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  5. Culture and Human Rights: For Better or for Worse

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FOCUS March 1996 Volume 3

Culture and Human Rights: For Better or for Worse

The history of international codification of human rights standars has strongly been interpreted by some governments as well as writers as basis for saying that human rights are based on Western culture. As such, they are not necessarily applicable to societies whose cultures are non-Western.

This view of human rights very much reflects the current debate on whether or not there is such a thing as an Asian concept of human rights. Supporters of the view that there is such an Asian concept would easily point to culture as the major justification.

It is interesting to note that such a debate is still very much alive in Asia-Pacific despite the new consensus in the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights which settled this issue. The debate goes on as States in the region take unprecedented collective steps to promote continuing economic growth. Commerce has opened doors of countries which were previously aligned to either of the two contending political blocs of the Cold War. From the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (APEC) to Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) consensus on how to best achieve development is hardly a difficult agenda. These economic meetings however fail to look at the human rights implications of the development agenda. There is hardly any reference to the previously agreed principles in Rio, Vienna, Cairo and Beijing which declare that human rights and development are inseparable.

But if present values are influenced by growing global economics and culture, as one author suggests, what differences in human rights perspective will there be to debate about? This relates to another author's view that the concept of human rights evolved as a result of the process of industrialization.

It is a fact that Asia-Pacific has distinct cultures rooted deeply and extensively in the communities. Within some broad categories such as those countries influenced by Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, Islamic or Christian thoughts lie a greater diversity of cultures.

Some governments argue that since cultures are different between Asia-Pacific and the other regions of the world, the values being upheld are also different. Human rights must be interpreted in the context of this situation. Human rights are therefore conceptualized in a manner that supposedly distinctly adapts to the situation, thinking and practices of peoples in the region. To emphasize certain rights in the whole range of internationally recognized human rights is in tune with the proper implementation of the concept of human rights. It should be recognized as valid and not in derogation or distortion of human rights. The stress on duty, community welfare, obedience to authority, consensual approach to problem resolution, among other values, are deemed important to uphold in dealing with human rights.

The diversity of cultures in Asia-Pacific, according to the other view, is seen as an element that actually enriches human rights rather than carve a different perspective. Human rights principles bring out the common features of the cultures in the region. The general principles contained in the international human rights instruments are given more meaning as they are supplemented by the depth of the cultures in the region. Thus, the concept of social cohesion can serve to protect the rights of individuals against abuses and promote participation of people in matters of community and national concern. Following this argument, human rights are universal and indivisible. There is no justification for emphasizing some rights and putting secondary importance on other rights.

There is also a view that traditional non-Western cultures do recognize human rights. The following words used by traditional societies in Asia have been identified to mean rights: hagg (Arabic), adhikar (Hindi and Bengali), svelte (Sanskrit), sitthi (Thai), kwolni (Korean) and karapatan (Tagalog). It cannot be said then that human rights are alien to non-Western cultures.

A recent paper on this issue argues that governments who insist on an Asian concept of human rights because of cultural differences, are precisely going against these so-called Asian cultures when they fully engage in Western-style economic development and when they restrict the rights of people who would have the freedom to get involved in societies' concerns according to traditional culture. It appears therefore that they are not protecting their own cultures and instead trying to find an excuse for refusing to recognize the universality of human rights.

The 1993 Vienna Declaration supports the view of universality of human rights even in the context of diverse cultures. In Article 5 of the declaration, the following is stated:

"All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms."

It must be incumbent upon all governments to accord respect to this consensual statement. It likewise requires them to remain consistent in all agreements (economic or otherwise) that would have human rights implications.

It is in this context that the task of finding the best means of relating the cultures of this region to universal human rights principles comes in.

Letting the discussion on this issue remain at the level of generalities will not be helpful. There are cultural elements that can certainly be identified with human rights while there are also some other cultural elements which may be found to be unjustifiably violative of basic rights.

There are various studies about culture, on both the ancient and modern variations. Yet studies on the linkage between cultures and human rights are not significantly extensive (most are limited to specific issues).

The importance of focusing on this issue is due to the fact that the realization of human rights have to take into account the cultural milieu of peoples. The cultural structure is both the means and substance of human rights promotion, protection and realization.

