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Dealing with Human Rights: Asian and Western…
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Dealing with Human Rights: Asian and Western Views on the Value of Human…

by Martha Meijer (Editor)

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A collection of eight essays addressing the issue of whether human rights are universal or culturally specific, with contributions from four Asian and four Dutch authors. Published in 2001, this book remains quite topical in the debate about the role of human rights in international affairs. The essays include:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Daan Bronkhorst, a staff member of the Dutch section of Amnesty International. This first selection offers a brief history of the development of the concept of human rights, outlines the provisions of the declaration, and presents the major critiques offered to its universality by Asian and Islamic governments. Addressing himself particularly to the questions of cultural relativity, and the supposed conflict between individualism and communitarianism, Bronkhorst concludes that the UN Declaration remains relevant and applicable.

'Asian Values' and the Universality of Human Rights by Xiaorong Li, a Chinese philosophy professor and human rights activist now living in the United States. Li argues that the invocation of 'Asian values' by certain leaders when confronted with their human rights record is a smokescreen intended to deflect attention from the real issue of unequal power dynamics with their societies. She makes a number of excellent points, among them: that the cultural origins of certain norms should not be the deciding factor in their suitability; that governments are not synonymous with communities, and do not necessarily speak for them; and that civil-political rights are complementary to social-economic rights, rather than antagonistic.

Beyond Eurocentrism by Farish A. Noor, a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. Noor takes the stance that the international human rights dialogue has been stifled both by Asian elites who disingenuously invoke 'Asian values,' and Western elites who believe that only a western model will be effective in ensuring human rights. The author offers a fascinating glimpse of the role of progressive Islamic thinkers in reforming medieval Malaysian society, and argues that every culture needs to revive its own progressive traditions, in defense of human rights.

Culture Is Destiny, a conversation between Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, and Fareed Zakaria, managing editor of the journal, Foreign Affairs. A very eloquent statement of the "Asian values" argument, vis-a-vis human rights, although I found myself with a number of questions and critiques after reading his remarks. Lee points to what he perceives as the breakdown in American civil society, but I question (as always) the validity of laying this at the door of liberal social policies. It seems more likely to be the result of the inroads of our very virulent form of consumer capitalism - a position supported by the appearance of many of the same social ills in Asian societies that have bought into this model of development (Japan comes to mind)...

I also thought that Lee did not always address himself to the questions asked of him, as when he transformed the issue of rigidity vs. flexibility into a discussion of optimism vs. familial stability. He also betrays a certain assumption of superiority in his comparison of other cultures to East Asian ones, exactly the kind of "essentialism" that Noor discusses in the previous selection. I did however, value his comments about attempting to adopt a "middle road" in dealing with multiculturalism, and his advice to avoid trying to alter people's basic belief systems.

Is Culture Destiny? a response to Lee Kuan Yew written by the South Korean human rights activist and President of the Republic of Korea, Kim Dae Jung. This brief essay deconstructs the arguments put forward by Lee very neatly, arguing that democratic ideals are by no means foreign to Asia, which has many ancient intellectual traditions compatible with them. Here he cites the work of the Chinese philosopher Meng Tzu, as well as the native Korean religion of Tonghak. Jung also questions the idea that culture is the only factor in the success of nations. If that is true, he asks, then what explains the fact that nations both succeed and fail at various times in their history?

Human Rights Are Not for Sale by Willem van Genugten, a professor of law and human rights at two Dutch universities. This essay addresses the question of whether trade relations should be premised upon human rights policy. The author does discuss the question of universality, arguing for a combined approach, which discourages governments from avoiding criticism by invoking "special circumstances," but also acknowledges that there are other perspectives on the issue. van Genugten concludes that membership in international economic organizations such as the WTO should be predicated upon ratification of core ILO (International Labor Organization) conventions on economic human rights. On the other hand, he argues that trade relations are NOT the proper venue to promote other kinds of human rights (political-civil rights).

The Price of Just Trade Measures by Hadewych Hazelzet, a research analyst who has worked for UNESCO and for various EU administrators. This selection addresses itself to the question of Economic Sanctions as a means of promoting human rights, and what constitutes a "Just Sanctions Doctrine." She specifically examines the question of the sanctions then current (ca. 2001) against the regime in Iraq.

The Human Dimension by Martha Meijer, who has worked for the Dutch section of Amnesty International, as well as the Dutch Human Rights Forum. Ms. Meijer analyzes the "human rights assessment" as a tool of foreign policy.

Overall, I found this collection of essays quite informative, and helpful in clarifying some of my own thoughts about the question of cultural relativity in relation to human rights. Kim Dae Jung's piece in particular, was a very effective refutation of the false conflict being set up between Asian and Western cultures in this regard. I am familiar with Meng Zhu, but not Tonghak - something to investigate! I am also grateful to Farish A. Noor for introducing me to some aspects of Malaysian history, although I would have been interested to hear more about issues of gender as it concerns this progressive Islam he discussed. In the end, I am much more in the universality "camp." ( )
1 vote AbigailAdams26 | Jun 28, 2013 |
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Adopted by the UN more than fifty years ago, the practical application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains far from ideal. Violations continue while politicians debate the universality and relativism of human rights. Composed of essays by scholars and world leaders including the President of South Korea and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Kim Dae Jung, this book reflects different cultural perspectives and current thinking on enforcing human rights in international relations.
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