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Asian and African values: The problem of human rights

4th February 2013

By: In On Africa IOA


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Do ‘African values’ exist, and can they, at least in part, be attributable to Africa’s poor human rights record? Our understanding of human rights has, for the most part, taken shape as part of a larger debate between the Western claims to universality and cultural relativism. This debate fundamentally questions our knowledge of human rights and how such an understanding came to be. More specifically, in the context of this paper however, it describes ‘what it is we know to be true’ about human rights. As such, this discussion paper explores the persistence of human rights violations across Africa through a comparative perspective that is rooted in contextual distinctions and cultural relativism. The paper also examines the merits of the ‘liberty trade-off’ or ‘Asian values’ argument as it applies and relates to the central causes of widespread human rights infractions in African countries.

Universalism versus cultural relativism


Many regard the contemporary conception of international human rights, and further, the universality of such rights, as a modern Western-secular concept rooted in Judeo-Christian values.(2) Institutionalised human rights at the international level first emerged in recognition of, and response to, historical social injustices against a backdrop of moral humanism.  As such, human rights are empirically based and process-oriented.  That is, human rights are considered evolutionary and develop out of history, experience and agency.(3) Additionally, arguments for universal rights contend such rights as being beyond legal state-control, and not contingent upon cultural influences such as religion, customs, philosophy or ethnicity.(4) That is, human rights are natural and inalienable.(5) They have always existed, though simply lacked sufficient institutional recognition, and further, institutional protection.

Cultural relativism, on the other hand, rejects the claim that absolute standards exist and that human rights are universally applicable.(6) In this sense, there is nothing inherently natural about human rights, and therefore the claim that human rights are applicable to all humans across time and space is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, human rights are constructed through social processes. Thus, as human rights are socially and historically contingent, culture does matter.(7) Secondly, there is no one right way, or single approach to develop human rights or determine their importance.  As such, cultural relativists disagree with the predominant euro-centric notion that insists that the modern Western conception is the only accurate truth, or the only right way. Much like the export of Western-style liberal democracy, modern Western conceptions of human rights fail to adequately consider cultural uniqueness. That is, the important role culture plays in shaping what it is we know to be true – especially in view of human rights.


Asian Values

The ‘Asian values’ argument is largely an expression of cultural relativism. The Bangkok Declaration adopted by Asian governments in April 1993 stakes out a distinctively Asian point of view on issues of human rights.(8) It reaffirms the notion of universal human rights and their importance, but also insists that, “they are interpreted in the context of historical, cultural, and regional peculiarities.”(9)  In this sense, the Asian argument offers a criticism of universalism and propagates a separation between Asian values and traditions and the Western conception of human rights.  Therefore, culture, particularly Asian culture, is important when assessing human rights. Furthermore, Michael Freeman notes, “there was no explicit concept of human rights in East Asian culture before the conception of Western political ideas at the end of the nineteenth century.”(10) However, some scholars disagree and contend that the protection of human rights is in itself an integral part of Asian societal traditions.(11) However, what are Asian values and how did they emerge?

The notion of Asian values is a modern invention.(12) According to some scholars, the idea has its philosophical and ideological underpinnings in Confucianism.(13) This view insists on a fundamental incompatibility between the social organisation of the West and Asian states. That is, there is an assumption among many Asian states that a liberal ‘individualistic West’ threatens a ‘communitarian Asia’ which is prefaced upon respect for authority and collective well-being.(14) As such, the various dimensions of the Asian values argument include principles of consensus-building, sovereignty and non-interference. Furthermore, it emphasises social stability and economic prosperity, which leads to social and economic rights assuming primacy over political and civil rights.(15) Protecting traditional Asian culture (read policies for economic development from the rampant individualism and social decay found in the West) provides governments the necessary grounds for limiting political pluralism and promoting a strong central, or authoritarian, system.

However, this idea of Asian values has not been without criticism. Firstly, the idea invokes a persistent conceptual ambiguity. Not only is it not well-defined, it is difficult to understand and study. Secondly, these values are often viewed as an attempt to consolidate common values as a means of expressing the uniqueness of some over-arching Asian culture. Simon Tay offers, “the problem with talking about an Asian culture is that the discourse tends to generalisations and stereotypes of what is Asian.”(16) In reality, Asian cultures are distinct and differ greatly. As such, Asian culture, and thus, values are constructed through processes of socialisation, much like conceptions of human rights. William De Bary explains, “In historical fact, while the diverse cultures of Asia are each to some degree multicultural (that is, the products of long cultural interactions), there was, until modern times, no consciousness among them of a shared Asian identity.”(17) The development of a wholly Asian identity seemingly allows for Asian governments to claim that certain actions, non-actions, and certain practices are justified as protecting or promoting Asian values. Michael Freeman emphasised this when he noted that traditions could also be manipulated to serve political purposes.(18) For example, hard authoritarian regimes, limited civil and political rights, and other human rights violations could all exist or occur in the interest of Asian communitarianism and values.

