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Are Human Rights Universal or Culturally Specific? Evualtion of East Asia

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 3420 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The discussion of human rights always remains a critical and sensitive issue in the world, East Asia in particular. Controversial debates, regarding the practices and ideologies of different states, have often been raised in the region. In terms of a holistic perspective, in both the western and eastern worlds, contradiction of social principles to ideologies, and the enforcement of human rights is often found to be a mutually exclusive issue. In fact, international organizations such as International Committee of the Red Cross and UNICEF have been established to advocate human rights worldwide. Human Rights Watch (HRW), another example of recognized body, has also been prominent in the area. Also, politics has been seen to be more interconnected around the globe under globalization and advancement of technology. However, as progresses more issues, found to be the adverse problems of human rights, are put under the limelight in contemporary society. While there are recent discussions of human rights in Europe, such as the migration of refugees, more profound human rights problems have been found in the Eastern world. With the use of various examples, the main stance of the essay is that human rights are universal in nature, and actual practices of human rights in different places are to show various interpretations on universalism of human rights.

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The assumptions of the stance will be divided into three logical directions, with reference to the interpretations proposed by Anttonen and Sipilä (2015): Universalism is a conceptual idea shared by all people and practically survives together with particularism and selectivism on nation-level. The first explanation logicalizes ‘different forms of objects could still be categorized as ‘the object’. For example, forms of democracy in the world differ, ranging from every American casting their vote to their preferred president, to the representative governance of the Canadians. All these varied forms of democracy are still regarded as ‘democracy’. Second, as long as the concept of human rights exists in states, for example, supported constitutionally and legally, it will be proved as ‘universal’. Lastly, any degree, little or much, of enforcement of human rights validates the universalism of human rights. These rationales stay in line with the stance of this essay, as suggested by James (2007), universality of human rights does not entail uniformity.

In principle, human rights are, and should be universal. Based upon the content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) introduced in 1948, the United Nations (UN) has defined human rights are inherent to all human beings who are fully entitled to these rights, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status without discrimination. These include right to life and liberty, to work and education, freedom from slavery and torture, opinion and expression etc. Nonetheless, different versions of agreements, regarding to practice of human rights, seem appear to challenge the universalism of the definition proposed by the United Nations.

In fact, in the Asia context, the Bangkok Declaration on Human Rights (BDHR, 1993) has provided significant insights and interpretation on the universalism of human rights, from the perspective of Asia countries. One of the most distinguished statements of the declaration is that human rights are universal in nature, which should be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international setting. The significant difference between two interpretations is that, the latter has reserved ‘buffering space’ to countries in practice of human rights. The statement implies that external factors such as the global environment, and internal factors such as the past and norms of countries, could impact the practice of human rights to a certain extent. Although the above two interpretations, from the UN and BDHR, seem superficially showing a regressive degree of universalism of human rights, the key prioritizing principle of human rights being universal in the declarations should not be overlooked. International setting, in the situation, does not erase human rights under any circumstance.

The assumption of the term ‘culturally-specific’ is extended to cultural relativism. Chin-Dahler (2010) suggested that cultural relativism, an idea to which local cultural and historical traditions which religious, political and legal practices are included, properly determine the existence and scope of civil and political and human rights enjoyed by individuals. The theory improvises that history, in regard to the process of civilization and chains of historical and political history of countries and regions, plays a prominent role over the contemporary practices of human rights. He, (Chin-Dahler, 2010) continued that Asian countries often advocate its supreme status of the regime and its leaders, and Asian values such as privileging the community over the individual and respect for authority are dichotomized against Western values such as individualism and materialism. In this case, the UDHR has had its significance in balancing cultural differences. Ignatieff (2001) emphasized that the committee of the UDHR did not treat the Declaration as a simple ratification of Western convictions but to delimit a range of moral universals from within their very different religious, political, ethnic, and philosophical backgrounds. Agreed by 48 countries around the world, the UDHR brings together a set of universal values and prevents certain split of enforcement of human rights due to cultural differences.

