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Asian Values And Human Rights Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 4369 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Asian values has been continuously debated over the past couple of decades as a hurdle in the implementation of Human Rights in Asia. More than anyone else, States in Asia came forward to oppose the implementation of the Human Rights standards in Asia without taking into account any cultural relativism factors. This debate continued since 1990s with decades of economic boom in East and South-East Asia, and slowed down with the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997-98. With so many claims from both the sides of hemisphere for and against the involvement of cultural factors in Human Rights implementation, this paper looks at the relevance of such debate in the present arena, and tries to answer if there is any conflict between culture and human rights. Therefore, the focus of this paper would be on right vs. culture and universalism vs. relativism to know how cultural set-up impacts the international human rights set-up.

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Asian values was a concept that came into vogue briefly in the 1990s to justify authoritarian regimes in Asia, [1] predicated on the belief in the existence within Asian countries of a unique set of institutions and political ideologies which reflected the region’s culture and history. [2] Although there are many differences in Eastern and Western ideas, philosophy, etc., there is no single set of “Asian” values. [3] The political phrase “Asian values” should not be confused with “traditional values.”

Because the proponents of the concept came from different cultural backgrounds, no single definition of the term exists, but typically “Asian values” encompass some influences of Confucianism; in particular loyalty towards the family, corporation, and nation; the forgoing of personal freedom for the sake of society’s stability and prosperity; the pursuit of academic and technological excellence; and work ethic and thrift. [4] Proponents of “Asian values”, who tend to support Asian-style authoritarian governments, claim they are more appropriate for the region than the liberal values and institutions of the West. These values found expression in the Bangkok Declaration of 1993, which reemphasized the principles of sovereignty, self-determination, and noninterference. [5] 

A brief list of such “Asian values” includes:

Predisposition towards single-party rule rather than political pluralism;

Preference for social harmony and consensus as opposed to confrontation and dissent;

Concern with socio-economic well-being instead of civil liberties and human rights; [6] 

Preference for the welfare and collective well-being of the community over individual rights; [7] 

Loyalty and respect towards forms of authority including parents, teachers and government;

Collectivism and communitarianism over individualism and liberalism; [8] 

Authoritarian governments as opposed to liberal democracy. [9] 

Interestingly, where Asian countries have been opposing the Western concept of Human Rights on cultural grounds, we see these arguments gaining momentum as a result of economic success that they claim to have achieved as a result of such values. [10] The conflict between East and West arose as a result of collapse of communist regime in East Europe and the former USSR and the rise of western liberal democracy which laid to the latter being regarded as the victor. [11] As a result, several Asian governments emphasized on a third way of development and rejected the Liberal-Marxist dichotomy. This third way is a combination of capitalist economy and Asian values. [12] This is a strategy based on economic modernization without political modernization.

Therefore, we see the genesis of the concept of Asian values in the rise and development of identity politics, and becoming prominent in 1990s with the economic success of East and South-East Asian countries. Hence, the discussion on 1990s international human rights has been largely subsumed by the wider debate on the meaning and importance of culture and history embedded in this region.

Debate over Asian values

Authors such as Innoue Tatsuo, Jack Donnelly, Amartya Sen and Mark Thompson believe that the idea of Asian Value is inauthentic because of two reasons. Firstly, that the concept of Asian values does not convey Asian voices in their full complexity and diversity, nor does it represent genuine Asian initiatives. While I come down to discuss this point, I will take assistance of Mr. Yash Ghai’s article on Asian values which shows how this claim does not stand as a result of great Asian diversity. Secondly, the refusal of western concept so much so as to ignore the intellectual and institutional benefits which may be taken in order to accommodate internal conflicts among Asian voices. [13] 

‘Asian values’ and complexity and diversity of Asia

Authors have argued that the idea of Asian values derives its appeal from its anti-West centric stance, i.e, the message that it wants to convey is Western values are alien to Asian system and any attempt of West to impose it on Asia must be denounced as cultural imperialism. [14] Now, the claim of Asian values as inauthentic can be shown at two levels. Firstly, on the basis of Mr. Yash Ghai’s argument that it would have been surprising if there were only one Asian perspective. [15] Since, neither Asian culture not Asian realities are homogeneous in nature; it’s really difficult to have it. All world’s major religions are represented in Asia. Further, the ideologies of different governments vary with structure and size. Even the economic conditions of these states are different. [16] On the one hand there is Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan which are one of world’s most advanced and prosperous countries, and on the other we have countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Philippines which are facing acute poverty problems. There is diversity in the political systems ranging from semi-feudal kingdoms in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and military dictatorship in Burma and Cambodia to constitutional democracy with independent judiciary in India and other Asian countries. More diversity may be observed by looking at the kind of economy, for example, Taiwan and Singapore which are market economies to mixed economies of India and Taiwan, and planned economies of Vietnam and China. [17] 

