangkok workshop drew upon contemporary examples of human rights in the region as a means of relating theory to practice, this time with an emphasis on the function of culture.

Eight commissioned papers formed the basis for discussions. The papers considered how cultural traditions vary in terms of moral values and political practices and how this variation bears on the international discourse on human rights. Some authors put forth proposals for East Asian alternatives to Western concepts of human rights and liberalism; some emphasized the convergence of East Asian social norms with Western norms. All papers considered the impact these analyses have on traditional approaches to human rights.

Examining "cultural sources" is not about seeing whether Eastern cultural traditions fit with the concept of human rights as understood in the West. Most participants saw that depiction as inadequate for a universal conception. Rather, the image that shaped the workshop, developed most fully by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his paper, was that of an "unforced consensus," suggesting efforts to create and expand an area of consensus on norms while allowing room for disagreement.