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Volume 48 , Issue 3. Absent a catalyst like the Asian values argument, there has not been an engagement between Western and non-Western academics in Africa or the Middle East with the intensity of that between Westerners and Asians. But there has been a mixing of ideas of human rights through other means. In what follows, I provide overviews of the contemporary human rights debates within four regions—Asia, the Arab world, Africa, and the United States—contrasting the cultural nationalist perspective with the intellectual perspective.

Debating Human Rights Critical Essays From The United States And Asia

The cultural nationalist perspective most closely associated with Asia can be found in the Asian values debate of the early to middle s, which was sparked principally by the provocative writings and speeches of Singaporean senior minister Lee Kuan Yew and other senior Singaporean officials.

Underlying all this is the claim that Asians prioritize economic and social rights over civil and political rights, the community over the individual, and social order and stability over democracy and individual freedom. As Chinese legal scholar Xin Chunying explains in the case of China:. The Asian values rhetoric can thus be seen as a manifestation of this desire on the part of Asian governments to engage the international community in a debate on human rights while attempting to enjoin their people in an affirmation of the cultural nationalist perspective.

The primary target of Lee and his Singaporean colleagues was his home audience, and to some extent Western audiences. Yet his remarks were well received throughout Asia, notably even in the democratic and non-Confucian Philippines, where Lee gave a major speech on the subject. But many Asian activist-intellectuals remained unconvinced. But the unexpected recovery of the region just a few years later allowed the Asian values argument to regain some momentum. Among Asian activist-intellectuals and human rights activists, two perspectives of human rights stand out.

The first perspective is found in the NGO statement during the Bangkok regional preparatory conference leading up to the UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, which supports the universality and indivisibility of human rights: We affirm our commitment to the principle of indivisibility and interdependence of human rights, be they economic, social and cultural, or civil and political rights.

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There must be a holistic and integrated approach to human rights. One set of rights cannot be used to bargain for another. The second perspective put forth by Asian NGOs is that the Asian values argument should not be dismissed as cultural relativism, but rather that it is important to remain open to the possibility that justifications for human rights can be found in local traditions. Among the common misperceptions of the Middle East is that Islam is the only factor in the attitudes one finds toward human rights.

The impression is fed by the manipulation of Islam by conservatives, who invoke Islam in denying the applicability of international human rights, much the same way the proponents of Asian values use Confucianism. A significant difference between the use of Islam in Arab rights discourses and the use of Confucianism in Asia is that whereas principally the governments of East Asia have used Confucianism in defense of their derogation of rights, in the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world including Southeast Asia, as seen in the example above the NGO community invokes Islam in protesting repression by regimes.

In fact, the debate over human rights within the Arab world is, in the most basic sense, between reformists be they Islamists or secularists and conservatives. The discourse among Muslims in the Middle East can be summarized as follows.

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Globalization has revitalized cultural identity, but it has also helped the spread of ideas and information about other religious and cultural traditions. Overall, Muslims are concerned about losing their ability to control their own economies, their position in world power, and perhaps most importantly, their cultural assets.

With respect to this set of issues, there are three identifiable perspectives: to Muslim conservatives, individual rights are immaterial to social justice; to Muslim liberals, the Muslim world must adjust to universal standards of human rights, an adjustment that requires a transformation in Islamic thinking; and to Muslim reformers, the revolution in information and communications technology, along with higher incomes and educational opportunities, offers new standards against which to assess progress toward the realization of human rights ideals.

Contrary to popular belief, with a few exceptions, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, modern Muslim politics has generally acquired a pragmatic dimension, and radical Islam has been relegated to the fringes of Muslim societies. While the preceding discussion emphasizes the perspectives and dynamics among Muslims, it is important to note that Islam does not characterize the entire Arab world.

In Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, for example, there are strong Christian populations, and in many cases it is the Christians who are at the forefront of the local human rights movement. Compared to Asia, there appears to be greater popular pressure on the governments of the Middle East to change.

Unlike in East Asia, where economic success is closely correlated with a fairly equitable distribution of educational and income opportunities, in the Middle East, failed economies and the rising gap between the rich and the poor have swelled the ranks of the discontented. In particular, a growing middle class are demanding better jobs, housing, educational opportunities, political pluralism, transparency, and accountability, especially in the context of a globalizing world. Whereas Asians attribute their economic success to stable governments, in most Arab countries such stability today is hardly defined in these terms; rather, people tend to speak of a crisis of governance.

