Debating Human Rights: Critical Essays from the United States and Asia

Debating Human Rights: Critical Essays from the United States and Asia

Debating Human Rights: Critical Essays from the United States and Asia

Debating Human Rights: Critical Essays from the United States and Asia


Debating Human Rights brings together a broad range of contributors from Asia and the US to discuss issues that frequently cause division. It covers the main issues in dispute such as the impact of globalization, and Asian values. There are also separate sections on human rights in Greater China, women's rights, and human rights and international relations. Concluding with a a critique of the role of China, Japan and the US in contemporary human rights diplomacy, this book presents a pragmatic approach to reconciling diverse and controversial perspectives.


Chandra Muzaffar sets the stage for this debate, placing it firmly within the historical context of Western imperialism and focusing on how power relates to a debate about values. He concludes that a concept of human rights is insufficient, and that what is needed is a larger spiritual and moral worldview constructed from universals drawn from the world’s great religions. Chandra Muzaffar, a founder of ALIRAN, Malaysia’s most active NGO, was jailed under the International Security Act by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1987 for his political activism, and subsequently identified as a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International. Later, after his release, Muzaffar organized a conference on “Rethinking Human Rights” and invited Mahathir to give the keynote address. This essay is a somewhat revised version of Chandra’s own opening address to that 1994 conference.

It is important, at the very outset, to explain what has come to be accepted as the conventional meaning of human rights. Though the human rights contained in the multitude of UN human rights declarations, covenants, and conventions cover a whole range of rights, including an economic right such as the right to food, and a collective right such as the people’s right to self-determination, the term “human rights” as used by most human rights activists today carries a more restricted meaning. Human rights are often equated with individual rights—specifically individual civil and political rights. This equation has a genealogy, a history behind it.

The equation of human rights with individual civil and political rights is a product of the European Enlightenment and the secularization of thought and society of the last 150 years. Whatever the weaknesses of this conception of human rights, there is no doubt at all that it has contributed significantly to human civilization.

First, it has helped to empower the individual. By endowing the individual with rights, such as the right of expression, the right of association, the right of assembly, the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, and so on, it has strengthened the position of the individual as never before in history. These are rights

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