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Editorial & Opinion 

      Rethinking human rights

      More needs to be done if the promotion of
      human rights is to become part of the
      mainstream and not remain on the fringe. 

      WHY is it that many of the governments of
      Asian countries do not show much
      enthusiasm when the topic of human rights
      is brought up for discussion? The present
      situation in most of these countries
      concerning the monitoring of human rights
      violations is one where non-governmental
      organisations have an adversarial
      relationship with governments. It has almost
      reached the point where this adversarial
      relationship is accepted as normal. 

      One indication of this is that instead of
      being puzzled, the lack of enthusiasm for
      human rights by these governments is
      taken as a given. This situation does not
      help the long-term alleviation of the
      suffering resulting from such violations, and
      must be addressed. The promotion of
      human rights must become part of the
      mainstream, and not remain on the fringe. 

      When children prepare their rooms for
      inspection by their parents, clothes, toys
      and books are often placed under the bed
      or hidden from view in some other manner.
      If our governments do not become
      enthusiastic about the respect for human
      rights, violations will continue to be ''swept
      under the rug'', out of view, and instead of
      the welfare of the people being the
      supreme concern, ''passing'' the monitoring
      checks will become the objective of the
      different agencies involved. 

      Though this is, of course, better than some
      of the terrible situations existing in certain
      countries today, it should not be the
      long-term objective. Besides being a step
      towards a permanent positive attitude to
      human rights, solving this problem of a
      ''lack of enthusiasm'' might lead towards a
      softening of the hardline stances of some of
      our governments as well. 

      To find a solution to this problem we need
      first to discover the cause of this state of
      affairs. So why are our governments not
      enthusiastic about the protection of human
      rights? Some immediate answers that
      come to mind are: the people in power in
      these various governments are greedy, or
      are power hungry, or are insensitive to the
      suffering of others, or have a warped idea
      of ''right'' and ''wrong''. 

      Though there certainly are such people in
      our government, at a deeper level this is not
      the fundamental reason behind the lack of
      enthusiasm we are talking about. After all,
      the idea of government (theoretically) is to
      find a way for society to live in peace and
      harmony, and so the concern for human
      rights -- that people are treated in a way
      which promotes a peaceful and harmonious
      society -- should be at the very centre of
      what is important to governments. 

      Not that there are easy answers acceptable
      to everyone, but at least there should be an
      agreement on the importance of searching
      for these answers. Unless, of course, these
      governments do not associate the search
      for these answers with the idea of human
      rights. This is exactly what seems to be the
      real reasons behind the current reluctance
      to wholeheartedly embrace human rights. 

      Most of the governments of Asia do not see
      any connection between the idea of human
      rights and the search for a way to live in
      peace and harmony. Questions raised
      about violations of human rights thus are
      perceived to be questions alien to the basic
      questions these societies are trying to

      One way to become clearer as to why there
      is this perceived difference is to see that
      the search for the answers to how we
      should treat each other is kept alive; this
      means debate and discussion (in forms
      corresponding to the culture in which they
      occur) about concrete steps to be taken. An
      idea that is alive for a society is an idea
      which needs the members of that society to
      discuss the idea's concrete manifestations.

      On the other side, the idea of human rights
      is treated as a dead idea, namely, an idea
      with no normative questions which need
      new answers. Steps to be taken in
      connection with this idea are presented in
      concrete. What this creates is a feeling that
      the idea of human rights is someone else's
      idea, in particular an idea belonging to the
      West, since those who introduce ideas are
      often understood to be the owners of the
      ideas introduced. And it is very difficult to
      become committed to an imposed idea. 

      But why is the idea of human rights
      perceived this way? To answer this we
      must look at how this idea is presented in
      many of our countries. The proper starting
      point, I think, is the Universal Declaration of
      Human Rights, the International Covenant
      on Civil and Political Rights, the
      International Covenant on Economic, Social
      and Cultural Rights, and other similar
      conventions. Being introduced to the idea
      of human rights through these declarations
      and covenants, which is the usual way,
      immediately creates two problems. 

      First, these documents talk about not only
      how people should be treated but also why
      they should be treated that way. In this
      sense the documents mix together the
      ethics of human rights with the metaphysics
      of human rights, and it is the metaphysics
      that are usually the cause of the sense of
      strangeness that results. A very specific
      explanation as to why people should be
      treated as stated is affirmed, rather than
      advancing the general idea that there are
      ways that people should treat each other
      which stem from something beyond
      ''individual preferences towards such

      Secondly, the various articles in these
      documents are usually presented as
      something fixed in stone, to be followed
      and not thought about, often times justified
      by citing ratification by numerous countries,
      leaving out the historical development of
      these conventions and how they came to
      be. If more time is given to discussing the
      historical development, it would be clear
      that the idea of human rights can no more
      be considered a Western concept than an
      Asian concept. The debate over human
      rights and Asian values would then be
      carried out in a more enlightened manner. 

      What we forget is that the idea of human
      rights is much greater than any particular
      concrete understanding we have of this
      idea at any point in time and space. The
      idea of human rights is about a dream
      which all humanity has had throughout time
      about being able to live together in peace
      in a just society, and the search for
      concrete steps which will take us to the
      fulfilment of his dream. 

      The universality of human rights is the
      universality of this yearning, which stems
      from our common humanity, rather than the
      universality of our expression of this
      yearning at any particular time. The
      declarations in humanity's pursuit of this
      dream, as solidarity pacts between fellow
      searchers, not as the final destination which
      then cuts off all those who come after from
      participating in this search. 

      If it is accepted that these are the main
      causes of our governments' lack of
      enthusiasm for the idea of human rights,
      what could be some solutions to the

      In general terms, what needs to be done is
      to create a sense of ownership where the
      idea of human rights is concerned. This
      ought to be one of the primary goals of the
      decade of human rights education that we
      are presently in the middle of. Education is
      the lighting of fires in the mind rather than
      the filling of vessels. 

      What our governments and our societies
      need to be presented with are questions,
      not just answers. But like all learning, we
      also build upon familiarity with previous
      answers. Not only is this practical in the
      sense that it saves time, but it also enables
      us to share the wisdom of those who have
      come before us. 

      What does this mean in the case of human
      rights education? It does not mean
      memorising the different articles in the
      various documents, nor does it mean
      dismissing all previous understanding of
      human rights as something tainted with
      Western values. What it does mean is
      presenting the familiar declarations and
      covenants as documents to be discussed
      and wrestled with. 

      Though this process might seem risky in
      that it might provide an excuse for those
      who would just as soon ignore these
      various existing declarations, out of this
      struggle will come the sense of ownership
      that is needed to keep the idea of human
      rights alive and sustainable in our societies.

      Mark Tamthai is lecturer at the department
      of philosophy, Chulalongkorn University.