Asian Human Rights: A Critique

Asian critics offer more sophisticated arguments than expediency in their resistance against demands for greater implementation of human rights policies. Of the various arguments voiced by Asian governments I shall focus on four: 1) that human rights are culture specific; 2) that community takes precedence over individuals; 3) that social-economic rights have priority over civil political rights, and 4) that the implementation of human rights should be respected as a matter of national sovereignty.

Asian critics offer more sophisticated arguments than expediency in their resistance against demands for greater implementation of human rights policies. Of the various arguments voiced by Asian governments I shall focus on four: 1) that human rights are culture specific; 2) that community takes precedence over individuals; 3) that social-economic rights have priority over civil political rights, and 4) that the implementation of human rights should be respected as a matter of national sovereignty.

The Arguments for Asian Values Examined

Argument 1: Human rights are culture specific.

It is claimed that human rights are the outcome of particular social and historical circumstances. The Bangkok Governmental Declaration (1993) stresses that “while human rights are universal in nature, they must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm-setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional peculiarities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds.”

Response to Argument 1

In dichotomizing the East from West, Asian values apologists have ironically adopted the strategy of the Western intellectual construct of Orientalism. They subscribe to the myth of Asian identity as a monolithic cultural entity. In actual fact, however, Asia is even more diverse religiously and culturally than Europe or the USA.

Let it be noted that current human rights talk about any person’s entitlement for protection and social goods is based on the simple fact that that person is a human being.

“To claim that there are human rights is to claim that all human beings, simply because they are human, have rights in this sense. Such rights are universal, held by all human beings. They are equal: One is or is not a human being, and thus has or does not have (the same) human rights, equally. And they are inalienable: One can no more lose these rights than one can stop being a human being, no matter how inhuman the treatment one may be forced to endure.” /1/

Human rights belong to all human beings, whether they are Western or Asian. The fact that the current concept of human rights originated from the West does not mean that it cannot and should not be applied in Asia. After all, Asians have no reservation applying Newtonian principles and quantum physics even though these physics originated from the West.

Argument 2: Community takes precedence over individuals.

Asian officials like to contrast the Asian emphasis on duty and social cohesion with the selfish individualism of the West. They argue that Asian values – with their emphasis on a sense of community and nationhood, a disciplined and hardworking people, strong moral values and family ties – result in a harmonious society [Lee Kuan Yew]. On the other hand, it is suggested that the present breakdown of society epitomized by widespread drug abuse, increasing crime and racial tension in the West is due in large part to the emphasis on individual rights and adversarial politics.

Mr. Goh Chok Tong, the Prime Minister of Singapore asserts,

For success to continue, correct economic policies alone are not enough. Equally important are the noneconomic factors – a sense of community and nationhood, a disciplined and hardworking people, strong moral values and family ties. The type of society determines how we perform. It is not simply materialism and individual rewards which drive Singapore forward. More important, it is the sense of idealism and service born out of a feeling of social solidarity and national identification. Without these crucial factors we cannot be a happy or dynamic society. /2/

In 1994, Dr. Mahathir, in a speech at the Senate House, Cambridge University cited a survey that found six societal values most valued by East Asians: “First, having an orderly society; second, societal harmony; third, ensuring the accountability of public officials; fourth, being open to new ideas; fifth, freedom of expression; sixth, respect for authority.” He contrasted these values with the six most important values for Americans: freedom of expression, personal freedom, the rights of the individual, open debate, thinking for oneself and sixth, the accountability of public officials. Mahathir commented wryly, “Interestingly, slightly more East Asians emphasized the importance of ‘new ideas’ and public accountability than did Americans.”

Implicit in these responses to the Western concept of human rights is the rejection of its foundation based on individualism. A. M. Hussein argues, “Any emphasis on individual human rights, apart from the rights of the community in which this individual lives, is sheer nonsense. In real history, human rights for the community come first, and human rights for any individual are conditioned by a healthy environment and appropriate social institutions.”/3/

The underlying perspective is the view that society is an organic whole whose collective rights prevail over the individual and that man exists for the state rather than vice versa. Individual significance is defined by the role the individual plays in a community based on family and kinfolk relations./4/ It is therefore wrong to attribute absolute value to human rights since these rights are bequeathed by the state.

Chandra Muzaffar, a prominent Malaysia public intellectual, judges the West as having failed to observe human rights even by its own standards. He cites such cases in white racism, widespread violence in Western societies and family disintegration because creative individuality has degenerated into vulgar individualism, the divorce of rights from responsibilities. He questioned further if the dominant Western concept of rights itself particularistic and sectional since it emphasizes only civil political rights and downplays economic, social and cultural rights. He wondered, “How can a concept of rights be confined to the nation-state respond to the challenges posed by an increasingly global economic, political and cultural system? Isn’t it true that the dominant Western app\roach to human rights fails to recognize the role of global actors – like UNSC, IMF and MNCs – in the violation of human rights?” /5/

He concluded with a rhetorical question, “what are human rights if they are not related to more fundamental questions about the human being?” In other words, the West has failed to promote higher goals of human dignity. Such a view is echoed by Chinese critics Xie and Nui who stressed that, “None is entitled to put his individual right above the interest of the state, society, and others. This is a universal principle of all civilized societies.”/6/

Response to Argument 2

Proponents of East-West dualism ignore the reality that the debate/tension between communitarian and individualistic liberalism is not one divided geographically between Asia and the West. We note that Western philosophers (Charles Taylor, Alasdair McIntyre, Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel) have argued vigorously for a communitarian social philosophy. Likewise, elements of individualism are not alien to Confucianist philosophy with its emphasis on individual self-development and critique of power abuse. While Confucius rejected blind allegiance he also required officials to tell the Prince the truth even if it offends him. [Asian censorship boards should take note of this when they seek to limit press freedom.] His wisdom was evident when he counseled, “When the (good) way prevails the state speak boldly and act boldly. When the State has lost the way, act boldly and speak softly.”

