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  5. Second Symposium on Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific

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FOCUS December 1996 Volume 6

Second Symposium on Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and United Nations University (UNU) in Tokyo again jointly organized a symposium on human rights. This symposium was attended by representatives of national human rights commissions in Indonesia and Australia, and Asians who are, or have been, involved in United Nations human rights work. Human rights and economic development, institutional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights (domestic and regional), and human rights education were the main topics in the discussion. The symposium was held on July 4-5, 1996 in the UNU premises in Tokyo.

There was a rich exchange of ideas from among the panelists that show the present state of the discourse on human rights in Asia-Pacific. Despite the seemingly inconclusive statements in some periods during the symposium, a number of ideas were brought out which are important in further promoting human rights in the region.

The panelists reiterated the link between human rights and economic development. They also state the need to balance the two so that human rights is not sacrificed in the name of development. Human rights is a an important part of development that should be given full support. It was clearly pointed out during the panel discussion that economic development does not necessarily lead to respect for human rights. The cases of some Middle Eastern countries and even Australia were cited to support this point. One panelist even said that in China, the places that have relative freedom are the places where economic development occurred faster. With some apprehensions on having conditionalities on official development aid (ODA), one panelist pointed out the varied (and pragmatic) uses of conditionalities which can actually positively promote human rights rather than simply punish a government seen as violating human rights.

Aside from endorsing the need for continuing dialogue on appropriate human rights mechanism for the region, there is a suggestion from one panelist to use as basis of such regional effort the existing written constitutions in most countries in the region. With the most likely existence of similar provisions in these constitutions, there is a common ground upon which governments in the region can use as foundational concepts for a regional mechanism. It would be interesting to study this new area.

Human rights education was again given wide support in the symposium. Panelists talked about educating people on the practical application of human rights to issues that one find in daily living. One panelist, in emphasizing the significance of bottom-up and issue -based approach, narrated a previous experience of having a European human rights course for Asians learning about human rights in the university. The panelists thus dwelt on making human rights more widely practiced by having relevant and effective human rights education programs aimed at making people act on human rights.

Throughout the symposium, the role of NGOs have been cited as crucial in the whole question of human rights work.

The Chairperson of the symposium, at the concluding session, stated that "...[V]arious civil, political, economic, social and cultural right have long been neglected by the international community as well as by most Governments. States in the Asia/Pacific region should be urged to recognize these human rights in their domestic law and practice through the internalization of human rights in the indigenous context." The Chairperson further said in interpreting and applying universal human rights, cultural and religious sensitivities are relevant. But cultural integrity should not be an excuse for non-adherence to human rights principles. "Principled and practical judgments are called for", the Chairperson said.

The organizers of the symposium made a commitment to continue holding this activity to help process ideas on the realization of human rights at both national and regional levels.

It is hoped that an even wider representation of people and institutions in the region who are concerned with human rights will be given space (as members of the panel) in the next symposia.

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