|The anniversary of the UN Declaration has provoked heated debate in the Far East, where some have argued that 'Asian values' should supersede Western 'propaganda' on human rights. The debate has particular significance for Angela Lee Nga Kam, who works for Amnesty in a Hong Kong now acclimatizing to Chinese rule.|
In Singapore, the improvement in economic rights has been heralded as a living example of 'Asian values'. The economic progress there is real but seems to have excluded progress on other fronts: Singaporeans are still denied many of their civil and political rights especially those relating to freedom of expression and
association. The importance of 'social harmony' is stressed, ranking the rights of the wider community higher than those of individuals. The preservation of such harmony can easily be used to justify violent intervention by the Government.
The same atmosphere is found in other countries whose leaders enthuse about 'Asian values'. In Indonesia, trade unionists are continually harassed and imprisoned. Dr Muchtar Pakpahan, a union leader, was sentenced to four years for allegedly 'inciting' others to disobey the Government during demonstrations in April 1994. Many believe he is imprisoned simply for trying to protect the integrity of workers.
In Malaysia, whose Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed regularly refers to the concept, financial journalists were threatened with detention under the draconian Internal Security Act simply for trying to report what was happening to currency and stock markets.
This kind of repression does not necessarily lead to a better standard of living. In Burma, where aspirations for civil and political rights continue to be brutally quashed, there has been little improvement in the economic situation of ordinary people.
Nor does democracy preclude economic improvement. The proponents of Asian values have conveniently ignored the struggles for democracy in the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea. While these are far from perfect as democracies, their peoples have fought for (and won) a much greater say in government and their economies have been improving as well.
The theory that there are particular Asian values which exempt us from universal standards of human rights provides a convenient smokescreen for some of the many real challenges we face here in Asia. It offers a continued platform for authoritarian governments and businesses to profit from the exploitation of the less fortunate. Moreover, it remains a concept clouded with ambiguity; a description tailor-made to the needs of whoever is using the term. As Hong Kong-based human-rights expert Professor Yash Ghai puts it: 'There is no particular coherence in the doctrine of Asian values. Its intellectual roots are weak, and it shifts its ground as expediency demands.'
Some authoritarian leaders in Asia have blamed human rights and democracy for the ills now found in the industrialized West. However, Burma's leading dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, thinks they lie elsewhere: 'Many of the worst ills of American society, increasingly to be found in other developed countries, can be traced not to their democratic legacy but to the demands of modern materialism... The result is a society where cultural and human values are set aside and money value reigns supreme.'
Korean democratic leader Kim Dae Jung, meanwhile, has said that the real solution to the ills of marketization and industrialization, 'is not to impose the
terror of a police state but to emphasize ethical education, give high regard to spiritual value, and promote high standards in culture and arts.'
Are Aung San Suu Kyi, Kim Dae Jung, Dr Muchtar Pakpahan or East Timor's Bishop Belo less 'Asian' than Dr Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew because they promote a more complex view of the relationship between human rights, democracy and economics?
According to Harvard University economist and philosopher Amartya Sen there is little evidence to suggest that political and civil rights hamper economic growth. On the contrary, Sen states that, 'whether and how a government responds to the needs and suffering [of its people] may well depend on how much pressure is put on it. The exercise of political rights (such as voting, criticizing, protesting and
so on) can make a real difference. For example, one of the remarkable facts is that no substantial famine has ever occurred in any country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press.'
In Asia, human-rights activists are faced with the problem of how to translate the concept of international human rights into the fabric of specific cultural circumstances. Many people in Hong Kong appear to believe that a loss of democracy will not affect their economic well-being. When Tung Chee-Hwa was appointed Chief Executive of Hong Kong in July 1997, his opening speeches were filled with such phrases as: 'We will continue to encourage diversity in our society but we must also reaffirm and respect the fine traditional Chinese values, including filial piety, love for the family, modesty and integrity and the desire for continuous improvement.'
Under his authority, we have seen the establishment of a Provisional Legislative Council which replaced the more democratically elected Legislative Council. Whilst this situation is temporary elections are scheduled for May 1998 some people in Hong Kong are concerned that this precedent may erode democratic development.
Our hope though is that human-rights education and the importance we in Hong Kong place on values such as the rule of law, a free press, an independent judiciary and government accountability, will gradually flow across the border into mainland China. We believe that in time all citizens of China will enjoy more of the rights we have worked so hard to attain in Hong Kong. Many people are also working hard to win them on the mainland. Such rights will help curtail the corruption that is rife in so many Asian countries.
In Hong Kong, many of us realize that no society can become complacent and that, to maintain the rights we now enjoy as a Special Administrative Region of China, we will have to remain ever-vigilant.
In this respect the West has been less than helpful. The 1990s have seen the promotion and protection of human rights in Asia take a backward step in part due to the West's hypocrisy in relation to human rights. The desire of the Western powers to trade with the enormous potential markets of Asia China in particular have seen an erosion of their commitment to human rights. Phrases like 'constructive engagement', put forward by Western leaders and business people, have become common currency: a simple term that is merely a convenient excuse to maintain trade with repressive governments.
But we have also seen the strengthening of regional groupings such as the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) that refuse even to debate issues of 'constructive engagement' or Asian values. Confrontation may not always be the best way to move the human-rights agenda forward, but the need to maintain principles cannot be overstated.
The challenge on human rights is to go beyond rhetoric to rationality. Asian governments (with the exception of Taiwan) all belong to the same United Nations that produced the Declaration on Human Rights 50 years ago. This brings with it responsibilities as well as privileges responsibility is an 'Asian value' that governments in the region frequently emphasize. These governments should be asked to reaffirm their commitment to the universality of human rights rather than undermining the existence of international treaties with talk of 'Asian values'.
It is time to take up the many real challenges that confront Asian people. We must move away from the confusing discussions about human rights as a concept and return to the fundamental reasons for the existence of international human rights instruments.
First and foremost among these is the ability to meet the needs of the less fortunate and to express our solidarity with them. 'Asian values' have not prevented the current famine in North Korea; nor did they manage to stop the genocide in Cambodia during the late 1970s; nor are they resolving the many conflicts currently simmering in our region.
We need to find real solutions for our many Asian problems not to hide behind the convenient shield of bogus termin-ology. As the former President of Singapore Devan Nair says: 'Human values are human values.' The challenge for those of us supporting and promoting human rights is to find a way to blend them with cultural values without compromising their universality. If human rights are to be effectively implemented, they must take root within civil society as well as through the law.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still the cornerstone of human-rights standards. The anniversary of the Declaration should provide us, Asian
people and Asian governments alike, with the momentum to turn those rights into reality.
Angela Lee Nga Kam is Human Rights Education Officer at Amnesty International's Hong Kong Section.