One may recall that culture is generally defined as the "learned ways of life" that are expressed in physical objects as well as in ideas, beliefs, rules, customs, myths, family patterns, political systems, languages, etc. The extent of influence of culture on people cannot be quantified but one can safely conclude that it has extensive influence on people's consciousness. Identities of people have been defined in many cases in terms of their cultural background. Social behavior is generally attuned to the prevailing cultures. Trends of thinking or worldview are hewing closely to what are expressed by the material forms of culture.

The pervasive presence of culture in the lives of people is just a natural result of human existence.

Human rights as basis of both way of thinking and conduct of relations between people, or between governments and other institutions and the people, should thus be closely identified with existing cultures. This is not to say that human rights have to lose their universal character or that cultures have to be totally changed to accommodate human rights. Each has distinct roles to play. It cannot be denied that traditional cultures hold societies together and are able to secure the welfare of its members (especially the aged and the disabled). Human rights, on the other hand, emphasize certain values which are deemed important for the realization of human attributes and potentialities. They should be properly related and mutually developing in this relationship.

The task ahead lies in looking more deeply into the issue. It means being able to find the common ground between cultures and human rights which will lead to their meaningful interaction. General studies on this issue point to the existence of such common ground. Ancient cultural concepts are found to be in line with human rights principles. Concepts of justice, respect, responsibility, concern for fellow human being, among others, are akin to human rights concepts. There are also new perspectives within cultures which tend to give an even more space for discourse with human rights. Modern Buddhist, Confucian, Islamic and Hindu thinkers do propagate views that adhere more to the promotion of the human dignity of all without much of the restrictions found in the past. The penetration of transnational culture at the present moment in many communities all over the region is also a significant factor that can cause the hastening of the interfacing of human rights and their own cultures.

Several human rights writers propose ways of facilitating this interaction between human rights and cultures. Dialogue within and between cultures is highly suggested. There is a general agreement on the need to respect cultures and to let a process of gradual adjustment in cultures to occur. This should not be construed however as suggesting overlooking cultural practices that violate human rights. It may be said that such violations should be properly considered in this dialogical relationship. It is believed that cultures do have the capacity to absorb and synthesize ideas which may appear unfamiliar (such as human rights).

The idea of dialogue between cultures would have the following elements:

  1. openness on the part of cultures to insights and criticism so that cultures can learn about themselves by seeing themselves in the eyes of other cultures;
  2. clear purpose of overcoming cultural antagonism to human rights norms that are problematic in a given context (this can also include rectifying mistakes in appropriate cases); and
  3. non-imposition of moral truth or values based on a specific culture.

Any dialogue would really require much trust and respect for the diversity of cultures and trust so that the process would lead to mutual undertstanding and learning.

There is also a suggestion to rethink human rights to be able to draw in relevant concepts common in many cultures. It may be said that this suggestion would make more clear and explicit cultural concepts which are considered included in the human rights concept.

Harmonizing human rights and culture will consequently lead to a greater understanding of the hitherto unknown means of realizing human rights within friendly cultural systems. It will avoid the accusation that the promotion of human rights is just a form of re-entry of Western culture in the region. More importantly, it will mean a realization that human rights concepts have always been part of the cultures in this region. The only difference is in the form of their (human rights) expression and practice. This, in effect, means preserving the diversity of cultures while recognizing the universality of human rights principles. Preservation of culture is itself part of human rights.

This interaction between cultures and human rights should be a continuing process, just like any human activity. It should help develop both the cultures and the human rights principles. In the end, the constant consideration is the need to continuously enhance human existence and protect it from ravages being experienced now and in the past.

The present Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has been advocating the idea of human rights as a common language of humanity. This idea implies an agreement among peoples in this world of a universal concept that can apply on all cultures. There is much to gain if peoples everywhere have a means of understanding each other. And certainly the value of enhancing human dignity by recognizing human rights is the most basic and therefore the most essential commonality among peoples. Cultures that are reconciled with human rights will serve as bases for making human rights a common language of humanity.


  1. Ghai, Yash (1994) Human Rights and Governance: The Asia Debate, in Center for Asian and Pacific Affairs occasional papers, The Asia Foundation, San Francisco, November.
  2. Donnelly, Jack (1993), International Human Rights, Westview Press, Colorado
  3. Traer, Robert (1991), Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for Global Struggle, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C.