The misunderstanding

Human rights are recognized equally in Europe and Asia – but implemented differently. An essay.

The discourse on values between Asia and Europe becomes most 
obvious in arguments over human rights. Although all the governments of Asia and Europe have recognized the universal principles and norms laid down in international catalogues of human rights, the supposed discourse about Asian and European values still continues. Interestingly, this is not about values as such. It does not involve ethical ideals such as honesty, trust, human dignity, loyalty or friendship. Instead here a political power struggle is being projected onto human rights and fought out not only within Asian societies, but also between Asian and European governments.

Essentially, it involves the fact that universally recognized human rights are instrumentalized by opposition and social movements in Asian states to advance reforms against the authoritarian structures in their countries. As a result, governments declare war not only on opposition movements, but also on human rights. It is now only a matter of time before this kind of animosity towards domestic reform movements and international human rights 
will come to an end in an age of global 

During my years in East Asia I have never met anyone who actually believes human rights are a Western idea. Any attempt to justify this argument with family values or group rights has failed. That is also plainly obvious in the fact that today no Asian representative or diplomat would serious present this argument at the meetings before international gatherings. On the contrary, in regions of the world in which corruption and cronyism lead to poverty and inequality, the demand for more human rights is frequently the only hope that those affected have of reforming society. It is citizens’ increasing demands for more rule of law, equal opportunities and access to resources that provoke governments to strike back. Any means then become justified – and the rhetoric against human rights as a Western concept is one of them. After all, if human rights were actually observed, it would result in fundamental political reforms.

Human rights 
are universal

Democracies were founded in Europe during the last century without paying special attention to human rights. Politicians emphasized the establishment of the rule of law and an economic system with the goal of developing a political system that could prevent wars and poverty. When democratic structures became more stable in Western Europe during the 1960s, the first human rights movements were founded, such as the Russell Tribunal, Amnesty International and others. It was easier to advocate more human rights on the “solid ground” of democracy. People in Europe no longer had to reckon with really serious consequences such as persecution or torture. The situation is fundamentally different today for the human rights movement in Asia and elsewhere. Human rights are demanded as the ushers of reform. The people who do so often risk censorship, forced labour, torture or the death penalty. This must not be overlooked in the supposed dispute over values. These reform movements demand human rights almost as a panacea against all forms of corruption, autocracy, political censorship and mismanagement.

The values on which human rights are based were and are not the problem. They are indeed universal. There are no differences between Asian and European culture when it comes to the human rights principles that are based on values, such as equality, justice and solidarity. There is also no problem with the human rights standards that have been developed internationally since the 1950s, such as the right to personal development, work, religious freedom, physical integrity and healthcare or the rights of women, children and people with disabilities. In the meantime these have 
also been recognized by the vast majority of states. Today they are found in every human rights preamble, whether in English or in an Asian language.

The differences are found purely in how these norms are implemented, namely 
in government statutes, laws and regulations. There are no differences on values, but differences in the statutory enactment and observance of human rights principles. It is a matter of politics. People’s 
actual needs play a subordinate role. Worse still, thousands of torture victims, migrants and forced labourers without rights, censored civil rights activists with no recourse to the law are unceremoniously declared the collateral damage of a “typically Asian” culture. This kind of cynicism is becoming increasingly obvious. Within Asian societies people are recognizing that there are large differences between politicians’ rhetoric and reality.

is dependent 
on politics

In many countries with authoritarian governments where there is also a well organized civil society or opposition – as in most Asian countries – human rights are frequently the only rhetorical instruments or alternative ideologies against a corrupt regime. This is a development that never took place in Europe, where movements against social grievances first formulated and subsequently standardized human rights. A holistic human rights approach like the one today in Asia did not exist in the European civil rights movement of the 19th and early 20th century. Furthermore, these movements were often ideologically influenced, which is not so much the case in Asia. Civil rights movements in many Asian countries today refer almost self-evidently to the complete human rights catalogue, which consists of far more than 300 international treaties and thousands of norms. That puts governments under enormous pressure.

Many observers of the inner Asian discourse correspondingly speak of the “ambivalent Asian state”. This involves governments that internationally recognize human rights principles and standards but do not comply with them for reasons of power politics. This ambivalence is then rhetorically reflected in the supposed irreconcilability between Asian values and human rights. There is no dispute about the fact that economic development and peace are only sustainable on a lasting basis if human rights – for example, the right to education, the right to a fair trial, freedom of the press and freedom of expression or the right to healthcare – are observed. However, the manner in which these rights are enacted into law and put into practice is dependent on political interests. These do indeed differ between Asia and Europe.

Anja Mihr is Associate Professor at the Institute for Human Rights of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. In 2008 she held a visiting professorship at Peking University and since then has worked with research institutions and universities in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.