The social and political concerns of Africans are shaped mainly by the legacy of colonialism and postcolonial instability together with the severe socioeconomic conditions the continent faces: staggering international debt, the highest number of refugees in the world, widespread starvation, and severe resource depletion. Despite this situation, the local African debate on human rights today is not as active as either the Asian or Middle Eastern debates.

This is likely attributable to the fact that there are relatively few locally based human rights NGOs in Africa. With the exception of a very small number of activist organizations, most African NGOs are either church-based or law-oriented, such as legal aid groups or bar associations. Foreign scholars of Africa and international human rights groups, therefore, generate much of the human rights activity and debate that takes place in Africa today. This critique has fueled the perception among Africans of the human rights regime as not just Western-inspired, but as something foreign and even imperialist.

It is this failing that has brought the human rights movement to the point of near irrelevance, according to a number of African critiques. To the extent that there remains a local debate about the possibilities of human rights, its characteristics are remarkably similar to those of the Asian values debate in several respects. Cultural nationalists arguing against the applicability of international human rights for Africa claim that the notion of the individual, upon which human rights rest, does not exist in Africa. Here again, primacy is placed on the communal nature of rights and social harmony, with an emphasis on duties and obligations over rights.

A third prevalent argument made by some African scholars is that human rights in the West developed over a long period of struggle for democracy and that Africa has yet to go through these stages. Also in Africa, as in other Southern Hemisphere contexts, the claim that economic and social rights should take priority over civil and political rights is prevalent. Yet, while many African activist-intellectuals hold the position that the two sets of rights are equally important, they tend not to dispute the claim as forcefully as their counterparts in other regions do.

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This attitude reflects the long-standing Marxist approach that still has many adherents in Africa today. The split between the cultural nationalist perspective and the intellectual perspective of human rights is also found in the United States. The American rights debate centers around four main issues: what priority to accord economic, social, and cultural rights; the applicability of international human rights law to the United States; when, if ever, to use capital punishment; and most recently, whether there is justification for curtailing civil liberties in the interests of national security.

In one of his many recent writings on the human rights movement, Michael Ignatieff reminds his readers that the American vernacular of justice—civil liberties, civil rights, labor rights—is not the international language of human rights. And when human rights advocates in the West rebuffed genuine efforts to promote a more expansive notion of rights, they only fueled this sentiment.

Such was the response southern NGOs in Asia and elsewhere faced in the early s when in the wake of the end of the Cold War they sought to fight the historical tendency—particularly strong in the United States—to delink civil and political from economic, social, and cultural rights.

At that time, then—executive director of Human Rights Watch Aryeh Neier reportedly pointed out that human rights activists in a number of Third World countries, especially Asia, have long held the view that both kinds of concerns are rights. Their argument has not proved persuasive in the West, however, and none of the leading international nongovernmental groups concerned with human rights has become an advocate of economic and social rights.

Much has changed in the last decade, however. Americans are accustomed to thinking of human rights as a foreign policy issue, not as a matter of domestic concern. A minority group of left-leaning activists and intellectuals have long been pushing for the recognition of a broad range of rights for Americans, not only civil and political but also, increasingly, economic and social rights.

Yet as in other domains of international affairs, American cultural nationalists resist the notion that international human rights rules should apply to the United States. The latter view appears to have won out in Washington, where the Senate has ratified few international laws and, most notoriously, has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child—the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history, with participating nations—making the United States the only country not to do so. One treaty upon which there has been recent action in the U.

Another area of significant controversy is the use of the death penalty in the United States. Protests against the death penalty have been taking place since the U. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in , after overturning the death penalty in In , the Council of Europe adopted Protocol 6, which outlawed the death penalty during peacetime; in ratification of Protocol 6 was made a precondition for EU membership. In recent years activists have used the tactic of shaming the United States by drawing attention to the company it keeps in its liberal use of the death penalty.

The American perspective on human rights priorities is also becoming remarkably similar to that of nations the United States and the international human rights movement have long targeted in the arena of curtailing civil rights for the sake of national security. Public criticism of the Bush administration and its measures to curtail civil liberties immediately following the World Trade Center attacks was limited to groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other, smaller civil liberties organizations.

In fact, the public tolerance for detention of terrorism suspects and open discussion of the merits of torture during interrogation in left-leaning publications, such as The Atlantic Monthly, shocked many American rights advocates. Pundits at all points on the political spectrum argue that the U.

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The justification for these measures resonates with arguments once heard only in places such as China and Singapore, which have long used public security as an excuse to limit individual rights. In this brief overview of regional perspectives of human rights in four regions I have tried to show that conflicts over human rights are taking place across the board, not along civilizational lines and not primarily between North and South as so often assumed.