The term ‘International Human Rights Regime’ encompasses various international instruments, norms, decision-making bodies, and implementing mechanisms. Regional regimes are established to express and uphold human rights in line with specific cultural, legal, and political contexts, enhancing their legitimacy alongside the UN system and constitutional frameworks. In contrast to other global regions, Asia faces challenges in establishing a unified human rights framework, with slow adoption of international norms, limited treaty ratifications, and frequent reliance on reservations. This article explores Asia’s progress in developing a unified human rights regime and identifying potential challenges.
Development of regionalism in Asia
The emergence and progression of regionalism in Asia have significantly influenced the establishment and structure of a cohesive human rights regime across the continent. It is imperative to comprehend this phenomenon of regionalism as it lays the foundation for collaboration across diverse domains, including economics, politics, and norms, encompassing the domain of human rights. The lack of regionalism in Asia has garnered criticism from scholars and analysts. However, it is crucial to recognise that the impetus for regionalism can be traced back to the Asian Relations Conference held in New Delhi in 1947. Regrettably, the conference, which sought to delve into the notion of Asian regionalism, did not yield any tangible results due to conflicts between India and China. Following this, a series of conferences and meetings were organised in Asia with the aim of promoting regional cooperation. Two significant instances are the Colombo Conference in Sri Lanka in 1954, which recognised common interests between African and Asian regions, and the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955, which served as a precursor to the Non-Aligned Movement.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), established in 1967, as a regional organisation encompassing Southeast Asian countries, was formed in light of apprehensions regarding the proliferation of communism within the region and the imperative for cooperative endeavours among neighbouring nations. The Bangkok Declaration, which serves as the bedrock of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), did not explicitly incorporate human rights considerations. Nonetheless, ASEAN has undergone significant development and has emerged as a well-established regional organisation with a primary emphasis on fostering economic cooperation and promoting regional cohesion.
Existing human rights mechanism in Asia and its limitations
In contrast to Europe, a common regional human rights framework is lacking in Asia. Nevertheless, regional institutions possess the potential to significantly advance human rights and foster cooperation. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), formed in 2009, is a significant regional body responsible for protecting and promoting human rights within the ASEAN region. However, it plays a crucial role in addressing human rights issues. Similarly, the nations of Southeast Asia collectively established the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), a significant charter promoting and safeguarding human rights in the region. This declaration emphasises not only the long-standing focus on economic, cultural, and social rights but also civil and political rights within ASEAN. While the Declaration incorporates diverse member perspectives, it has faced criticism for its omission of civil society in the formulation process, considered a significant “disappointment” by some scholars.
Challenges of developing a unified human rights regime in Asia
The historical legacy of colonisation, coupled with the prevalence of authoritarian regimes, poses formidable barriers to establishing a unified human rights regime in Asia. This legacy has had a significant impact on the region’s political, social, and economic system. The colonial legacy has created challenges for building trust between countries and within societies, which can hinder the development of a unified human rights regime in Asia.
For example, Japan’s history of colonisation and aggression during World War II continues to affect its relationships with neighbouring countries, particularly China and Korea. Similarly, India’s history of British colonisation has had a lasting impact on its political and economic systems and has contributed to ongoing tensions with Pakistan.
Historical Legacy and political challenges in establishing a unified human rights regime in Asia
The legacy of colonisation has also led to the creation of authoritarian regimes in many countries, which are resistant to the development of human rights norms and institutions. These regimes may see human rights as a threat to their power and legitimacy, leading them to resist international efforts to promote such norms. For example, China’s one-party system is characterised by restrictions on freedom of expression and association, as well as the persecution of dissidents and minorities. Similarly, North Korea’s government is known for its human rights abuses, including forced labour and political imprisonment.
