Moral values are booming
August, 16th, 2012
The fight between Asian values and universal human rights revives. Or maybe it has never calmed down.
Edmund Burke stated in the 18th century that in India religious laws as well as land and honour laws are all one and that this law forms individuals and societies forever. Hundreds of years later, at present, some organizations of the civil Indian society accuse the consequences of this system.
Among them, we can find the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), whose leaders stress that the universality of human rights doesn’t penetrate into the country due to the resistance of traditional circles, who refuse to renounce to their powers, which were conferred to them by millennial habits. Yet, the most recognized living intellectual of the subcontinent, Amartya Sen, reminds us how many centuries ago the emperor Ashoka, who is considered to be the founder of India, included among his goals of government the absence of aggressions, impartiality and good manners towards all creatures.
At the end of the 90s, the comparison between the inflexible tradition described by Burke and PVCHR and the egalitarian harmony in which Ashoka takes pride was outlined, and the defence of tolerance praised by the latter surprised a great deal of people. Only 15 years ago, the debate about the irreconcilable character between the universal human rights and the so-called Asian values was at its peak. The defence of the latter was based on the supposed incompatibility of human rights with traditional principles, which prize order and collective values above individual freedom. According to their supporters, the pre-eminence of Asian values prevents the degradations of customs characteristic of the Eastern way of life. This argument was used by governors such as Lee Kuan Yew, ex prime minister of Singapore, who took it to new practical dimensions by popularising the idea that authoritarian leadership favours economic growth.
The comparison between Asian values and human rights promoted by the liberal Western democracies is based on a rather vague idea, as it is impossible to encapsulate the complexity of Asian traditions in a sole concept. Yet, it does work as an agglutinating element for different countries who share economic and moral arguments in order to avoid intromissions. The Chinese model of rapid growth and political inflexibility seems to support Lee’s theses: authoritarian pragmatism is more interested in the glorious national economic future than in the corsets of tradition. In the case of India, human rights remained behind not only because of pragmatic visions of the future, but especially due to the urge to preserve the traditional elites as well as the society’s religious organizations. Given that Asia is a huge continent, each country finds its own reasons to avoid adopting the universal human rights completely.
The debate seems a little outdated nowadays, but the Asian scepticism towards the concept of human rights is still present. China still believes in the in the indispensability of the “iron hand” as a fundamental of economic growth. India, especially in rural areas, believes in the unquestionable defence of the cast system. The link between authoritarianism and economic development, which used to be considered characteristic of the Far East rather than of the Indian subcontinent, becomes evident in the Indian authorities. According to the last report published by Amnesty International, Mahomman Singh’s government focuses on economic growth at the expense of human rights.
The rise of Asian values and the doubts about Western ideas are also present in the current process of the regional integration of human rights. After having walked a common path for 45 years, the ASEAN nations plan to approve a declaration of human rights in November. Experts who could see the text draft affirm that, contrary to the claims of Asian value supporters, the document doesn’t explicitly position the rights of the community over those of the individual. Yet, the declaration stresses the inviolable principle of no interference in the member states’ sovereignty, which diminishes its reach considerably.
The declaration is even more weakened by the geographic, religious and cultural disparity of the countries that compose ASEAN, where communist regimes, constitutional monarchies, multiethnic democracies and authoritarian city states are included. Among these countries, figures the always exceptional and metamorphosed Myanmar, whose opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is one of the regional political figures, who has most criticized the Asian values as impermeable against the universality of the human rights. Faced with the disparity of values and interests, the Asian nations don’t find common objectives that would help them reach a consensus in the declaration. Contrary to what happened in Europe, where the rise of communism and the trauma of Nazism provide solid arguments for the European Convention of Human Rights, the motivations in Asia seem less imperative and more linked to each state’s predilection.
Disagreements on this and on other issues occur in various continents, not only in the Asian one. Yet, it is in Asia where we can find some of the most outstanding examples of banishing human rights in the background. It seemed to have been of little use that Amartya Sen stressed in 1997 that economic success doesn’t depend on the “iron hand”, but on improvement in education, on land reforms, on investment incentives and on the rational use of international markets. Lee’s theses seem particularly appealing in a moment Europe shows its economic deterioration and restricts many rights European citizens have enjoyed until now. The rise of Asia and the decline of the West keep giving cultural evidences that human rights are not an obstacle for national sovereignty nor economic growth.