Introduction: The Human Rights Discourse in East Asia: Reports from the Region

Human Rights Dialogue 1.6 (Fall 1996): "The Human Rights Discourse in East Asia"

September 5, 1996

The major internationally-oriented literature on human rights is widely available. But the discourse going on within nations is often difficult to access and understand, because writings are unavailable outside those countries or written in a language other than English, or because the context of the writings is difficult to know. For this reason, we decided to compile a review of the debates on human rights within Asian nations. Our objective was to look at the discussion of human rights in as many Asian countries as possible, and provide a snapshot of the most important issues.

We asked intellectuals and activists from throughout Asia, many of whom have been involved in the Carnegie Council's Human Rights Initiative, to select five or six pieces of writing from their countries that they consider to be the most influential or representative of the current human rights discourse there. The writings could include books, journal or magazine articles, or government statements. We suggested that they select works written in the local language and directed at local audiences. This Dialogue contains those responses.

While the contribution on Burma outlines the limitations on the freedom to publish on human rights, on the whole we see an expansion of the discourse throughout the region. The contributors of pieces on Taiwan and Indonesia, for example, note that the discourse in these societies has recently widened beyond activist reports to more academic studies about the foundations of human rights. In the case of China, the trend in human rights studies is away from purely theoretical concerns and toward an analysis of Chinese institutions. Across the board, many newer rights surfaced, including the rights of the handicapped, environmental rights, and the rights of AIDS victims. Interestingly, few authors highlighted government writings.

As we were waiting for the contributions to arrive by fax and e-mail, we at Dialogue mused about how we would respond to a similar assignment about the United States. When thinking about human rights, what readily comes to mind for most Americans, we suspect, is abuses taking place abroad. The State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices or the annual Human Rights Watch World Report would be good representations of this. This might also be a place for us to start our list, but there are fertile debates about rights in the United States that we would want to shed light on.

We started by thinking about the debate over the recently passed welfare "reform" legislation, which promises to do away with a welfare system in place for decades and leave millions of economically and socially disadvantaged Americans without a safety net. Significantly, this issue is rarely articulated in the U.S. in right terms, and we would have to make an argument for why it ought to be, and with what priority, in determining our final list. Then there's the burning issues of abortion and euthanasia, and the vigorous "right-to-life" (position papers by the conservative Christian Coalition), "right-to-choose" (Planned Parenthood literature), and the "right-to-die" (the "how to" book by the Hemlock Society) movements. We also considered the prevailing controversy over the death penalty, and thought of proposing the 1996 Academy Award winning film on the subject, Dead Man Walking. There's also the environmental justice movement, which extends through an environmental discourse many of the aims of the civil rights movement. And given the many Asian readers of Dialogue, we would want a piece of writing that reflects the burgeoning communitarian movement in the United States (which even President Clinton in significant part subscribes to) to demonstrate the strains of American political thinking that contend with liberal individualism. An article from the journal The Responsive Community, edited by communitarian leader Amitai Etzioni, might be our choice.

This exercise made us realize that, even where there are weaker civil societies and more restrictions on freedom of expression than in the United States, choosing the writings most representative of the human rights discourse in a given society is no easy task. We are grateful for the efforts of each of our contributors. I would also like to acknowledge Tonya Cook, who joined the Human Rights Initiative as a program officer in July and who played a substantial role in pulling this issue together.