Introduction: New Issues in East Asian Human Rights

Human Rights Dialogue 1.7 (Winter 1996): "New Issues in East Asian Human Rights"

December 5, 1996

This issue of Dialogue is a report of the Carnegie Council's workshop, "New Issues in East Asian Human Rights," held at Seoul National University in Korea from October 2-5, 1996. Over 35 prominent scholars and activists from East Asia and North America participated in this third workshop of a multiyear study series on "The Growth of East Asia and Its Impact on Human Rights." The workshop was hosted by the Seoul National University Faculty Caucus for Social Justice.

The Seoul meeting was the latest in a series of international workshops, part of a collaborative effort to understand how the societies of East Asia are coming to terms with human rights and how these conceptions are being adapted locally to cope with rapid social and economic changes underway throughout the region. Each of the workshops sought to contextualize specific human rights issues within the region's varied socioeconomic and cultural settings. The first workshop in Hakone, Japan (June 1995), explored the validity of arguments underlying assertions of particularistic Asian values. The project then moved deeper into an exploration of the civilizational and cultural aspects of the ongoing human rights debate at a second workshop in Bangkok, Thailand (March 1996). There, the concept of universality was reconsidered and ways that consensus can be forged on important rights issues were explored .1 The Seoul workshop responded to a need articulated in Bangkok to further anchor normative concerns in empirical conditions on the ground.

Eight commissioned papers covering some of the many emerging issues in the East Asian human rights discourse framed the workshop discussions. Authors, many of whom are both academic and activist, selected their topics based on what they felt to be the most politically salient economic and social concerns in their countries or the region in general. The topics chosen—the treatment of migrant workers, the plight of indigenous peoples, prostitution, discrimination against minority populations—suggest a new emphasis on social, cultural, and economic rights in the region's human rights discourse. These rights have been brought to the fore by the dislocating, disempowering, and arguably dehumanizing effects of globalization, economic liberalization, and market forces. The workshop reaffirmed the need to move away from an exclusive focus on civil and political rights and to address the very real social, economic, and cultural human rights issues of the region.

The Indonesian government's crackdown on political opposition this past summer and the ever increasing pressure on Burma's fledgling democracy movement by the ruling SLORC are evidence that abuses of civil and political rights continue. The discussion of emerging issues in East Asia acknowledged that abuses of first generation rights have not been adequately addressed. It is interesting to note, however, that the civil and political rights issues raised in the papers are not traditional issues of personal security and freedom of expression but instead relate to questions of democratic participation and governance.

Focusing on specific rights-related issues, the papers offer insights into forces—economic development, modernization, political transition, globalization—spawning new rights claims in East Asia and raising new questions of accountability. Some of the papers also explore the interplay of emerging issues with renewed reflection upon the cultural traditions of particular societies, suggesting culture's role in both perpetuating and preventing abuses. In the face of increasingly complex social concerns, theorists and activists like have injected the language of responsibility and notions of cultural reinterpretation into the discourse.

Many analysts assert that we have entered an "age of rights." .2 Workshop participants considered whether in fact emerging issues are being conceived as rights by the communities and individuals concerned. Do they link unfair wage practices, prostitution, or lack of access to the political process to the instruments of human rights? If so, why and how? How do rights perceptions of social issues and their solutions within a given contemporary culture—here defined in a broad, instrumental sense—impact the realization of rights? What functional role does the concept of duty play in these societies? What are the implications of current concerns for traditional approaches to human rights and their protection?

During the workshop, participants representing various backgrounds, disciplines, and cultural traditions considered philosopher Charles Taylor's concept of an "unforced consensus" on human rights, whereby norms are agreed upon despite the divergent beliefs and rationalizations underlying them. .3 One goal in exploring local perceptions of the emerging issues experienced by East Asian societies was to determine what these perceptions offer to the discourse and to the fortification of universal human rights.

The workshop papers treating issues of migration and prostitution suggest the complications that arise from applying a traditional human rights framework to complex social, cultural, and economic problems that have no single cause and crosscut many, often competing, rights issues. In addition to local perceptions of rights and their prioritization, participants also looked at the integrity of the concepts of "generations" of rights, and the "indivisibility" of rights in light of the rise of new claimants and, in some cases, new rights.

    Following is a report of the Seoul meeting prepared by Tonya Cook, program officer for Studies at the Carnegie Council and Kevin Tan, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore and a participant in all three workshops of the Human Rights Initiative.

The Seoul workshop focused on new developments in the region that are bringing issues of human rights to the fore. The rights and claims discussed can be broken down into two categories.

First, many of the economic and social concerns addressed have roots in age-old problems of exploitation and inequality for which domestic and international laws already exist, such as the two international covenants on civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural rights.

Second, new rights and claimants have recently emerged as a consequence of globalization and development. These include the claims to solidarity rights made by indigenous peoples and migrant workers, for example, and yet to be codified rights, such as that of future generations to a clean environment. Participants discussed new violators and new challenges to rights protection, marked by the inability of governments to protect rights in the face of powerful nonstate actors.

The workshop examined these and other new issues in East Asian human rights, one of which is the appropriateness of rights language itself.