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UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS AND ASIAN EXCEPTIONALISM: THE DICHOTOMY

- Srividya M.S.


We declare that human rights are for all of us, all the time:whoever we are and wherever we are from; no matter our class, our opinions, our sexual orientations.

– Ban Ki-moon

Subsequent to World War I, the idea of liberalism as a thought came to the forefront. The focus was on maintenance of peace and security with the joint effort of every nation. This school of thought was led by WoodrowWilson and a new era was heraldedwith his historic 14-point speech. Liberalism essentially emphasized on individual autonomy and the protection of rights of life, liberty and property. Despite the efforts being solidified in an institution, the League of Nations, the ideafailed as eventually the Second World War broke out. The massive destruction witnessed by the entire world in the wake of the World War II gave new lessons to the entire human race as a whole. A new institution called the United Nations was formed to protect the peace and security among nations.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in the year 1948 on December 10th with the aim of protecting the rights of every single individual around the world. Nevertheless, there have been many challenges in declaring human rights as “universal”. The greatest amongst these challenges have been raised by the Asian countries representing a varied culture and economic situations. This eventually led to a concept of ‘Asian Exceptionalism’ backed by Asian values.

The Advent and Growth of Universal Human Rights

Universality of human rights has held its ground subsequent to the horrors of the Second World War. There have been many leaders who have upheld its cause by adhering to the Universal declaration of human rights. Article2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Henceforth “UDHR”) explicitly lays down that the declaration brings in its ambit every single person around the world irrespective of “political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self- governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.[1] This means that the UDHR is applicable to every country around the world even if isn’t recognised as a state by the other states.

While there is clarity in the document itself, there have been debates and questions raised regarding universality. The debates have a variety of aspects being taken into consideration including origin, anthropological differences, philosophical differences etc.,[2] However, all scholars agree that universal acceptance of the need for human rights is necessary for its effective implementation.[3]

One of the major problems arising with universal acceptance of the implementation of human rights is that of sovereignty of each individual state and the ideology and values of that state. In this regard, it is important to examine the Asian example. Asia is a continent with countries having varied forms of government, ideologies and values which drive them.The main contention by the leaders of the Asian nations was that there was an imposition of Asian values over them in the form of the universal human rights regime as the values backing the thought of the nation was varied compared to those values driving the universal imposition of human rights. The question which arose is whether the imposition of a universal idea of human rights would help when there are so many diverse conditions involved.8

The Rise of Asian Exceptionalism

As stated in the previous segment, the aspect of values and ideologies play a major role in the conflict against the universal acceptance of the human rights regime. It is pertinent in this regard to examine the Asian values and what it means. The subjectin itself is a broad one. The author confines the article to a very brief explanation of the same.

Defining Asian Values

One way of delineating the constituent parts of Asian values is to separatethem into socialvalues and the effects of those values in the political-economic sphere. The Asian values prefer social values which provide better socio-political and economic outcomes. Social order isprioritised over individual liberty.[4] There is a majorshift from the Western values focusing on individual preferences. The focus in Asian countries bend towards collective social norms.[5]

The Singapore School of thought attempted to give an objective shape to the Asian values and said that it consisted od the following aspects: respect for authority, strong families, reverence for education, hard work, frugality, teamwork, and a balance between the individual's interests and those of society.[6]

View of Asian values by the West

One of the major issues concerning the West is the view of Asia as one single unit as pointed out by Amartya Sen.[7] However, the advocates of the Asian values see Asia as a region with varied values and traditions. Hence, particular applicability as an approach was brought up by the Asian end.

While there is heterogeneity in Asian tradition, it does not mean in any way that there is an absence of recognition of the concepts of human rights in Asian culture. The Euro centric approach tends to undermine the history of human rights which was envisaged by the thinkers of the east. Many thinkers have pointed out that the view of Greece being the origin of Universal Human Rights is wrong as there was selective championing of liberty.

