The human rights conference in Olso organised by the North-South
Coalition, a Norwegian based NGO, on the theme of "Human Rights: Universal or Culture
Specific?" (Dec. 11, 1997) was indeed a success if only for the fact that the
participants, if they were representative of the peoples of the North, were more receptive
to the notion that human rights was about more than just political and civil liberties.
The conference opened with a key-note address delivered by Norway's Minister for Development and Human Rights, Hilde Frafjord Johnson, who spoke of the need to acknowledge that there were differences in culture and socio-economic conditions that needed to be taken into consideration, although they were not in themselves valid excuses for abuse.
She has even promised that as far as human rights were concerned, the Norwegian government would no longer place national interests above human rights issues, perhaps in reflection of the indirect economic support given by Norway to the then apartheid regime of South Africa.
Hilde Frafjord's key-note address was followed by Mandla Sleone's presentation (chairman of Freedom of Expression Institute, Johannesburg) which centred upon constitutionalism in South Africa with its newly liberated peoples being concerned mainly with the entrenchment of fundamental human rights, going through the motions of constitutional safeguards being contradictory to democratic rights and principles.
From his presentation, he made it clear that human rights were universal regardless of differences in culture. Yet he also acknowledged that it was still up to the people to decide how such rights were to be protected, such as through referendums or other similar means.
Next, came Corrine Kumar (Asian Women's Human Rights Council, India) who gave a most profound exposition of Eurocentricism (or Euro-American-centricism) in human rights issues of the world today. To her, it were as though there were no other perspectives that could clothe human rights other than that borne in the West or North.
She argued that much needs to be said of hegemonic world views which tended to peripheralise other world views. And as much as the North or West has learnt all that is bad of the South or East, it must not forget that there were many admirable things of the South that remains which the North has lost, and that both the North and South had much in common, that "there is the South in the North as well."
Next was my presentation. It went down well enough, except that there were members of Northern NGOs who were annoyed with my suggestion that there were those among them who almost invariably lend themselves to the powers that be, who were bent on pressing a human rights agenda that was so quixotic that it had little or nothing to do with justice and equity.
This was in light of the fact that Western powers have no qualms about being selective in their treatment of human rights. As in the words of Malaysia's alternate leader for the delegation to the 53rd Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Hishammuddin Hussein, "it is unreasonable to ostracize Burma on the one hand while codling Israel on the other." (F.E. Econ. Review, Oct. 9, 1997)
They were mostly annoyed with my statement that "for the freshest example of lopsided priorities, turn to Africa. In the Congo, Mr. Laurent Kabila, the rebel-turned- president, has been inundated not by generous offers of sorely needed reconstruction aid, but by hostile questions about his decision to wait until 1999 before holding elections. 'This crumbling and shattered state must be organised,' he has had to explain, 'so that the Congolese people can hold elections.' George Marshall would have understood and even supported with American dollar. Sadly, it is a lesson lost on many of today's avowed promoters of democracy."
Next came Tore Lindholm (Norwegian Institute of Human Rights, Oslo), who spoke of the various rights that have been articulated, in that they were not examples of Western arrogance since much of the International Human Rights Bill, which included the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, has been agreed upon, by and large, and on one occasion or another, by the various peoples of the world, Muslims included.
However, though he stressed upon the importance and relevance of such articulation of rights, he acknowledged they were not necessarily articulations of morals or ethical standards and values. Hence human rights were open to interpretations that were abusive and which tended to neglect other articulated rights.
Finally came Marie-Benedict Dembour (University of Essex, UK) who spoke of the need to understand that universalism of the sort that was the result of jingoism was nothing but arrogance, and that relativism was indifference. For her, there was a need for an unstable in-between position whereby one must give credence to differences in culture or circumstances whilst understanding that criticisms from outside of that culture or tradition were not necessarily invalid or inapplicable, or even attempts at cultural domination.
During question time, two of the most important matters raised were on the issues of Asian values and priority of rights. On the Asian values point, it was suggested that much of the Asian values debate tended to reflect an elitist views of "Asian values", since the masses, those who were powerless, do not have a say in what "Asian values" were, both in theorising them and in practice.
In reply, I quoted Noordin Sophie's "Asia and the West"(Asiaweek, Dec. 12, 1997) in that "We in Asia should concede that many of our Asian values are terrible, unprogressive, unproductive and a great obstacle. This is why we have spent much effort to eradicate and transform them. The struggle against Asian values cannot stop - or we will pay the price.
"We should also recognise that many values remaining in Asia were once also core Western values that the West did not continue to uphold, sustain and enrich. They are dead because of urbanisation, of industrialisation, of fracturing of the family - because of what many call 'progress.' We have a fight in our hands to sustain those good Asian values that Asians may shortly also lose."
On the issue of priority of rights, one among of the restive representatives of Northern based human rights organisations stood and explained that it was not they who did not want to consider the socio-economic plight of the people who were being oppressed by their authoritarian or totalitarian governments. In fact, they had listened to the voices from among those people who pleaded to them not to give economic or financial aid to their country. Hence they were not pawns or tools of neo-imperialism or Western hegemony.
To this, I replied that it was never my intention to make excuses for authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. In fact, I very much agree with Aung San Suu Kyi who wrote in "Yes to Global Ethic" (Hans Kung, ed. 1996) that "National governments must find new ways of enabling their people to participate more in governments and allow them much greater influence on the decisions that affect their lives. Unless this is done, and done in time, the irresistible tide of people's rising aspirations will inevitably clash with inflexible systems, leading to anarchy and chaos."
However, what I do not agree with is the generalisation made by Suu Kyi, that a "rapid democratic transition and a strengthening of the institutions of civil society are the only appropriate responses." This is a choice that the peoples of particular nations alone can make. It cannot be forced upon them from outside. The people of Myanmar may have made that choice but it cannot easily be assumed of others, like the people of Congo or Iraq, for example. Unfortunately, time was short and therefore I could not elaborate.
And it was only on the flight home to Malaysia that it dawned upon me how truly significant the theory of order and chaos, or Ying and Yang, was to the issue of priority of rights which had been raised. Although the masses may not have the sort of military might to defeat draconian regimes outright, they may opt to make themselves ungovernable, i.e. meeting attempts to impose order with chaos, from which, in time, the people's order will derive.
As such, the government that rules best is one that rules least. For, one of the greatest paradoxes of political history is that the government which attempts to rule most actually rules least. As with power, there comes a point at which, in trying to grab still more, a government loses its grasp too. The people can hurry the process along, both in terms of making it harder for the government to hold onto power and making it want to grab more, as rapidly as it can, by injecting the system with a hearty does of chaos. (Victor Milan, "Hearts of Chaos", 1996)
Thus the government's order which engenders the people's chaos will lead to the people creating their own order. However, for all the hardship that it entails, it must be up to the people and only the people to determine whether or not that is the course to be taken, not by foreign powers with vested interests or their stooges.
Ahmad Faiz bin Abdul Rahman
19 December 1997.
[Currently, he is a Researcher with the Institute of Islamic Understanding, Malaysia (IKIM) and a Pro-temp Committee Member of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).]