Cultural Relativists argue that both history and religion play a key role in resulting human rights culturally specific. The Western world has been open to human rights earlier than most of Asian countries. The treaty Peace of Westphalia in 1648 rebalanced the power of western countries and in a high degree ended the sole religion dominance of Catholicism. Constitutionalism had replaced absolute monarchy in most countries, and the intellectual Age of Enlightenment had given rise to liberalism, which then the American and French Revolution assured the valuation of human rights in western ideology. Therefore, the Western mainstream have arguably had less human rights concern. In fact, in the East Asia region, Japan remains to be a country which has less adverse problems concerning human rights. Japan has been identified as a ‘Western-constructed’ society, with Datsu-A Nyu-O, a theory explained by Kwok (2009) as to depart itself (Japan) from Asia and emerge with the Europeans, when Japan had been heavily influenced by Western countries and the US historically, could be a valid reason to the contemporary practice of human rights.

On the other hand, take China, the leading superpower in East Asia as an illustration and for comparison to the Western World. In terms of cultural and historical development, despotism and absolute monarchy ruling had long been the mainstream political ideology in China and proved to be oppressing human rights such as freedom of speech and opinions. Historical events such as the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong was depicted as the ‘Father of China’, and the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, further reinforced the social norm of state-dominance and neglected any opposition voices. In addition, Bloom (2009) suggested the basis of all schools of thought was the advocation on which absolute monarchy should be the dominant form of government, especially Confucius, the most popular school in China. Yet in the viewpoint of a universalist, based on contemporary existing practices, historical differences remain invalid to specifically explain execution of human rights in particular regions.

Without a doubt the human rights such as freedom of speech and press are relatively limited in China, with political-sensitive books and films being censored. However, certain extent of these rights could still be enjoyed by the Chinese. Article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) stated that Chinese people are given freedom of speech, press, assembly and association etc. In addition, Hong Kong, positioned as a special administration region under Chinese ruling, do possess a high degree of human rights in society. The ‘’One Country, Two Systems’’ grants Hong Kong various freedoms and rights. Examples include right to vote and freedom of assembly. The former allows Hong Kong citizens to vote for their favorable candidates in free will, while the latter rationalizes the annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong, in memorizing the June 4th Tiananmen Protest.

Reform and opening ups have been put in practice in China over the last decades, though some fundamental political issues contradicting the universalism of human rights are exposed in society. The XinJiang Re-education Camp in China has raised extensive global attention in regard to human rights. Depicted as the ‘Eastern Nazi Concentration Camp’, Bristow (2018) quoted the Chinese government that the camp is to provide vocational and employment training and allow people to reenter into the labour market. McDougall (2018) expressed that the camp acts as a tool for the Chinese government to suppress religious extremism and thus maintain social stability. The right to life also remains a controversial topic in China. The typical One-Child policy threatens human right to life in two directions: First the local officials force pregnant women to induced abortion in order to meet the target of number of new born babies as assigned by the Central government. Clarke (2015) reported that the one-child policy, under which most couples are allowed to have only one child or else face the possibility of fines, sterilizations, and abortions. Second is sexual selection, which Jiang, Yan et al. (2017) suggested that pregnant women value boys over girls under the one-child constraint, with the traditional cultural mindset of male being superior than female.

Massive population and large territorial area have been some of the profound causes that the government requires absolute power over the people such that the unitary and territorial integrity of the country can be assured, or else uncontrollable consequences might be resulted from the perspective of the Chinese government, for instance foreign powers taking a realist approach to interfere internal affairs of China. Debates concerning independence away from China, for example, Tibet and Hong Kong, pose a threat to the unitary of China. These two factors, match with the interpretation of BDHR over the idea of ‘dynamic process of the country’. Xue (2015) argued that cultural relativism in China is solely aimed to prove that Western values and models are not the only way to promote and protect human rights. Interpreting the above statement, cultural relativism and universalism of human rights could in fact co-exist.