Moreover, even in countries that are not explicitly authoritarian, their support for other authoritarian regimes and silence towards gross human rights violations further suppress the spirit of a common human rights regime. For instance, the ongoing conflict in Myanmar, which has resulted in widespread human rights violations, including persecution of minorities and constraints on freedom of expression and association, has produced one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world. As a result, Bangladesh now has to host more than a million Rohingya people, who are known as the most persecuted community on earth. The regional powers, such as China and India, overlook the situation, prioritising their interests and contributing to human rights violations. With such grave examples in mind, the development of a unified human rights regime remains an elusive goal.
Cultural and philosophical challenges in establishing an Asian human rights regime
The intricate interplay between cultural and philosophical differences in Western and Asian societies profoundly influences how human rights are perceived and practiced in the region. This dynamic presents significant challenges in establishing a cohesive framework for human rights. The contrasting values between Asian cultures and Western societies are readily apparent in the divergent emphasis placed on collectivism, group harmony, and social obligations in the former (commonly referred to as Asian values). These values frequently clash with the Western emphasis on individual rights and freedom, resulting in a notable tension between the two perspectives. The tension described above is particularly evident in nations such as China, where the prominence of Confucian values places a higher emphasis on maintaining social order and adhering to authority rather than prioritising individual rights. The perception of human rights is frequently influenced by considerations of collective interests and societal responsibilities within certain communities, thereby posing challenges in reconciling Western human rights principles with traditional cultural values. In India, the understanding of human rights is often influenced by religious and cultural traditions, such as the Hindu concept of “dharma” or duty, adding complexity to the task of establishing a common understanding of human rights in the region.
The manifestation of human rights in various Asian countries is shaped by the cultural and social disparities that exist between Western and Asian societies. One illustrative instance pertains to Japan’s emphasis on group harmony and social consensus, which has been observed to occasionally impinge upon individual rights. In contrast, the countries of South Korea and Taiwan have come to regard human rights as an essential element in the processes of democratisation and modernisation. The presence of diverse perspectives poses a significant challenge to the establishment of a common human rights regime in the region, whereas Europe has a much more homogenous perspective in terms of human rights. The divergences outlined above may give rise to conflicts among different actors involved, such as governments, civil society organisations, and international organisations. These actors face the challenge of striking a balance between Western human rights principles and the intricate cultural and philosophical aspects specific to Asian societies. In order to foster a comprehensive comprehension of human rights that encompasses diverse view points, it is imperative to possess a nuanced understanding of these distinctions. By recognising and confronting these obstacles, individuals and organisations involved can facilitate enhanced cooperation and collaboration in the pursuit of promoting human rights within the region.
The paradox of economic development in fostering a human rights regime in Asia
Rapid Asian economic growth brings both benefits like poverty reduction, enhanced living standards and challenges like labour exploitation and environmental degradation that undermine human rights of children and migrant worker. Rapid industrialisation, and urbanisation have caused environmental degradation, impacting local communities’ right to a healthy environment. Moreover, economic growth has exacerbated income inequality, in countries such as China and India hindering marginalised communities’ access to essential human rights such as education and healthcare. Economic growth often sidelines long-term social and environmental sustainability for short-term profits, neglecting human rights when they challenge economic interests. For example, in some countries, there are weak labour laws and a lack of implementation mechanisms, leading to workers’ exploitation, particularly in sectors that rely on low-skilled labour. The example of Myanmar is still relevant here, as the powerful countries still remain silent regarding the Rohingya persecution, pointing out their preference for financial gain over human rights.
The development of a unified regional human rights regime in Asia is a complex endeavour, marked by historical legacies, cultural differences, and economic challenges. The process of economic development has brought about various positive and negative outcomes. The existing human rights mechanisms in Asia like AICHR, and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration possess certain limitations. In order to effectively tackle these challenges, it is imperative to adopt a nuanced and collaborative approach. In pursuing a regional human rights framework, consideration of the historical, cultural, and economic factors shaping the region is vital. Simultaneously, reconciling disparities between Western human rights principles and prevailing cultural values in Asia is crucial. The ultimate objective of establishing a unified human rights regime in Asia is to foster regional unity, stability, and peace.
(The writer is Chairman, Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Dhaka).