The Singapore example

The history of human rights in Singapore represents an exceptionally unique case. It neither fully subscribes to the notion of universal human rights, nor does it necessarily accept the traditional Asian values argument, or the Asian way of understanding human rights. Rather, it has adopted an independent approach – the Singapore way, or the ‘Singapore example’ as outlined by Simon Tay.(19)  Tay elaborates with the following:

Singapore disturbs many who believe in the universal application of humanrights and democracy. The small island-nation is economically rich. It is largelyopen to foreign influence through trade, media, and visitors. Many in the West havetheorized that wealth and openness would be sufficient for liberal democracy, andthat this in turn would be best for the promotion of human rights. Yet Singaporeseems intent on going its own way.(20)

Culture in Singapore cannot be easily described. For one, there are clear Asian influences (as were described above as Asian values) given the location and history of Singapore, leading observers to apply the ideas of an Asian culture to Singapore's political development.(21) However, given the diversity of Singapore, the difficulty is in establishing or constructing a distinct and coherent Asian identity in which one could foster a sense of nationhood, and thus precipitate a national identity. Tay argues that this point is especially important, as “Singapore has no mythic, pre-colonial civilization on which to base a unique Asian identity.”(22) As a result, much of the Singaporean culture has been largely influenced and shaped by government policies and People’s Action Party (PAP) ideologies. Meaning, multiracialism and meritocracy remain central aspects of a very distinct, yet complex culture. Further, it is interesting to note, that those characteristics that have been institutionalised as national values of Singapore, largely resemble those which have long been described as Asian values. These include the placing of nation before community and society over self; the upholding of family as the basic unit of society; the regard and community support for the individual; the act of resolving issues through consensus instead of contention; and finally racial and religious tolerance and harmony.(23) Some have argued that the “deliberate construction of Asian values demonstrates that Asian culture is not a natural thing that pre-exists and determines human rights.”(24) As a result, Singapore exhibits a unique mix of traditional (albeit constructed) Asian values that seemingly direct policy through a Western-based political process with Western-styled institutions.

It is clear that Singapore’s approach to human rights is largely rooted in a distinct set of contrived Asian values rooted in logic and rationality. Furthermore, the Singaporean conception of Asian values has become identified with authoritarian rule. In its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on human rights, the Singapore Government stated that as a young city-state with a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-lingual population, it had no margin for error. “We insist on the rule of law to ensure stability, equality and social justice. Stability and security are the prerequisites of economic growth.”(25) Thus, the approach owes to the ‘liberty trade-off' or ‘Lee Kuan Yew hypothesis’ of rights and development, which holds that human rights must be traded-off for economic prosperity.(26) More specifically, the view holds that economic development has come at the expense of primarily civil and political rights in Singapore.  To this extent though, the majority of citizens are both literate and well-enough educated to willingly accept this trade-off and sacrifice true political pluralism in favour of government efficiency and economic prosperity.(27)

African values?

There is no doubt that the nations of Africa maintain unique traditions and exhibit distinct cultures that have grown and developed out of centuries of historical experience. However, culture in Africa has not been leveraged politically in the same way as it has in parts of Asia. As such, cultural relativism plays much less of a role in understanding, or rather, explaining the limitations on human rights witnessed throughout Africa. Much like other regional organisations, the African Union (AU) has, since its inception, sought to organise African politics, promote solidarity, increase development, and protect human rights. In contrast to the governments and regional organisations in Asia,(28) the AU has failed to institutionalise fundamental values shared by the people of Africa. As such, there exists much less merit in the notion of a distinct set of ‘African values’ dictating the principles of governance.  As such, human rights abuses throughout Africa have not and cannot be entirely attributable to politicised cultural differences. Accordingly, “there may be African notions of human dignity, but since Africans are in the process of joining the modern (Western) world these notions are not appropriate and should be discarded.”(29) In fact, it is Africa’s troubled history with colonialism that has instilled racist ideals within the social fabric, and ultimately disrupted and impeded the developmental progress of the traditionally communal African society. To be clear, “the problem of human rights abuses [in Africa] … may be in the dysfunction that plagues the imposition of western liberalism over communal African lifestyle.”(30)

Concluding remarks

There exists a clear disconnect between Western standards of human rights, and the traditional social norms of African societies. However, such a gap has yet to manifest into a legitimate African values argument in the same way as the Asian values argument. Thus, misdirected policy measures that have failed to successfully account for the construction, promotion, or even protection of African values has led to a crisis of identity in which human rights violations are the consequence.