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Similar to China, many East Asia countries have had specific history which shaped the culture and the enforcement of human rights in concurrent society, and the principles are contradictory to Western values or vice versa. Some other examples from other East Asia countries will be discussed in the later part, but the theory of universalism to the practice of human rights are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The supremacy of state and its leader has become a mutual characteristic for many East Asia countries, thus of freedom of speech and expression as human rights are found relatively limited in the region. Soviet Union has come vital in the social development of North Korea. The former had transformed the latter into a country of Stalinism during the times of Civil War. In 1950s the North Korea has started practicing Kimilsungism since the Kim’s took charge of the country, a leader-dominating ideology which replaces Marxism and Leninism and seen to be a ‘strengthened version’ of the both. Culturally the people of North Korea, have no other option but to embrace the political system of North Korea, or else facing fatal political prosecution. Being one of the most symbolic countries of authoritarianism, Reporters without Borders (RWB, 2018) ranks North Korea last in its World Press Freedom Index, with journalist in the country often facing government surveillance. On the other hand, many North Korea defectors have been criticizing the immorality and criminal abuse of their government towards the people. Human rights are poorly enforced in the country.

Nonetheless some human rights credits still exist in the country, at least on the paper. Article 5 of the North Korean Constitution entitles North Koreans with a variety of freedoms, including speech, news, demonstrations, associations, religious beliefs, employment and travel freedom, constitutionally and legally substantiate the universalism of human rights within the country. The right to life is also protected in North Korea. In addition, the validity of criticism raised the North Korea defectors towards the government remains to be debatable. Choe (2017) quoted Sung, a North Korea defector, publicly admitted her criticism about human rights towards the North Korean government was under the inducement of the South Korea. Some human rights issues in North Korea are proved to be genuine, while some might be exaggerated to vilify the country.

Symbolizing as a wealthy country in East Asia, the Singapore has also had human rights concerns from the globe. Christie and Roy (2001) quoted Lee Kuan-yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, urging Singaporean to fit themselves into society which opposes the American rights of the individual. Singapore has been practicing collectivism as the main society rationale and has been facing criticism over its practice of human rights in society, for instance internet surveillance and unprotection of labor rights. However, certain extent of human rights still exists in Singapore. Constitutional and worldwide agreements, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, had been signed and thus restrict the suppression of human rights by the government in society. Freedom House (2018), an NGO investigating human rights of countries, commented the civil and political liberties of Singapore as ‘partly free’.

ASEAN has been a key institutional figure in East Asia. Tobing (2018) argued that although the organisation insists its core principles are non-interference and respect for consensus among member states, it still commits to promote and protect human rights in the region. The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration further consolidates the emphasise of human rights in East Asia. Despite the fact that human trafficking, an issue against human rights, is seen to be active in the region, during the 27th ASEAN Summit (2015), member states were strongly requested to effectively and progressively prevent, suppress and punish all forms of trafficking in persons including the protection and assistance to victims of trafficking. The claim is further strengthened by the German Institute for Human Rights (GIHR), stating that some rights, which human trafficking breaches, including the right to life and the ban on genocide, torture, slavery and discrimination on grounds of race is binding for all states under all circumstances, proving human rights to be a universal concept.

The violating practices of human rights, which some East Asia countries conduct, do not necessarily bring to the conclusion that human rights are not universal. Tharoor (1999) viewed universalism of human rights is achieved when the practice of human rights does not fundamentally contradict the ideals and aspirations of any society and reflect universal humanity. This essay is not to justify any action which seems to violate human rights, but only to reassure the universalism of human rights in the globe. Restating in the standpoint of a cultural relativist, it is undeniable that some human rights are constrained in some parts of the world, yet the core value of universalism remains as a valid account. In contemporary global society, pluralism and multiculturalism have been blossomed with an increasing flow of information and big data. In fact, Le (2016) asserted universalist and cultural relativists could generate new insights that strengthen global and local efforts to collaboratively enforce human rights with respect to interests of different countries, as argued in above parts that both ideologies are not mutually exclusive. Different sets of thinking and ideologies have been either emerged or proposed to become human rights, such as LGBT rights. In the argument, human rights should be at first clearly broken down and clarify the formation of human rights. At any times, agreed by both universalists and cultural relativists, upholding a certain degree of human rights should always be a prioritized issue in any country in the world.


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