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FOCUS June 1997 Volume 8

Human Rights Statement from Asia

The Asian Human Rights Commission issued the final draft of the Asian Charter, a comprehensive document that presents human rights principles in the light of the existing realities in Asia.

The sub-title of the document, Our Common Humanity, expresses the basic philosophy underlying the whole exercise. A paragraph in the background section of the document explains this philosophy:

'Our commitments to rights are not due to any abstract ideological reasons. We believe that respect for human rights provides the basis for a just, humane and caring society. A regime of rights is based on the belief that we are all inherently equal and have an equal right to live in dignity. It is based on our right to determine our destiny through participation in policy making and administration. It enables us to develop and enjoy our culture and to give expression to our artistic impulses. It is respectful of diversity. It recognizes our obligations to future generations and the environment they would inherit. It establishes standards for assessing the worth and legitimacy of our institutions and policies.'

In the general principles part, the document states its basic view about human rights:'

Notwithstanding their universality and indivisibility, the enjoyment and the salience of rights depend on social, economic and cultural contexts. Rights are not abstractions, but foundations for action and policy. Consequently, we must move from abstract formulations to their concretisation in the Asian context by examining the circumstances of specific groups whose situation is defined by massive violations of their rights. It is only by relating rights and their implementation to the specificity of the Asian situation that the enjoyment of rights will be facilitated. Only in this way will Asia be able to contribute to the world wide movement for the protection of rights.'

The question of context of human rights protection and realization is therefore a very important aspect. The document points out the changing scenario where the '.. capacity of the international community and states to promote and protect rights has been weakened by processes of globalization as more and more power over economic and social policy and activities has moved from states to business corporations.' This brings into focus the non-state player in the human rights issue.

In the same vein, the document stresses that many individuals and groups in Asia are unable to exercise their rights due to restrictive or oppressive social customs and practices, particularly those related to caste, gender, or religion.

One can observe that this document unlike the usual human rights documents does not use much of the legal language. It is neither using the United Nations format. It combines the expression of the prevailing situation in Asia with the principles of human rights as enriched by the experiences and traditions of peoples in this region. The various forms of violations, the causes of such violations, and the related human rights principles form each of the discussion on issues.

The document uses the 'we Asian peoples' standpoint.

The major parts of the document deal with the general human rights principles such as universality and indivisibility of rights; specific rights clustered under right to life, to peace, to democracy, to cultural identity, to development and social justice; rights of vulnerable groups (women. children, disabled persons, workers, students, prisoners and political detainees); and the enforcement of rights.

The document adopts the broader concept of human rights, reflective of its emphasis on the current problems in the region, which ascribe violations of human rights not just to State institutions and agents but also to other groups and private corporations. Thus '... business corporations are responsible for numerous violations of rights, particularly those of workers, women and indigenous peoples. It is necessary to strengthen the regime of rights to make corporations liable for the violation of rights.'

This concept also extends to civil society as a necessary social institution for the '... promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms, for securing rights within civil society and to act as a check to state institutions.' The responsibility therefore for the protection of rights is '... wide, and not a preserve of the state.'

The issue of cultural diversity and universality of human rights is also taken up. The document states that the

'... plurality of cultural identities in Asia is not contrary to the universality of human rights but rather as so many cultural manifestations of human dignity, enriching universal norms. At the same time, we Asian peoples must eliminate those cultural features in our own cultures which are contrary to the universal principles of human rights. We must transcend the traditional concept of the family based on patriarchal traditions so as to retrieve in each of our cultural traditions, the diversity of family norms which guarantee women's human rights. We must be bold in reinterpreting our religious beliefs which support gender equality. We must also eliminate discriminations based on caste, ethnic origins, occupation, place of origin, and others, while enhancing in our respective cultures all values related to mutual tolerance and mutual support. We must stop practices which sacrifice the individual to the collectivity or to the powerful, and thus renew our communal and national solidarity.'

A document such as the Asian Charter finds more meaning when used as a starting point for deeper examination of the human rights principles and finding better ways of applying them in the daily lives of people in Asia. It calls for intra-Asian dialogue with a view to enriching principles and strengthening ways and means of making human rights a reality.

For further information contact: Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) & Asian Legal Resource Center (ALRC), Flat E 3F, Kadak Building, 171 Sai Yee Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon, Hong Kong; tel. (852) 2698 6339; 2392-22-46; fax (852)2 698 6367,
·e-mail: alegrcen@hk.super.net or ahrchk@hk.super.net


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