Further, the post-colonial experience of many African societies has been less-than favourable to the adherence of international human rights standards. Africa’s devastating colonial legacy has rendered much of the continent prone to racism, factionalism, and conflict. As a result, the marginalisation of entire populations is often perpetuated by illegitimate regimes under the pretext of national security.(31) Therefore, while culture does have an impact on the human rights record in both Asia and Africa, there is a clear distinction between the justifications offered for such widespread limitations. Much of the emphasis in Asia surrounds the construction of a pan-Asian identity coherent with a set of Asian values that promotes the significance of the liberty trade-off. For Africa however, there has been much less success in identity formation, and thus, articulating a unique culturally-embedded set of African values in order to be used in a political context. Rather, the effects of post-colonialism, poverty, poor economic performance, racism, and factionalism have all contributed to the national security claims that attempt to legitimise human rights violations in Africa and allow them to persist.

Written by Kyle Brown (1)


(1) Contact Kyle Brown through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Asia Dimension Unit ( This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Megan Erasmus and was edited by Nicky Berg.
(2) Zakaria, F., 1986. Human rights in the Arab World: The Islamic context. Philosophical foundation of human rights. UNESCO: Paris.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Pollis, A., 2000. “A New Universalism”, in Pollis, A. and Schwab, P. (eds.). Human rights: New perspectives, new realities. Lynne Rienner Publishers: London.
(5) Cassese, A., 1999. “Are Human Rights Truly Universal?”, in Baudrillard, J., et al. (eds). The Politics of Human Rights. Verso: London.
(6) Renteln, A.D., 1990. International human rights: Universalism versus relativism. Sage: London.
(7) Pollis, A., 2000. “A New Universalism”, in Pollis, A. and Schwab, P. (eds.). Human rights: New perspectives, new realities. Lynne Rienner Publishers: London.
(8) Chan, J., 1995. “The Asian challenge to universal human rights: A philosophical appraisal”, in Tang, J.T., (ed). Human rights and international relations in the Asia-Pacific Region. Pinter: London.
(9) Freeman, M., 1995. “Human rights: Asia and the West”, in Tang, J.T. (ed). Human rights and international relations in the Asia-Pacific Region. Pinter: London.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Donnelly, J., 1999. “Human rights and Asian values: A defence of ‘Western’ universalism”, in Bauer, J.R. and Bell, D.A. (eds.). The East Asian challenge for human rights. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
(12) De Bary, W.T., 1998. Asian values and human rights: A Confucian communitarian perspective. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Freeman, M., 1995. “Human rights: Asia and the West”, in Tang, J.T. (ed). Human rights and international relations in the Asia-Pacific Region. Pinter: London.
(16) Tay, S., 1996. Human rights, culture, and the Singapore example. McGill Law Journal, 41(4), pp. 743-780.
(17) De Bary, W.T., 1998. Asian values and human rights: A Confucian communitarian perspective. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.
(18) Freeman, M., 1995. “Human rights: Asia and the West”, in Tang, J.T. (ed). Human rights and international relations in the Asia-Pacific Region. Pinter: London.
(19) Tay, S., 1996. Human rights, culture, and the Singapore example. McGill Law Journal, 41(4), pp. 743-780. 
(20) Ibid.
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid.
(25) ‘National report submitted in accordance with paragraph 15 (a) of the annex to Human Rights Council resolution 5/1 – Singapore’, Human Rights Council report A/HRC/WG.6/11/SGP/1, 2 February 2011,
(26) Tay, S., 1996. Human rights, culture, and the Singapore example. McGill Law Journal, 41(4), pp. 743-780.
(27) Ibid.
(28) Most notably the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
(29) Cobbah, J., 1987. African values and the human rights debate: An African perspective. Human Rights Quarterly, 9(3), pp. 309-331.
(30) Ibid.
(31) Magnarella, P., ‘Achieving human rights in Africa: The challenge for the new millennium’, Africa Studies Quarterly,


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