Overview: Human Rights Declarations in Asia-Pacific

The long history of Asian civilizations provides significant proclamations that relate to human rights. Ancient declarations that speak of rights, freedom, and justice seem to be coming mainly from political leaders. Cyrus of the Persian civilization is credited for proclaiming freedom of religion and freedom from enslavement. These were recorded in a small clay cylinder known as the Cyrus Edict sometime after 539 BC, after conquering Babylon. [i] Later on, in India, another political leader issued edicts declaring, among others, the duty of rulers to serve the welfare of their people, much like the principle of state obligation to protect and realize the human rights of the people. He also approved of people having their own religion as long as their practice the essence of religion. These edicts are known as the Ashoka Rock Edicts issued by King Ashoka in 304-232 BC. [ii]

Laws and principles of justice are also forms of human rights declarations. During the Sukothai period in Thailand (11th century), King Pau Khu Sri-Intrait was known as the “Fountain of Justice” because he personally exercised the power to resolve disputes among the people. [iii] Again, this is an example of how state power should be exercised under the current human rights system. During the 15th century, Vietnamese rulers enacted into law principles that are now considered as human rights principles such as procedural due process for the defendants in criminal cases, and equality of men and women in civil and property rights. While Vietnamese laws were very much influenced by Confucian beliefs during that time, there were legal provisions that run counter to such beliefs. The prohibition of corporal punishment (considered barbaric practice), and the right of the child to have property or live separately from the parents are examples. [iv]

Western colonial rule in Asia brought to the fore a number of liberation movements that inspired the expression of freedom and justice among the colonized peoples. In late 19th century a number of literature spoke of freedom from Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines. One leading personality (Apolinario Mabini) wrote “ The True Decalogue” in 1898 that set out principles such as equality and election of government leaders. The leaders of the liberation movement in 1920s in Vietnam against the French colonial rule expressed freedom and equality similar to those expressed by Mahatma Gandhi in India.

There were also movements that protested against social discrimination as in the case of the caste-like discrimination of the Japanese called Burakumin and the Koreans called Paekchong. In 1920s, the Burakumin in Japan adopted the Suiheisha Sengen (Suiheisha Declaration) that proclaimed their right to be free from discrimination, while the Paekchong in Korea adopted their Hyongpyong (Statement of Purposes of the Equalization Movement). [v]

Hyongpyong declared, among other things, that equality and fairness were the basis of society and that the purpose of society was to destroy social ranks, reject discriminatory labels and encourage the education of the Paekchong. [vi]

The establishment of the United Nations provided the opportunity for Asians to participate in drafting of a global human rights declaration, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (UDHR). Human rights principles were incorporated in Constitutions in a number of countries in Asia either just before the adoption of the UDHR or immediately thereafter. [vii]

But human rights violations became the dominant feature in many Asian countries in the context of the Cold War that coincided with the rise of authoritarian governments from the 1950s to the 1970s. This turbulent period was not only characterized by the wars against communism but also by protests against authoritarian governments.

By 1980s, human rights advocates started to put out declarations to provide a basis for people to claim their rights in light of the experience at the time as well as to remind governments of their duty to protect and realize the rights of their people. Two major documents came out during this period: Declaration of the Basic Duties of ASEAN Peoples and Governments (1983) and the Draft Pacific Charter of Human Rights (1989). Both documents were offered to the governments concerned for consideration. But since the governments did not officially adopt both documents, they remained the declaration of the human rights advocates in the name of the people in their respective areas.

The Southeast Asian declaration has a peculiar character with its emphasis on “basic duties of people and governments.” Human rights documents would normally speak of “rights” when referring to people and “duties” or “obligations” when referring to governments. But since the Declaration of the Basic Duties of ASEAN Peoples and Governments dwells not simply on human rights but also problems faced by the Southeast Asian countries, the duty of the peoples refers to the task of facing these problems along with the governments. Thus sections on “Peace,” “Independent Development,” and “People’s Participation” mention the duty of peoples and governments.

