Asian Values V.s. Human Rights

The Asian values debate from the early 1990’s is a puzzling and questionable rebuttal to discussion of validity in regards to the human rights movement. One that is questionable on multiple fronts, including its reactionary nature, a lack of definition behind the monolithic size and diversity of “Asian Culture” and the validity of proposed notions of such values, coming from social elites, when there is a lack of free press to verify their points, which are put forward to represent the entire Asian population, ranging in the billions.

1993 saw the Bangkok Declaration being signed by dignitaries from East and South East Asia, with is main proprietors being Singapore, Malaysia and China. The key foundations of the Asian values debate comes from a rejection of Western values, and over emphasis upon the clear foundations of which Asian culture is derived. These include an emphasis on family and clan as the building block of society, hard work, frugality and respect/deference/reverence for authority. Those values form the basis of the Asian values debate. As the dignitaries argued, the West’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) represents an underlying agenda of cultural imperialism, and a lack of respect for Asian traditions and customs, indeed their general antagonism seems to suggest it is even an affront to their values. At its heart, it is a disagreement fuelled by the cultural relativism debate in human rights.

The speakers at the Bangkok Declaration held a scathing view of the West and in particular the US. They believed that the West’s problems are symptomatic to a misguided sense of values, in particular an emphasis on extreme individualism. The entire UDHR, as they put it, in particular the notions on political and civil rights are geared towards the individual and thus present an affront to the values of their oriental partners.

How true is the statement that the west was suffering due to their emphasis on political rights for the individual? Western nations have been the most powerful nations in the world for over a century, and indeed their successes had lead them to in fact lead the world’s economies and political discussions. Whilst the Asian continent was indeed in a period of great economic growth it was not number one. And history proves the point when they entered a period of shrinkage in the late 1990’s. Even if the belief were true, I do not believe that it is possible to generalise reasons for economic success/failure on things as narrow minded as the values of a nation. Economic success for nations is a deeply complex game of numbers, trade relations and resources, to claim a value system is the major player in the success of an economy feels woefully narrow minded.

Another gripe that the proprietors of Asian values have, is that the UDHR and in particular its emphasis on political rights are geared towards democracy, and is an endorsement of democracy. Democracy as they put it however, is in some cases, either completely against their political leanings yet in others merely viewed as a luxury many states cannot afford, in the face of an economy which needs a more authoritarian government for development and growth. This schism between leaders even within the East should already raise alarm bells to just how much the leaders of these nations can generalise the values of an entire continents peoples.

However the question of whether or not democracy is indeed detrimental to the growth and development of a nation’s economy,  is not a strong point. The UDHR is not a doctrine meant to stifle the growth of nations, it is a document made with the intent to protect the basic human rights of human beings which are seen to be inherent in humanity. The argument that these things stifle economic growth are largely besides the point.

To illustrate this point, the Asian values argument is analogous to this example:

An new aircraft has been released to the public. However only every second seat on the aeroplane has a floatation device placed underneath the seat. Instead of all passengers having access to safety devices, only half of the passengers have access to this privilege. Mind you all staff on the plane have access to these devices. The reasoning for this is explained in a press release claiming that that the added weight of the extra devices increases jeopardises the flight ability of the aircraft and thus means that the plane would not be able to fly.

Is this a strong argument? I would hope that most people’s intuition would guide them to disagree. What is clear in this case is that the designers of the aircraft have designed the safety parameters of the aircraft around the plane’s ability to fly. This should never be the case; in a situation like this, the flight capacity of an aircraft is subordinate to the safety of its passengers and thus needs to be designed to accommodate this. Likewise to return to the Asian political system, the political system should be designed around the rights of their citizens and should thus be made to accommodate that, and not the other way around.

Finally, I need to stress the point that many of these Asian countries do not have a free press. Free press represents the notion of a Fourth Estate, an unofficial body, which when free from corporate, governmental and military biases is supposed to work its role as a watch dog for those in power. Their job is to hold governments accountable and to give voice to the public. Without a free press, all of the statements put forward should be taken with a grain of salt, the potential for corruption is simply too high under such circumstances. There is simply no way to verify their statements, certainly not in a country as secretive and oppressive of free speech as China.

Rhonda L. Callaway, “The rhetoric of Asian Values”, in Rhonda L. Callaway and Julie Harrelson-Stephens (eds) Exploring International Human Rights. Essential Readings (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007), pp. 112-121

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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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