Review: Human Rights & Asian Values Amartya Sen


The debate about the principles of ​​human rights has been occurring especially since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in the mid-20th century. One of the main points of the debate lies in the question of whether human rights are universal or special. Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore Prime Minister) who is considered as one of the architects of Asian values once gave compelling argument popularly so called “Asian Values Argument”. He said in the 1960s that Asian cultures are so different from Western cultures that they are exempt from consideration of human rights.

The prime tactical premise of the Asian values argument is one of cultural relativism: that many of the hegemonic political, social and cultural norms of the late twentieth century are western, rather than universal, norms and no more legitimate than alternative norms that could be considered “Asian”. These values, for example are prioritise the interests of the family or the community, the need for harmony, stability in the country, the position of religious values ​​in the life of the country (Confucius called it loyalty to family and obedience to the state). There is also an argument that Western-style liberal democracies that overemphasise individual rights are not in accordance with Asian cultures. Furthermore, giving civil and political rights to citizens will create chaos that can hamper economic progress and the welfare – likely become justification for authoritarianism regimes at that time (Michael D, Barr 2000, 300). In addition, some also argue that relatively authoritarian countries such as South Korea, Singapore and China show faster rates of economic growth than less authoritarian countries such as India, Costa Rica and Jamaica.

Amartya Sen’s remarks on Asian values

This passage is a review of Amartya Sen’s paper titled Human Rights an Asian Values published by Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in 1997. I found that Amartya in this paper paid a special propositions confronting the notion of the the importance of achieving fast economic and maintaining authoritarian governance rather than protecting civil and political rights and democracy and the suspicious that human rights are the business interest of the West over the East.

Amartya Sen argues that there is no clear evidence that can show a significant relation between giving civil and political rights to citizens and the less slow economic development. Authoritarian governance and suppression of civil and political rights are not beneficial in encouraging fast growth economic development as claimed by the advocates of Asian values. He, by providing empirical data on major disaster in the world concludes that the authoritarian countries such as China tend to fail in dealing with food shortages disaster. The more democratic countries can prevent disaster since the citizens can exercise their rights through protesting or demanding the duty of state to protect and fulfil their needs. After all, the rights of the Asians can scarcely be compromised on those grounds. The case for liberty and political rights turns ultimately on their basic importance and on their instrumental role.

According to Amartya Sen, the recognition of diversity within different cultures is extremely important in the contemporary world. He critics Asian values likely claiming that Asia as a unit with political and cultural similarity as Lee Kuan Yew once outlined the fundamental difference between Western concepts of society and government and East Asian concepts, “When I say East Asians, I mean Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, as distinct from  Southeast Asia, which is a mix between the Sinic and the Indian, though Indian culture also emphasises similar values”. In respond to this notion, Amartya Sen also argues that such a claim is not only extremely crude but also a complete denial of the existing uncontested facts about Asian diversity. Asia covering a vast area and consisting of 60 % of the world population has also implications to vast variation in their cultural and historical tradition. He also take an example of Singapore, arguing that even the 28 million must have different cultural and tradition that form their individual value. Though Amartya Sen acknowledges the term of Orient which today is widely used, but it only refers to a positional view from the Western relating to the place where the sun rises. Overall, he still insists that Asian values is a manifestation of overly oversimplifying and generalising thinking.

The Asian values ​​are based on efforts to stem the western hegemony over the eastern countries. There is a suspicion that the West has no serious concern for human rights in Asia. Imposing human rights namely the Western version of freedom and political rights is based more on business interests. For this argument, Amartya Sen argues contrarily. According to him, freedom and political rights having taken shape now is relatively new, and it is difficult to see it as a “traditional” commitment from Western culture. In more general sense, Amartya Sen further denies that there were large differences between Asian and European values. By referring to the historical narrative about the practice of tolerance in India (Ashoka and so on), Amartya insists on the conclusion that Asian values ​​and European values ​​do not show a significant dichotomy. The commitment of the Asian nations in the form of promotion and protection of tolerance and individual freedom can be found abundantly both in Asian and Western cultures.

In my view, what Amartya Sen insists that there were not large differences between Asian and European values and Asian values and European especially in term of freedom and tolerance need to be supported by deeper historical evidence and narratives. The serious concerns and attempts to dive deeper into the true Asian values will lead to altering the rhetoric debate on Asia as a region with only one identity. It would open a wider horizon of diversity in Asia belongs to.

Asian values, as promoted by a number of relatively authoritarian countries in the 1990s such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, China etc, have become special challenges in the current agenda of human rights struggle in Asia. Taking ASEAN for instance, human rights remain a marginal discourses. There is still a lack of instruments and institutional enforcement, since at a practical level, ASEAN is still maintaining what is called “Asian way” manifested in the ASEAN Charter which is in accordance with Asian values, namely non-interference in internal affairs of one another and the right of every state to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion (Article 2; 2 (e, f) of ASEAN Charter). The latest development, namely the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009, is only aimed at a consultative body without mandating to legally enforce human rights violations.

Published by Tongam Panggabean

I am what I wrote, I write therefore I am

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