Conclusion: Asian Contributions to Human Rights

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

June 5, 1996

As conceptions of human rights continue to evolve, it is important to recognize the contributions that Asians can make to the process. Although the debate is centered on Asian resistance to rights promoted by Westerners, there are also examples of Asian conceptions of human flourishing that have not been codified as rights.

In engaging in the international discourse on human rights, the challenge for non-Western peoples is to improve upon existing documents and concepts, which are neither complete nor perfect. Workshop discussions cited examples of rights which are not spelled out in universal charters, such as the rights accorded by Islam to the dead; or rights that are treated lightly by international declarations, such as the Buddhist reverence for nature and the environment; or even rights which contradict capitalist (and Western) notions of property, such as the right of cultural communities to their ancestral domain. Herein lies the value of a cross-cultural approach in formulating a common human rights regime: By infusing their own sense of values into the international charters, people from all cultural contexts would actually reshape them in a way that would make their societies more a part of the international community, sharing common standards, yet retaining their own cultures and identities.

All of the best-laid proposals for developing and widening consensus on norms, of course, will be of little value if effective mechanisms are not established for enforcing compliance. Time constraints at the workshop allowed for only superficial treatment of this important topic, which will be addressed at the next workshop, in Seoul, Korea in October 1996.

*For one participant's views of the Hakone workshop, see Daniel A. Bell, "The East Asian Challenge to Human Rights: Reflections on an East-West Dialogue," forthcoming in Human Rights Quarterly, August 1996. Also see Joanne Bauer, Human Rights Dialogue Vol. 3, December 1995.

1 Unless otherwise noted, all citations are of papers prepared for the workshop. See insert for a full list of papers as well as a list of workshop participants.
2 Thanks to Daniel A. Bell for this definition.
3 John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 133-172.
4 John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods, and New Directions in the Study of Modern History (New York: Longman, 1991).