Preamble section 7:
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,


"Asian Values"--the Response of Asian NGOs and Amartya Sen

The international community since the Second World War has largely rejected strong versions of cultural relativism in favor of the view that all persons, regardless of culture, are entitled to core rights by virtue of their humanity. However, at the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, China led a group of Asian nations in charging this position with cultural insensitivity. These challenges reintroduced issues of cultural relativity into contemporary international human rights politics and diplomacy.

The formal Asian position is laid out in the "Bangkok Declaration," which was issued by a regional Asian human rights meeting held in Bangkok in preparation for the full World Conference.5 The Declaration's preamble acknowledges "the universality, objectivity, and non-selectivity of all human rights." However, the Declaration argues, international human rights agreements unfairly focus on "one category of rights," i.e., civil and political rights, while ignoring the right to development and the rights of sovereign states to order their own affairs. In general, the Declaration contends, international human rights agreements fail to respect "the interdependence and indivisibility of economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights, and the need to give equal emphasis to all categories of human rights." (para. 10)

The Bangkok Declaration argues further that this failure is due to a "double standard" based on a lack of respect for the diversity of international cultures. "While human rights are universal in nature, they must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm-setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds." (para. 8)

The claim that human rights reflect "Western values" not necessarily appropriate to Asia elicited strong reactions, even within Asia. At the full World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Asian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) spoke forcefully in support of the universality of human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration. This view was incorporated into the Vienna Declaration.6

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics, responded to this argument in an article titled "Human Rights and Asian Values" which he published in 1997 in the New Republic, excerpts of which are set out below.7

I now turn to the nature and the relevance of Asian values. This is not an easy exercise, for various reasons. The size of Asia itself is a problem. Asia is where about 60 percent of the world's population lives. What can we take to be the values of so vast a region, with so much diversity? It is important to state at the outset that there are no quintessential values that separate Asians as a group from people in the rest of the world and which fit all parts of this immensely large and heterogeneous population. The temptation to see Asia as a single unit reveals a distinctly Eurocentric perspective.

The championing of order and discipline can be found in Western classics as well. Indeed, it is by no means clear to me that Confucius is more authoritarian than, say, Plato or Augustine. The real issue is not whether these non-freedom perspectives are present in Asian traditions, but whether the freedom-oriented perspectives are absent from them.

This is where the diversity of Asian value systems becomes quite central. An obvious example is the role of Buddhism as a form of thought. In Buddhist tradition, great importance is attached to freedom, and the traditions of earlier Indian thinking to which Buddhist thought relates allows much room for volition and free choice. Nobility of conduct has to be achieved in freedom, and even the ideas of liberation (such as moksha) include this feature. The presence of these elements in Buddhist thought does not obliterate the importance of the discipline emphasized by Confucianism, but it would be a mistake to take Confucianism to be the only tradition in Asia--or in China.


Again, the championing of democracy and political freedom in the modern sense cannot be found in the pre-enlightenment tradition in any part of the world, West or East. What we have to investigate, instead, are the constituents, the components, of this compound idea. It is the powerful presence of some of these elements--in non-Western as well as Western societies--that I have been emphasizing. It is hard to make sense of the view that the basic idea underlying freedom and rights in a tolerant society are "Western" notions, and somehow alien to Asia, though that view has been championed by Asian authoritarians and Western chauvinists.


There is a great deal that we can learn from studies of values in Asia and Europe, but they do not support or sustain the thesis of a grand dichotomy (or a "clash of civilizations" [as Samuel Huntington posits in his book]). Our ideas of political and personal rights have taken their particular form relatively recently, and it is hard to see them as "traditional" commitments of Western cultures. There are important antecedents of those commitments, but those antecedents can be found plentifully in Asian cultures as well as Western cultures.

The recognition of diversity is extremely important in the contemporary world …. The authoritarian readings of Asian values that are increasingly championed in some quarters do not survive scrutiny. And the grand dichotomy between Asian and European values adds little to our understanding, and much to the confounding of the normative basis of freedom and democray.


See further Yash Gai, "Human Rights and Asian Values" (1998) 9 Public L. Rev. 168.

See also Yash Gai, "Rights, Duties and Responsibilities" in Josiane Cauquelin et al (eds.), Asian Values, An Encounter With Diversity (1998).

See generally, Wm. Theodore de Bary and Weiming Tu (eds.), Confucianism and Human Rights (1998).


5. Report of the Regional Meeting for Asia of the World Conference on Human Rights, UN Doc. A/CONF.157/ASRM/8 - A/CONF.157/PC/59 (1993).
6. World conference on Human Rights: The Vienna Declaration, UN Doc. DPI/1394 (1993).
7. Amartya Sen, "Human Rights and Asian Values" in The New Republic 33-40 (July 14, 1997).

Peter Danchin, Columbia University