While Asian values spoke of freedom and rights, it also involved an aspect of duties held by every individual. There was a championing of order and discipline much like there was in the writings of Plato.13 While there was a Buddhist thought speaking about free choice there was Confucian thought speaking about order. There were many kings who championed the cause of various rights including the right to religion. One immemorial king was King Ashoka whose support led to the spread of peace under Buddhism. There was a tolerance of diversity under many kings including Akbar.

Looking at all this, it can be understood that the Asian values being blindsided by the Euro- Centric approach led to mistrust among the Asian nations. Hence there is a certain hesitation in acceptance of human rights. The Asian states aren’t willing to sign treaties with international status but are willing to bring in domestic laws leading to what is called as “Asian Exceptionalism”.

Asian Exceptionalism and its Influence on Domestic Law Making

While the Asian states do not ascribe to the notion of Universality of human rights, it does not mean that

the basic human rights aren’t guaranteed by the States. There have been instanceswhere there are massive human rights violations by an Asian State. For example: China and the case of Uighur Muslims. This, however, does not colour the entire Asian region as anti-humanitarian. Most Asian countries have the fundamental human rights enshrined in theConstitutions which govern the state.

Taking the case of treaties, states prefer to keep their sovereignty intact and exercise their lawmaking power to put in place domestic laws instead of ascribing to the international treaties. For example: States like Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh are not party to the Refugee Convention but are developing policies or practices to address the needs of displaced persons.

Shortcomings of Asian exceptionalism

The universalists have contended that the use of Asian values as a reason to not support Universal Human Rights regime is a mistake. They make four major arguments[8] which include:

a. Liberal democratic values guarantee basic civil and political liberties, and those liberties transcend cultural boundaries. b. Liberal democratic values are an integral part of the good society;there- fore, liberaldemocratic systems should be seen as ends in themselves. c. Asian civilizations have liberal heritages. d. Human cultures are mutable and dynamic by nature. Using these four arguments, the universalists say that Asian exceptionalism cant be used as a shield to deny basic human rights and cover for the authoritarian regimes of the East. The universalization of Human Rights would help better implement the Asian values which talk about rights guaranteed to all.

CONCLUSION


After examining the universalization of human rights and its importance to ensure freedom beyond borders,the article spoke about Asianvalues and the mistaken Europeanperception of Asian values. After considering Asian values, it can be concluded that the Euro-centric approach fundamentally does not address the Asian countries’ diversity in its laws and rules. However, completely shuttingoneself off to the Global Human rightsregime would eventually make way for authoritarians and populist governments to violate human rights under the garb of sovereignty. A middle path needs to be carved out where the Asian values are recognised and understood by the Western thinkers before a law is drafted. The existing laws could be amended to include the concerns of the East in order to make it more acceptable and thereby implementable. This would bring together the best of both the East and the Western values in order to secure a rights based regime for all.

[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art 02 [2] EVA BREMS, HUMAN RIGHTS: UNIVERSALITY AND DIVERSITY 5 (NijhoffPublishers, 1st ed. 2001) [3] Aristoteles Constantinides, Questioning the Universal Relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 62 Cuadernos constitucionales de la Cátedra Fadrique Furió Ceriol 49, 52 (2008) [4] Surain Subramaniam, The Asian Values Debate: Implications for the Spread of Liberal Democracy 27 ASIAN Affairs: An American Review 19 24 (2007) [5] MICHAEL R. J. VATIKIOTIS, POLITICAL CHANGE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA: TRIMMING THE BANYAN TREE 111 (Routledge, 1st ed. 2006). [6] DAVID I. HITCHCOCK, ASIAN VALUES DEBATE: ASIAN VALUES AND THE UNITED STATES: HOW MUCH CONFLICT? (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies,1994). [7] Amartya Sen, Human Rightsand Asian Values, Sixteenth Morgenthau MemorialLecture on Ethics& Foreign Policy (1997) [8] Surain Subramaniam, The Asian Values Debate: Implications for the Spread of Liberal Democracy 27 ASIAN AFFAIRS: AN AMERICAN REVIEW 19 26 (2000).