Human Rights and "Asian" Values
Amartya Sen is a Nobel Prize Winning Economist, the Lamont University Professor at Harvard, a former honorary President of Oxfam, and a trustee of Economists for Peace and Security. Sen delivered the Hans Morgenthau Memorial Lecture on Ethics and Foreign Policy, excerpted here,on May 25, 1997. Reprinted with the permission of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, www.cceia.org.
In 1776, just when the Declaration of Independence was being adopted in this country, Thomas Paine complained, in Common Sense, that Asia had "long expelled" freedom. In this lament, Paine saw Asia in company with much of the rest of the world. America, he hoped, would be different.
"Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her as a stranger and England hath given her warning to depart." For Paine, political freedom and democracy were valuable everywhere, even though they were being violated nearly everywhere too.
The violation of freedom and democracy in different parts of the world continues today, even if not as comprehensively as in Paine's time. There is a difference, though. A new class of arguments has emerged that denies the universal importance of these freedoms. The most prominent of these contentions is the claim that Asian values do not give freedom the same importance as it is accorded in the West. Given this difference in value systems, the argument runs, Asia must be faithful to its own system of political priorities.
"Asian" Values and Economic Development
But there is also a different line of justification that argues for authoritarian governance in the interest of economic development in Asia. Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore and a great champion of "Asian values," has defended authoritarian arrangements on the ground of their alleged effectiveness in promoting economic success.
Does authoritarianism really work so well? The "Lee hypothesis" is, in fact, based on very selective information, rather than on any general statistical testing of the wide-ranging data that are available. The statistical picture is much more complex. On balance, the hypothesis that there is no relation between [freedom and economic development] in either direction is hard to reject. Since political liberty and individual freedom have importance of their own, the case for them remains untarnished.
Freedom Defends Against "Natural" Disasters
It is also important to look at the connection between political and civil rights, on the one hand, and the prevention of major disasters, on the other. Political and civil rights give people the opportunity to draw attention forcefully to general needs and to demand appropriate public action. The response of a government to acute suffering often depends on the pressure that is put on it, and this is where the exercise of political rights (voting, criticizing, protesting, and so on) can make a real difference.
I have discussed elsewhere the remarkable fact that in the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press. Whether we look at famines in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, or other countries with dictatorial regimes, or in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, or in China during the period 1958 to 1961 with the failure of the Great Leap Forward (when between 23 million and 30 million people died), or currently in North Korea, we do not find exceptions to this rule.
While this connection is clearest in the case of famine prevention, the positive role of political and civil rights applies to the prevention of economic and social disasters in general.
Asia as a Unit?
The temptation to see Asia as one unit reveals a distinctly Eurocentric perspective. Indeed, the term "the Orient," which was widely used for a long time to mean essentially what Asia means today, referred to the direction of the rising sun. It requires a heroic generalization to see such a large group of people in terms of the positional view from the European side of the Bosporus.
The question that has to be asked, rather, is whether the Asian countries share the common feature of being skeptical of freedom and liberty, while emphasizing order and discipline.
Authoritarian lines of reasoning often receive indirect backing from modes of thought in the West itself. There is clearly a tendency in the United States and Europe to assume, if only implicitly, the primacy of political freedom and democracy as a fundamental and ancient feature of Western culture -- one not to be easily found in Asia. A contrast is drawn between the authoritarianism allegedly implicit in, say, Confucianism and the respect for individual liberty and autonomy allegedly deeply rooted in Western liberal culture. Western promoters of personal and political liberty in the non-Western world often see this as bringing Western values to Asia and Africa. In all this, there is a substantial tendency to extrapolate backwards from the present. Values spread by the European Enlightenment and other relatively recent developments cannot be considered part of the long-term Western heritage, experienced in the West over millennia.
Championing of order and discipline can be found in Western classics as well as in Asian ones. Indeed, it is by no means clear to me that Confucius is more authoritarian in this respect than, say, Plato or St. Augustine. The real issue is not whether these non-freedom perspectives are present in Asian traditions, but whether the freedom-oriented perspectives are absent there.
