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  • Human Rights and Asian Values:The Limits of Universalism
  • Randall Peerenboom
Joanne R. Bauer and Daniel A. Bell, editors. The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xiii, 394 pp. Paperback $21.95, ISBN 0-521-64536-0.

The swift rise of human rights as a normative benchmark for any government claiming legitimacy must surely rank as one of the most inspiring humanitarian stories of all time. Given the dominance of human rights on the political stage today, it is easy to forget that the international human rights movement is primarily a post-World War II product. The movement's origins can be traced back to more distant events, most notably the Enlightenment response to the emergence of capitalism and modern industrial leviathans, which uprooted people from their communities and family networks and left individuals exposed to an increasingly powerful state. But the immediate catalyst was the Holocaust.1

While predominantly the outgrowth of the contingent circumstances and concerns of Western countries,2 the international human rights movement has sought to escape its culture specific origins by basing its moral authority on universal claims. The 1993 Bangkok Declaration constituted the most serious challenge to the movement in its short life by calling into question the universality of its normative claims. Increasingly self-assured as a result of tremendous economic [End Page 295] growth, Asian governments started to champion their own Asian values. They also began to denounce what they considered to be self-righteous preaching by Western states that in many cases were responsible for a colonial legacy of rights abuses in the Asian countries over which they now sat in judgment, and in any event had human rights problems of their own back at home. Although Asian leaders stopped short of denying outright the universality of human rights, their assertion that human rights must reflect the particular circumstances of particular countries at a particular time smacked of a cultural relativism that threatened to erode the seeming consensus on human rights that had developed over the previous five decades.3

Not surprisingly, the contentious and provocative claims of Asian governments, often presented in a defiant manner, led to a flood of books and articles examining a wide range of rights related issues from an equally wide range of perspectives. Philosophers, economists, political scientists, journalists, human rights activists, and even senior government officials all jumped into the fray. All too often the result has been more heat than light. Supporters of universal human rights dismiss the claims of Asian governments as the self-serving rhetoric of dictators, and misrepresent their position as a morally reprehensible and philosophically absurd "anything goes" cultural relativism. Defenders of Asian values respond by attacking Western governments for past and present violations of human rights and accuse them of cultural imperialism and ethnocentricity.

This volume of essays is a most welcome exception. Its fourteen chapters, written by authors from various disciplines, address many of the main issues in the debate from a variety of angles, invariably with sophistication and insight.4 The authors avoid the tendency to attack straw men, offering instead arguments filled with nuance and qualifications. Several acknowledge that Western countries have their own human rights problems and have committed atrocities in other countries in the past, yet point out that two wrongs do not make a right. Sensibly, they conclude that each country must be held accountable for human rights violations and take the necessary steps to stop such violations. Inoue Tatsuo exemplifies the openness and level-headedness of the authors when he allows that liberal democracy has its shortcomings while suggesting that Asian countries could nonetheless benefit from liberal pluralism. Noting the existence of communitarian strains within Western political thought and the many ways in which Asian traditions attach importance to individuals, he encourages us to move beyond the oversimplified dichotomous portrait of Western individualism and Asian communitarianism to seek principled ways to accommodate both.

Judging by the citations to other essays in the volume, many of the authors seem to have read and commented on each other's work extensively. The cross-referencing enriches the discussion and provides a sense of continuity to topics as diverse as the...


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