Amartya Sen cites Emperor Asoka as a paragon of tolerance and Buddhist universalism, citing the Edit of Erragudi that “a man must not do reverence to his own sect or disparage that of another man without reason. Depreciation should be for specific reason only, because the sects of other people all deserve reverence for one reason or another.” /7/

Sulak Sivaraksa from Thailand, suggests that Buddhism offers resources although its texts speaks of duties rather than rights. Still, human rights values may be inferred from the core principles of Buddhism. He suggests the following: dana (generosity); sila (the ability not to exploit oneself or others”) and bhavana (cultivating “seeds of peace within the mind”). His suggestion, however, cannot evade the observation that Buddhism makes little reference to political life – whether democratic or authoritarian – and thus not surprisingly, there is no impact at the grass roots level in Thailand. Perhaps too much is made of a religion that concentrates on the spiritual and meditative path. It may be more honest to admit that perhaps human rights values are derived from other sources./8/

However, it would be claiming too much to say that historical Asian societies contain traditions of human rights. What may be conceded is that there were elements in these traditions that affirmed tolerance and positive support for human freedom and that these elements should be retrieved in the development of a comprehensive framework for human rights in contemporary Asia.

Argument 3: Social-economic rights have priority over civil political rights.

Asian governments insist that they lend support to demands for human rights, but their approach would place the greater priority on the right to subsistence and economic development as a precondition to the full enjoyment of all other human rights. Giving priority to human rights over economic development results in unproductive labor conflicts and social tension. In contrast, giving priority to economic rights enables countries like the Asian Tigers to achieve unprecedented economic growth.

Response to Argument 3

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Price winner for economics from Harvard, retorts that there is no empirical verification for the idea that limiting civil and political rights supports economic growth. Asian critics have been selective in providing evidence to support their case. (Why limit examples to China and Singapore and ignore Africa, Latin America or nearer home, other Asian states like Burma and Pakistan?)

In contrast, one may argue that market liberalization leads to economic growth, which was the case in India. Greater economic productivity results from openness to competition, land reforms and higher literacy and education. One may argue that increased economic productivity results because robust economic institutions and efficient workers are nurtured in an ethos where human rights are upheld. In any case, political freedom and civil liberties should be seen as rights that are valued in themselves. There is no justification for the suppression of these rights in the name of economic rights. Quite rightly, human rights activists insist that human rights form a seamless whole, whether economic or civil-political.


Argument 4: The implementation of human rights should be respected as a matter of national sovereignty.

Dr. Mahathir complains that Western powers, in the wake of their victory in the Cold War, now expect all countries to adopt the liberal view on human rights as conceived by the Europeans and the North Americans and implement a Western style of multi-party system of government. He adds, “It would seem that Asians have no right to define and practice their own set of values about human rights. What, we are asked, is Asian Values? The question is rhetorical because the implication is that Asians cannot possibly understand human rights, much less set up their own values.” The demands of the West in effect violate the principle that every nation has a right to self-determination especially over how human rights should be implemented in its domestic affairs. Indeed, one may argue that demands for universal human rights merely mask Western imperialism and its subversion of economic development of Asian nations.

Xie and Nui asserted, “Imposing the human rights standard of one’s country or region on other countries or regions is an infringement upon other countries’ sovereignty and interference into other countries’ internal affairs.” This is asserted regardless of the fact that the issue at hand is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which surely can lay claim to acceptance far beyond the West. /9/

Response to Argument 4

It is ironic that Asian leaders should appeal to the concept of state sovereignty and nation-state (which are Western concepts) to defend their negligence of human rights. At the same time, they overlook the fact that historically human rights became prominent in the West because of the rise of the centralized nation-state. Human rights were emphasized precisely because of the need to limit the awesome power which a centralized state can wield. Social reformers insisted on inalienable human rights rather than just positive rights (which may be conferred by national laws, and by the same token, may be revoked by the state).


1. Jack Donelly, “Human Rights and Asian Values: A Defense of ‘Western’ Universalism” found in Joanne R. Bauer and Daniel A. Bell, ed., The East Asian Challenge for Human Right (Cambridge UP, 1999), p. 61. See Donelly’s extended discussion in his book, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (Cornell UP, 2002).

2. Goh Chok Tong, “Singapore Values, Singapore Style,” Current History (December 1994), p. 417.

3.Joanne Bauer and Daniel Bell, The East Asia Challenge for Human Rights, p. 77.

4. Jack Donelly, 113.

5. Human Wrong, pp. 272-273.

6. Donelly, p. 114.

7. Amartya Sen, “Human Rights and Asian Values,” The New Republic, July 14-July 21, 1997.

8. Found in web site by Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.

9. Donelly, p.108