The Pacific Charter of Human Rights was the result of comprehensive study of existing Constitutions, court decisions related to the international human rights standards in the Pacific. The lawyers, judges and legal academics affiliated with the Law Association for Asia and the Pacific (LAWASIA) and government representatives were part of the effort. They adopted the document in Apia, Western Samoa in 1989. But the Pacific governments subsequently declined to adopt it, and still do not see the need for it in 2000s. [viii] The human rights document was meant to suit the Pacific context. It was patterned after the African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples Rights that was adopted by human rights organizations in Africa in 1981. [ix]

The holding of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights resulted in massive mobilization by the human rights community in the Asia-Pacific. The representatives of various types of human rights organizations gathered in Bangkok to hold meetings parallel to the regional inter-governmental conference preparatory to the global conference to be held months later in Vienna. There were numerous documents declaring the human rights issues that should be addressed by the governments. There was fear at that time that Asian governments would insist on an Asian version of human rights, in line with the so-called “Asian values.”

The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Organization (AIPO) saw the need to adopt a human rights declaration as a contribution to this regional and global attention to human rights. Thus the Human Rights Declaration by the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Organization (AIPO) was adopted in its 14th assembly in Kuala Lumpur in 1993.

There were also declarations adopted by human rights organizations to cover their respective countries such as those from Malaysia and the Philippines, These declarations dealt with issues faced by the people in the country and declared the human rights that should be respected by the government.

From the mid-1990s, more and more human rights declarations have been adopted by non-governmental organizations that dealt with particular human rights issues. In some cases, there were also declarations adopted by governments or state institutions.

Thus a number of declarations about the Dalit discrimination were adopted by non-governmental organizations in South Asia, while declarations on trafficking, human rights education, development, racial discrimination, sexual health, and also judiciary were adopted at the regional level (Asia or Asia-Pacific).

Since the late 1990s the trend has been the adoption of declarations on more specific rights or issues as more and more organizations use human rights as framework of their programs.


[i] See Shapour Ghasemi, editor, The Cyrus the Great Cylinder, Iran Chamber Society, in www.iranchamber.com/history/cyrus/cyrus_charter.php. This page has an English translation of the text of the edict. See also Shapour Suren-Pahlav, Cyrus The Greats' Cylinder - The World's First Charter of the Human Rights, The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS), in www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/History/.

[ii] See The Edicts of King Ashoka - An English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1993), available in www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/ashoka.html. This page has an English translation of the fourteen rock edicts. See also “Asoka's Edicts: The First Bill of Human and Animal Rights,” Human Rights Solidarity in www.hrsolidarity.net/mainfile.php/2001vol11no67/148/

[iii] Vichai Ariyanuntaka, “Legal Research and Legal Education in Thailand,” in Doing Legal Research in Asian Countries (Tokyo: Institute of Developing Economies, 2003), page 147

[iv] Dao Tri Uc, “Basic Information for Legal Research – A Case Study of Vietnam,” in Doing Legal Research in Asian Countries (Tokyo: Institute of Developing Economies, 2003), pages 195-228.

[v] Byung-Sun Oh, “Cultural Values and Human Rights: The Korean Perspective” in Jefferson R. Plantilla and Sebasti Raj, S.J., editors, Human Rights in Asian Cultures: Continuity and Change (Osaka/Delhi: Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center, 1997).

[vi] Based on William Shaw, “Between Class and Nation: The Equalization Society of the 1920s,” in W. Shaw, editor, Human Rights in Korea (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1991). These statements were originally quoted by Byung-Sun Oh, ibid.

[vii] The 1935 Constitution of the Philippine Commonwealth Government incorporated a Bill of Rights similar to the Bill of Rights in the American Constitution.

[viii] See Jefferson R. Plantilla, “Pacific Regionalism,” FOCUS Asia-Pacific 49/2007, available in https://www.hurights.or.jp/archives/focus/section2/2007/09/pacific-regionalism.html

[ix] See Sarah Pritchard, “ Asia-Pacific and Human Rights: Recent Discussions on Regional Arrangements” in Human Rights Defender 16/1996 available in www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/HRD/1996/16.html