Last Nov. 18, the Asean Human Rights Declaration was signed by the 10 Asean heads of state. This Asian Magna Carta is a document of 40 articles comprising sections on general principles, civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, development, peace, and international cooperation in the promotion and protection of human rights. Nothing like it has ever been adopted by any country or by any other bloc with a legal personality in the region.
What does this landmark declaration symbolize? “The Asian Values Debate” and the specter of cultural relativism, which came in rage in the ’90s, have finally been laid to rest. But does this also mean the demise of “Asian” values? Will it, say, give to authoritarian capitalist states like China—the Asian Goliath—more opportunities to fight for its world views, in the event that it came up with its own “bill of rights”? The rights and principles enshrined in the Declaration reveal Asean’s political will to level the playing field in international politics by giving the human rights project its autochthonous shape.
There were at least three instances during the negotiations in which Asean ideals and values came into play.
• The first was to counter the long, ominous trend of war, poverty and injustice in the region. Southeast Asia has been a proxy field for great-power rivalry. During the Cold War, “Indochina” became the theater for communist experimentation and subversion; as the Berlin Wall crumbled, the many faces of democracy played out in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines; and today, the South China-West Philippine Sea simmers between China’s robust military posturing and the steady US advances in the Pacific. Even the shorthand, “Southeast Asia,” emerged in no less threatening conditions when the Western Allies decided at the 1943 Quebec Conference to establish a separate South East Asia Command.
To consolidate the present peace, a novel and an eponymous article, the right to peace, was forged. It was agreed unanimously that peace would mean the order bestowed by stable and harmonious interstate relations. This “cherished value” was coupled with the right to development, considered an “integral part” in the construction of the Asean Community.
• The thorniest debates dwelled on the inclusion, substitution or deletion of the term “regional particularities,” inherited from the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. It lent itself inadvertently to the tangential interpretations of cultural relativists or would-be authoritarians.
The final outcome was a new article: “All human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated… the realisation of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds.”
“Particularities” was purged, putting on record the Asean consensus for an effective end to pretexts for selectivity, including partiality and forms of discrimination or double standards not only among member-states but also between them and detractors in the West who would use rights talk for self-interest. It was agreed that the present article must henceforth never be interpreted as diminishing the universality of human rights.
Asean regional solidarity came in exceptional force. The spirit of compromise and consensus played out consistently throughout the drafting process. Despite hard positions, the drafters invoked the ground rule to drop any issue where one or more states were in absolute disagreement. Between the benefits of avoiding neighborly conflict or those of an agreement, the preeminent principle for political expediency held sway: one for all, and all for one.
• Finally, the drafters were criticized for promulgating the balance between rights and responsibilities as one of the general principles. Rights advocates said this contradicted the inalienability of human rights. But what the drafters wanted was to be clear that human rights make moral and legal claims on society, and it is the state’s duty to protect these freedoms. In the debates, there was a genuine conviction that human rights come inherently with the value of respect for other individuals in the community, a delicacy unusually explicit to this Declaration.
The values of order and harmony based on sovereignty, territorial integrity and noninterference, as well as the region’s proclivity to wait patiently for institutions to evolve, underpin this preoccupation. In the context of Southeast Asian politics, they have often been used as Confucian apologies for autocratic regimes. Chris Patten, in his reflections as the last governor of Hong Kong, saw through the guise of “Asian values” when he wrote that one would have to turn “a blind eye” to the passages in the Analects that endorse personal liberty to use Confucianism to justify “unswerving obedience to the state.”
At one point, Ambassador Rosario Manalo reflected quite frankly on the international discourse on rights: “Why are you trying to fit the braces of an old man on a 2-year-old child…? Asean is on the road to human rights but the West cannot be dictating.” And that, I told myself, is what Asean’s “evolutionary approach” to human rights meant in a nutshell.
Asean has skillfully played out the values and ideals of social and political solidarity, and peace and harmony on the basis of respect for sovereign equality. The conscience of humanity now sees through the veneer of rights into the value of human dignity about which all political communities large and small have a language of their own—which are not necessarily incompatible with human rights. The practice of reiterating the institution of human rights in the Asean Declaration legitimates the international regime no less than the states that embrace them.
This trend appears to fall under what John Ikenberry has called the “liberal world order” coming of age, where emerging states try to expand their political authority and control over the institutions primarily initiated by the United States and the United Kingdom, guaranteeing an “open world economy reconciled with social welfare and economic stability” from which all countries can benefit more buoyantly. These institutions are de facto no longer Western—they simply guarantee greater emancipation and pluralism. On the other hand, it is tempting to go with Stefan Halper’s thesis of a world where emerging states mix market economics with “traditional autocratic or semiautocratic politics in a process that signals an intellectual rejection of the Western economic model.”
Aung San Suu Kyi once deplored the scourge of modern capitalism thus: “Gross individualism and cutthroat morality arise when political and intellectual freedoms are curbed on the one hand while on the other fierce economic competitiveness is encouraged by making material success the measure of prestige and progress. The result is a society where cultural and human values are set aside and money value reigns supreme.” This is why Asean and its peoples can be neither silent nor fearful about the values they freely choose and upon which their politics of rights exist. Asia and the West have now done this in equal measure; they have a right to this right, and each can no longer regard the other as not an equal member of the same humanity.
Kevin H.R. Villanueva was a member of the Philippine delegation under Ambassador Rosario Manalo to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights for the drafting of the Declaration. He is a university research scholar in politics and international studies and East Asian studies at the University of Leeds.