Human Rights, Foreign Policy, and Religious Belief: An Asia/Pacific Perspective

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

While the New Zealand Human Rights Commission uses numerous definitions of "human rights," I prefer the following:

Human rights are those conditions of life which allow us to realise our full potential and to develop our human qualities of intelligence, conscience and spirituality. Such an environment respects and protects the inherent dignity of each person and rejects stereotypical views of individuals. To deny individuals or groups their rights is to set the stage for political and social unrest. "Human rights" is not an abstract concept for lawyers and philosophers-human rights affect the daily lives of every man, woman and child in our society.1

Such a view of human rights recognizes the spirituality of man and its expression as fundamental to human rights. It further recognizes that denial of these rights leads to political and social unrest.

This Article provides a useful survey of the status of human rights in the Asia/Pacific region, with a particular emphasis on religious beliefs. Part II of this Article sets out to define the Asia/Pacific region. Part III examines the role of national human rights institutions and their umbrella body, the Asia/Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions ("Forum"), and considers their responsibilities related to religion and religious belief. Part IV examines the foreign policy issues developing around religious beliefs in the region. Part V gives a brief overview of alternatives to membership in the Forum that, nevertheless, promote human rights. The Article concludes that if the Asia/Pacific region is to take center stage in the human rights arena it will require international cooperation.

II. THE ASIA/PACIFIC REGION

The region loosely called Asia/Pacific is vast, covering a third of the world's surface and encompassing more than fifty percent of the world's population and trade.2 It includes three of the world's four most populated sovereign states: India, the world's largest democracy; China, a Communist Party state; and Indonesia, a state going through a painful transition to democracy. The Forum encompasses much of the region.

The combined population of the countries represented by Forum member institutions is approximately 1.3 billion. If the populations of those countries currently working on the establishment of national human rights institutions were added, the Forum would represent some 1.6 billion people.

These 1.6 billion people live in widely divergent economic circumstances spanning the traditional developmental spectrum from "developing" to "industrialised". However, the overwhelming majority would be at the "developing" end of the spectrum and a large proportion would be struggling to meet basic needs for work, food, safe drinking water, clothing, housing, health, social security and education. For the much smaller number of those living at the "industrialised" end of the spectrum the proportion struggling to meet their basic living needs is lower. Nevertheless, even in industrialised countries a large number of people are concerned by major structural changes which threaten job security and impede access to universal health care, social security and higher education .... 3

Asia/Pacific is referred to, in the exploits of adventurers and explorers of our history, as the "East", "New World", or "Spice Islands." It is the birthplace of many of the world's greatest religious leaders, prophets, and thinkers--Jesus Christ, Buddha, Confucius, and Mohammed. In the colonial era, European nations were eager to establish trade routes within the region, and with trade came missionaries to convert the "heathens" to Christianity. Indeed, all forms of Christian belief were introduced in this colonial era when Spain, France, Britain, Portugal, and Holland sought to bring their version of truth to these Asian and Pacific communities.

B. Defining the Region

Three groups have sought to define, for their own purposes, the boundaries of the Asia/Pacific region. …