This section discusses the current human rights debate between a number of East Asian states intent on economic development and Western states’ views of basic human rights and universalism.
A first perspective comes from Bilhari Kausikan. In his comment, Kausikan argues that human rights touch upon delicate matters of culture and values. In Kausikan’s view, realities and interests must be taken into account when promoting or speaking about human rights. Kausikan states that although abuses and inconsistencies continue to exist in Asia, the human rights situation has greatly improved in the last 20 years. Kausikan believes that Western states’ self-interest and pressure on Asian countries, which are often insufficient and condescendingly ethnocentric, deny the improvements that the region has made.
Next, Kausikan comments that the diversity of cultural traditions, political structures, and levels of development, is difficult and almost impossible for a universal view to apply in regards to the human rights regime in Asia. Whereas the West has an individualistic ethos approach, the East and South-East Asia have a communitarian approach. As a result, Kausikan states that there is “a general discontent throughout the region with a purely Western interpretation of human rights” (540). In order to find a balance between a pretentious and unrealistic universalism and a paralyzing cultural relativism, Kausikan writes that a genuine and fruitful dialogue will need to take place in order to expand and deepen consensus between Western and Asian states on the issues of human rights. According to Kausikan, “the West will have to accept that no universal consensus may be possible and that states can legitimately agree to disagree without being guilty of sinister designs of bad faith… it will require the West to make complex political distinctions, perhaps refraining from taking a position on some human rights issues, irrespective of their merits, in order to press others where the prospects for consensus are better” (543). By allowing cultural leeway in interpretation human rights, are we undermining the essence of the rights themselves? Where should we draw the line?
The White Paper provides us with the government of China’s view on human rights issues. According to China, “as history develops, the concept and connotation of human rights also develop constantly… the most urgent human rights are still the right to subsistence and the right to economic, social, and cultural development; therefore, attention should first be given to the right of development” (547). In addition, the paper argues that human rights are essentially a matter of domestic jurisdiction. For China, “international human rights activities should be carried on in the spirit of seeking common ground while reserving differences, mutual respect, and the promotion of understanding and cooperation” (548).
A second perspective comes from Yash Ghai. Ghai criticizes the Asian approach that because human rights are propounded in the West on individuals, they have no relevance to Asia, which is based on the primacy of community. Ghai argues that perceptions of human rights in Asia are reflective of economic, political, and social conditions; therefore, they vary from country to country and cannot be summarized into one “Asian” view. In addition, Ghai states that some Asian governments use communitarian arguments to support their proposition that rights are culture specific. According to Ghai though, this argument is flawed because it is also used to deny the claims and assertions of communities in the name of ‘national unity’ and ‘stability.’ In addition, Ghai argues that Asian governments’ view of the State is not synonymous with community. Ghai writes that the State is an imposition on society. Some Asian governments use the justification of ‘in the name of development’ to justify the denial of and violation of human rights. As Ghai states, “the contemporary State intolerance of opposition is inconsistent with traditional communal values and processes” (552). In what ways can communitarianism foster an individual understanding of human rights that does not undermine the community at large? Is it possible?
A third perspective comes from Jack Donnelly. Donnelly invites us to consider the contemporary arguments against universal human rights standards on the basis of cultural relativism. Donnelly states that, “we must be alert to cynical manipulations of a dying, lost, or even mythical cultural past” (553). According to Donnelly, cultural relativist arguments are the economic and political elites’ tools to justify their corruptions and maintain their power.
A fourth perspective comes from Soek-Fang Sim. Sim explores the logic of the one-party rule in Singapore and how the meaning of Asian Values is instrumental to sustain this logic. According to Sim, within the Asian Values discourse, “nation [is placed] above self.” Capitalism and authoritarianism are therefore reinforcing. In addition, Sim refers to Asian Values as “a strong normative centre” that plays the role of the social gaze. As she argues, “Asian Values makes for the subordination rather than the incorporation of dissent.” Is dissent possible under an authoritarian regime?