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  • The Impact of the UNESCO Declaration in Asian and Global Bioethics
  • Alireza Bagheri (bio)


UNESCO became directly involved in bioethical discussion by establishing the International Bioethics Committee in 1993. Since then, UNESCO has adopted several international documents which reinforced its role in setting global standards in the field of bioethics, i.e., the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Human Genome and Human Rights (1997) and the UNESCO International Declaration on Human Genetic Data (2003). However, none of them has been under scrutiny like the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (the Declaration) which was adopted in 2005. Since the announcement of the initiative (i.e., drafts circulation and consultative process), much commentary has been published either supporting or criticising the Declaration. However, the adoption of the Declaration has polarised the bioethics community throughout the world. The fact that this Declaration has attracted many experts in the field indicates that they assumed this document will have a significant impact on bioethics worldwide, as an academic discipline, as a social discourse in general and on bio-policy in particular. The mixed reflection on the Declaration is not limited to any specific geographical, ideological or cultural groups. There have been arguments to support or criticise the Declaration from Asia and other geographic areas, developed and developing countries as well as religious and secular groups.

However, despite existing theoretical controversy over the universality of bioethical principles in the scientific community, in reality, the Declaration has referred to several ethical principles in which member states with different religions and socio-cultural backgrounds adopted unanimously. By realising that some of the principles of the Declaration, such as principles set forth [End Page 52] in articles 6, 7, 8 and 14, need more elaboration, the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) of UNESCO has appointed several working groups to work on these issues. So far, the UNESCO IBC has published two reports: one on the Principle of Consent (2008) and another one on the Principle of Social Responsibility and Health (UNESCO IBC Reports 2008 and 2010). There is also collective effort to discuss the principles of the Declaration in detail for more practical purposes (Henk and Michèle 2009).

As a practical matter, concerns still remain among developing countries in Asia and other parts of the world whether the “universal Declaration” could generate a “global good”.

Asia, the largest continent of the world, is also marked by great disparities in wealth and health resources. However, when it comes to socio-cultural diversity, Asian societies have rich but diverse cultural backgrounds. According to the United Nations, all Asian countries, except Japan, are under the category of less developed countries. These countries are dealing with poverty, health crises, limited health resources, migration of their workforces (UN Report 2006), and are targeted as a source of human subjects for clinical trials. Their ability to deal with bioethical challenges also varies in terms of bioethics infrastructure. This may explain why the demand to establish a universal ethical standard by such a Declaration came mostly from less developed countries (Have 2006). However, the question that has become relevant is what the impact of the Declaration would be on the current picture of Asia.

Bioethics in the Asian Context

In Asia, there is a growing discussion about so-called “Asian Bioethics”. The idea that bioethics in Asia might be fundamentally different from Western bioethics in many aspects has caused a decades-long debate about the possibility of articulating a framework for Asian bioethics and its characteristics. Establishment of the Asian Bioethics Association fostered efforts to characterise features of Asian bioethics (Sakamoto 1999). Since then, there have been many published papers to distinguish so-called Asian bioethics from non-Asian, mostly Western bioethics.

The dominance of so-called Western bioethics along with the fear of Westernisation and importing new biotechnology from the West became a real concern not only in Asia, but also in Latin America and Africa. It seems the issue of “cultural identity” is a crucial point in this discourse. Many bioethicists in Asia and Latin America have found it necessary to assert their respective identities in light of the proliferation of what they perceive as alien concepts and principles in mainstream bioethics...


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pp. 52-64
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2017
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