Keep 'Asean values' out of our human rights

Umran Kadir

Modified 1 Aug 2008, 9:38 am

I was pleasantly surprised when I read last year that the Asean Charter, intended to be a constitution for Asean member states, would include provisions for the establishment of an Asean Human Rights Commission.

At the time, I was skeptical over just how rigorous an Asean-wide human rights framework would be. At the time, I suspected that such an initiative may simply have been a superficial exercise to demonstrate some recognition of human rights by Asean member states to the rest of the world.

After all, I thought, each country has its own particular pet peeves: for Singapore it is freedom of expression, for Malaysia it is freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and probably quite a few others.

As for Burma, suffice to say that it would be quicker to assemble a list of freedoms that are respected by the Burmese government.

In view of this, it was heartening to read of the Asean Working Group for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism which says that Asean Human Rights Commission would go towards:

- Ensuring that international human rights laws are observed and implemented by Asean countries who have agreed to them; and

- Helping Asean people have a common understanding of universal human rights issues and perspectives.

It was therefore disappointing, though hardly surprising, when I read of a statement made by Malaysia's Foreign Minister Dr Rais Yatim at the recently concluded Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Singapore that the ‘Asean value system’ should be incorporated into any human rights framework arising from the Asean Charter.

I equate the idea of an ‘Asean value system’ as being no different to the notion of ‘Asian Values’ which suggests that Asians are more willing than people in other parts of the world to forego a range of political and civil rights in exchange for greater prosperity and law and order.

This is a premise championed in the past by the leaders of both Singapore and Malaysia. The concept of Asian Values has been well critiqued by academics from both economic, historical and sociological perspectives.

In my view, the concept of Asian Values is nothing short of a fallacy. It is but a culturally relativist cloak behind which those in power can perpetuate and justify their authoritarian forms of rule.

To make allowances for so-called Asian or Asean Values within the human rights provisions of the Asean Charter would be to defeat the very purpose of the said human rights provisions. It would lend itself to the real danger that each country within Asean would derogate from various internationally accepted human rights norms on the basis that those norms are incompatible with Asean Values.

Any talk of Asean or Asian values must therefore be recognised for what it is - an invitation to tumble down the slippery slope of cultural relativism that would leave Asean with a poor semblance of a human rights mechanism. Such a path must be strenuously avoided.

To his credit, the current Asean Secretary-General Dr Surin Pitsuwan, challenged Asean members at the recently concluded AMM to ‘look back at our roots, in the documents of our civilisations, to see if we really have different definitions of human rights’.

England's Magna Carta of 1215 is generally regarded as the progenitor of modern human rights and constitutional law. However, the Cyrus Cylinder of Persia, which advocates respect for humanity as well as religious tolerance and freedom, is today widely regarded as the world's first charter of human rights.

It is said to predate the Magna Carta by more than a millennium. Similarly, the Edicts of King Asoka of India through its emphasis on moral and social precepts, in particular a commitment towards uniformity in law (which has more than a passing resemblance to the oft-discussed rule of Law) incorporates elements of what are commonly regarded as ‘modern’ or universal human rights norms.

Those who choose to take up Pitsuwan's challenge may be surprised to learn that human rights has a far longer history in Asia than in the West. Thus, the allegation that human rights is ‘some Western invention’ intended to reassert some form of control over Asia rings hollow.

Rather than facilitating the furtherance of poor and oppressive governance under the guise of Asean values, we in Asean should instead be rediscovering our Asian heritage - one in which we are pioneers in the field of human rights.