Order, Buddhism, and Confucianism
This is where the diversity of Asian value systems becomes central, incorporating but transcending regional diversity. An obvious example is the role of Buddhism as a form of thought. In Buddhist tradition, great importance is attached to freedom, and the part of the earlier Indian theorizing to which Buddhist thoughts relate has much room for volition and free choice. Nobility of conduct has to be achieved in freedom, and even the ideas of liberation (such as moksha) have this feature. The presence of these elements in Buddhist thought does not obliterate the importance for Asia of ordered discipline emphasized by Confucianism, but it would be a mistake to take Confucianism to be the only tradition in Asia -- even in China.
Indeed, the reading of Confucianism that is now standard among authoritarian champions of Asian values does less than justice to the variety within Confucius's own teachings, to which Simon Leys has recently drawn attention. Confucius did not recommend blind allegiance to the state. When Zilu asks him "how to serve a prince," Confucius replies, "Tell him the truth even if it offends him."
It is not my contention that Confucius was a democrat, or a great champion of freedom and political dissent, but there is reason enough to question the monolithic authoritarian image of him that is presented by the contemporary advocates of Asian values.
Ancient Indian Conceptionsof Tolerance
In many ways, the most interesting articulation [in ancient India] of the need for tolerance on an egalitarian basis can be found in the writings of Emperor Ashoka, who in the third century B.C.E. commanded a larger Indian empire than any other Indian king in history. He turned his attention in a big way to public ethics and enlightened politics after being horrified by the carnage he saw in his own victorious battle against the king of Kalinga (now Orissa [on the east coast of India]).
For example, Ashoka's edict at Erragudi puts the issue thus: "For he who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own, with intent to enhance the splendor of his own sect, in reality by such conduct inflicts the severest injury on his own sect." Ashoka's edicts emphasize the importance of tolerance, both in public policy by the government and in the behavior of citizens to each other.
As was argued earlier, the championing of democracy and political freedom in the modern sense cannot be found in the pre-Enlightenment tradition in any part of the world -- the West or the East -- so we have to look at the constituent components of this compound idea. The view that the basic ideas underlying freedom and rights in a tolerant society are "Western" notions, and somehow alien to Asia, is hard to make any sense of, even though that view has been championed by both Asian authoritarians and Western chauvinists.
Intervention Across International Borders
I want to turn now to a rather different issue, which is sometimes linked to the debate about the nature and reach of Asian values. The championing of Asian values is often associated with the need to resist Western hegemony. The linking of the two issues, which has occurred increasingly in recent years, uses the political force of anti-colonialism to buttress the assault on basic political and civil rights in postcolonial Asia.
The people whose political and other rights are involved in this debate are not citizens of the West, but of Asian countries. The fact that individual liberty and freedom may have been championed in Western writings and even by some Western political leaders can scarcely compromise the claim to liberty and freedom that people in Asia may otherwise have. As a matter of fact, one can grumble, with reason, that the political leaders of Western countries take far too little interest in issues of freedom in the rest of the world.
There is plenty of evidence that the Western governments have, by and large, tended to give priority to the interests of their own citizens engaged in commerce with the Asian countries and to the pressures generated by business groups to be on good terms with the ruling governments in Asia. It is not so much that there has been more bark than bite. There has in fact been very little barking, either.
But even if this had not been the case, and even if Western governments really had tried to promote political and civil rights in Asia, how could that possibly compromise the status of the rights of Asians? In this context, the idea of "human rights" has to be properly spelled out. In the most general form, the notion of human rights builds on our shared humanity. These rights are not derived from the citizenship of any country, or the membership of any nation, but taken as entitlements of every human being.
They differ, thus, from constitutionally created rights guaranteed for specified people (such as, say, American or French citizens). For example, the human right of a person not to be tortured is independent of the country of which this person is a citizen. A government can, of course, dispute a person's legal right not to be tortured, but that will not amount to disputing what must be seen as the person's human right not to be tortured.
Since the conception of human rights transcends local legislation and the citizenship of the person affected, it is not surprising that support for human rights can also come from anyone -- whether or not she is a citizen of the same country as the person whose rights are threatened.
A foreigner does not need the permission of a repressive government to try to help a person whose liberties are being violated. The moral and political examination that is central to determining how one should act applies across national boundaries and not merely within each realm.