Anti-west-centric approach

On the second point of refusal of Western concept of liberal democracy and human rights so much so as to ignore any benefit coming in, it is argued that the religious, social, political and economic diversity that Asia has, persisting inter-national level or intra-national level, it demands western liberal ideas to flow in to avoid any sort of clash. The internal diversity of Asia requires the development of liberal democracy to accommodate conflict and tension that it may generate. [18] This argument is based on the fact that liberal democracy has shown time and again the legitimacy it provides to the system as it separates politics and religion, and assures everyone equal rights irrespective of religion or any other distinction. Even John Rawls argues that liberal democracy seeks to establish reasonable common basis of legitimacy to societies deeply divided by competing and even incommensurable religion, culture and other comprehensive views. [19] 

In addition to this, although the Asian values stance criticizes the Western concept, it does accept sovereignty without any reservation. This shows double standard on the part of advocates of Asian values as the concept of sovereignty is also a concept having western origin. [20] In the year 1993, Asian countries before the Vienna Conference on Human Rights came out with Bangkok Declaration which called for a balanced approach in implementing the Human Rights. Through the declaration, they emphasized on the principle of state sovereignty. It has been seen that such balanced approach to human rights disguises an unbalanced reliance on state sovereignty. [21] What we fail to understand is that the development of the concept of sovereignty and human rights happened parallel in the West. [22] As the principle of sovereignty protects small and weaker nations against the oppression of major and hegemonic nations, the same way human rights protect weaker individuals and minorities against stronger socio-political forces.

Declarations and stands taken by the States

An important milestone which was covered by the proponents of Asian values, and which cannot remain untouched in any similar debate is Bangkok Declaration. The arguments in the Declaration if one examines, will find it premised on primacy of subsistence over freedom. The Declaration was also influenced by one of the strongest advocates of Asian values and Singaporean ex-Premier Lee Kuan Yew who emphasized on his “good governance” theory. It clarified the belief that the civil and political rights which constitute liberal democracy are luxuries that only developed countries can afford to enjoy. [23] To provide its people the right to subsist by economic and social development, the government is required to exercise strong leadership and efficient management. [24] 

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But the stand of several Asian governments before the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights was countered by another Declaration, called NGO Declaration. The tone of the two Declarations can be found completely opposed to each other. Bangkok Declaration, on the one hand, begins with universality and discusses particularities, the NGO Declaration begins, on the other hand, begins with particularities. [25] Bangkok Declaration stated that the economic development of nation must precede the protection of human rights. When there is lack of food and clothing, priority has to be given to the economic development, in the absence of which human rights cannot be realized in its true sense.

An interesting fact that must be noted in the light of the above mentioned three Declarations is that all of them have recognized the importance of historical, cultural and religious backgrounds despite of having different trajectories. [26] NGO Declaration and Vienna Declaration which were initially understood to be the documents strictly advocating universality of human rights, on a fine reading, gave due weightage to the cultural and historical factors. [27] 

Countering the West

Moving from the theoretical debate towards some specific examples, it has often been argued by several scholars [28] that west’s approach towards human rights is dubious. Firstly, Western societies are seen as neutral and therefore lacking any cultural barriers to the implementation on human rights is a farce. For example, dowry death in India is taken to be an example of cultural backwardness, whereas domestic violence in USA is not. [29] Both of these are regular impediment to human rights of women. Such violations by west are described as failures based on religious, constitutional or free market factors. Similarly, there are several incidences of sexual abuse of women prisoners by prison guards in USA and the lack of any effective remedy. [30] US officials have responded to such incidences as domestic issue and nothing to do with international human rights realm. Secondly, there is a double standard on the part of west in recognizing cultural factors involved. It may be illustrated through examples such as clitoridectomy. West fails to see a number of practices in its own land such as celibacy of nuns in Catholic Church, battering of women, child sexual abuse and many other such practices which also affect women in the west to enjoy their sexuality. This may be extrapolating the argument a bit, but the object remains the same. Hence, criticizing one on cultural grounds without the other cannot be maintained. Hence, what needs to be done is to set the priorities correct. Instead of putting riders to economic assistance to such African countries that their aid is subjected to the abolition of clitoridectomy, aids must be given to educate tribal societies so that such practices are rooted out completely from the society. This may involve cost, but it would work for empowerment and have long-lasting effect. [31] 

Such double standard of West seems to be a claim of its ‘holier than thou’ attitude. It is understood that the rights as a human being has universal value and in most cases there cannot be any derogation to it. At the same time, culture cannot be completely ignored, and if at all it impedes the implementation of human rights, a more inclusive step has to be taken to integrate Asia into the wider framework of international human rights.

Asian values: losing hold

On the economic front, and this is where the claim of Asian values is losing hold, scholars [32] believe that the Asian financial crisis has undermined the international prestige of the claim. The claim of ‘we might be authoritarian, but we’re economically successful’ was criticized from all corners by the critics of Asian values. It is understood that the claim for human rights rests on three important factors, viz., (i) their intrinsic value; (ii) their consequential role in providing political incentives to economic security; and (iii) their constructive role in the genesis of values and priorities. [33] The statement of economic success in no way can justify the grounds of refusal of implementation of human rights. Special nature of Asia and its cultural factors as excuses only withers the institution of human rights. These rights are not subjected to the citizenship of a country; rather it’s an entitlement of every human being.

