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  5. Unforced Consensus and Dialogue: Modes of Human Rights Understanding

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FOCUS March 1997 Volume 7

Unforced Consensus and Dialogue: Modes of Human Rights Understanding

Is it be possible for countries and peoples in Asia to have an unforced consensus on human rights? Can dialogue be a means of achieving this objective?

The idea of unforced consensus is attributed to a Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor who believe that "... different groups, countries, religious communities, civilizations, while holding incompatible fundamental views on theology, metaphysics, human nature, etc. would come to an agreement on certain norms that ought to govern human behaviour. Each would have its own way of justifying this from out of its profound background conception. We would agree on the norms, while disagreeing why they were the right norms." [1] Dialogue, on the other hand, is premised on the existence of openness to exchange of ideas among equals.

There is a certain attraction to these ideas in the context of Asia-Pacific considering the diversity of the social, cultural, political, and even economic characters of the countries in the region. This is also the region where strong proponents of the so-called Asian concept of human rights are actively opposed by the region's NGO community.

A series of workshops was organized touching on the ideas of unforced consensus and dialogue. Focused on East Asia, the workshops provide "...opportunities for constructive dialogue and scholarly exploration of the realities of human rights across cultures". [2] The workshops participated mainly by East Asian and American social scientists dwelt on the issues of culture and human rights, "intercivilizational" concept of human rights, and new issues on human rights.

The third workshop held in Seoul in October last year "...reaffirmed the need to move away from an exclusive focus on civil and political rights and to address the very real social, economic and cultural human rights issues in the region." [3]

There are very real problems of getting human rights appreciated in the present context of East Asian societies. Human rights will have to be defined in the context of the so-called modernization and globalization processes. At the same time, cultural factors that exist alongside these processes which relate directly to (either in support of or against) human rights will have to be considered.

The remaining question is: who should be the dialogue partners?

The workshops mentioned were organized by the Carnegie Council on Ethic and International Affairs under its project named "The Growth of East Asia and Its Impact on Human Rights."

For further information contact: Human Rights Initiative, Carnegie Council, 170 East 64th Street, New York, NY 10021-7478 USA.


  1. Charles Taylor, "Conditions of an unforced consensus on human rights", monograph, Department of Philosophy, McGill University, Canada (undated and unpublished), page 1.
  2. Joanne Bauer, "About the Human Rights Initiative", Human Rights Dialogue, volume 2, September 1995, New York, USA, page 1.
  3. Kevin Tan and Tonya Cook, "New Issues in East Asian Human Rights - A Conference Report", Human Rights Dialogue, volume 7, December 1996, New York, USA, page 1.

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