We further see certain compromises which have been made in the name of development and containment of Asian values. I personally believe that in the light of the economic backwardness such compromises are indeed vital where civil and political right enjoy lowly position as economic development may require restriction on such rights. [34] 

Therefore, the concept of Asian values does not seem to only emerge out of cultural particularities of Asia, but it is also influenced by anti-west centric approach of non-Western countries [35] to fight against western hegemony. It is further fuelled by the economic backwardness of several Asian countries which impedes the implementation of human rights in its entirety. But before ending this section, I summarily submit three important facts which rebut the proposition of Asian values, firstly the claim of authoritarian rule to be quintessential for faster economic growth in Asia is countered by the experience of Botswana which is world’s one of the fastest growing economy is the oasis of democracy in the unhappy continent of Africa. [36] It is further supported by the example of India. Secondly, the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 has proved the claim of Asian states to be wrong. And lastly, there have been several instances from the Asian history such as the origin of Buddhism, policies of emperors like Asoka and Akbar who have not only recognized tolerance, but also the individual’s rights in a state and behavior of citizens towards each other. It has also been seen through the history of famine in the world that famine has never occurred in an independent democratic country with free press. [37] 

What is the Relevance of the Asian values debate to the present human rights arena?

As it has already been discussed in this paper, the concept of Asian values does not hold as much relevance in the present context because of two reasons; firstly, the Asian financial crisis has weakened its proponents to justify authoritarian rule under the garb of economic success, and secondly, the impact of globalization and market integration alongwith the diktat of international organizations such as World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Though, it is agreed that most of the Asian countries believe in community’s rights before the individual’s, but this is justified only to the extent that it benefits the society and not for the sustenance authoritarian rule.

There are two fundamental questions that arise; firstly, whether there is a legitimate basis to reject liberal democracy and human rights concept on the ground of Asian values? And secondly, can Asia prosper without its commitment to human rights dealing with the religious and cultural diversity that it has? The relevancy of Asian values as it stands today has become so feeble that it’s difficult for it to gain currency for not recognizing human rights. So long as people continue to value tradition and culture, it must be followed, but it cannot be forced upon them to hold political power. [38] It is the opinion of several scholars [39] that the individual and group choices have to be protected by the states within the limits laid out by international human rights. Human rights as specified in the UDHR and several other covenants represent the intention and best effort of the international community to define socio-political parameters of the common humanity, and not specific to any citizenship or nation. Many of them are so basic that there cannot be any derogation allowed what so ever. There may be cultural differences, but as long as such basic human rights are concerned, any derogation must be resisted by the international community, then be it in the name of development or economic growth or cultural specificity.

To contain the religious and political diversity, Asia cannot be in a state of denial towards these international human rights which form the basis of the modern democratic society. There may be sporadic achievements in sticking to Asian values, but the stability lies in recognizing the rights of individuals. With Bangkok, NGO and Vienna Declarations in mind, minimal deviation may be allowed in the name of culture and particularities, but the universal nature of these rights cannot be forgotten. [40] The usefulness and flaws of human rights must be constantly examined, but their role must be complemented and substituted whenever necessary. [41] 

The role and relevance of Asian Values may be culturally relevant, but the changing dynamics, development and the demand for human rights for the ultimate development of society, human rights must be completely realized.


Through this paper, it has been seen that the reasons for few Asian countries to harp upon Asian Values was to ensure faster economic and infrastructural development which cannot be possible without restricting human rights appropriately. But when the same stand is taken by the countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan which are already economically advanced and developed, it twists angle towards completely cultural factors, and not economic backwardness and need for development. Further, the concept of Asian Values ignores the fact that all Asians do not share a certain monolithic set of values, and that they are distinct and diverse among themselves.

The claim of Asian Values emerged with the economic success of the east and south-east Asian countries, but the same could not continue as a result of financial crisis on 1997-98. This completely shows that the growth was not a result of authoritarian government and ignoring human rights. Professor Mark Thompson’s article Whatever Happened to Asian Values exhaustively demonstrates how Asian countries tried to show modernization can go hand in hand with authoritarianism, but they could not succeed. [42] Democratization and more liberalization have been seen with the advent of the 21st century. Several Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, etc. have all seen resurgence and transformation to a more liberal and democratic society. [43] 

The debate of relativism vs. universalism and individualism vs. communitarianism would still continue, but this should not impede the implementation of human rights. Asian culture and history should not be seen in terms of narrow category of authoritarian values. Such an approach would not do justice to the rich diversity of the continent. To sum up,

“Human rights are not a panacea for the world’s problems. They do, however, fully deserve the prominence they have received in recent years. For the foreseeable future, human rights will remain a vital element in national, international, and transnational struggles for social justice and human dignity. And the relative universality of those rights is a powerful resource that can be used to help to build more just and humane national and international societies.” [44] 


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