From Asian values to Asian narratives?
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From Asian values to Asian narratives?

About 500 women activists from the State Enterprise Labour Relations Confederation gather in front of the United Nations building demanding better rights for women workers on International Women's Day.
About 500 women activists from the State Enterprise Labour Relations Confederation gather in front of the United Nations building demanding better rights for women workers on International Women's Day.

A debate is emerging over whether Asia should claim its own "narratives". The humble onlooker might well ask whether this is another version, a cliché, of the "Asian values" of the 1990s.

This was where some self-confident Asian nations sought to propagate various values, such as the need for a strong state based on economic rights (rather than political rights, such as freedom of expression), the primacy of collectivity over individuality and the predominance of family over non-conforming members. Innately, the aim was to insist on an Asian way that was different from the supposed ways of other regions, and this assertion also justified a critique of the global system based on universal values.

In the 1990s, this scenario led to an acute query concerning the legitimacy of the multilateral system grounded on international peace and security, human rights and sustainable development, especially the values espoused by the United Nations (UN). Behind all that was the challenge of democracy and whether there was/is more than one version of that precept. However, the debate lost its momentum with the economic crash at the end of the decade. The rather aggressive tone of exponents of these "Asian values" became muted with the advent of the new millennium as Asian Tigers became Siamese Pussycats (well, maybe)!

Before jumping into the new debate on "narratives", history hints that some of the grievances from this region might be well-founded, while others are part and parcel of political self-justification. Depending on which exponent and which phase of history, this can be paradoxically both revitalising and debilitating.

In the 19th century, for instance, there was the rise of international conferences and treaties, such as the Hague Peace Conference, resulting in the Hague Conventions of 1899; they established the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague (which this year celebrates its 125th birthday), and various laws and customs of war, particularly on humane treatment of fallen soldiers, protection of civilians and prohibition of various weapons (such as expanding bullets).

Those rules are, of course, important, but as most Asian countries did not exist and were under the yoke of colonisation, there was little participation, except by China, Japan, Siam (later Thailand), Iran and Turkey as the only Asian states at the time.

The half-century that ensued added another dimension that must have affected sensibilities in the Asian region. The powers of the day sought to make Asian countries more "civilised", waging wars and establishing control in that wake. One big country in this region was regarded as "semi-civilised" by colonial pressures hemming in on the left and right. Even after the rise of the League of Nations, born after WWI, and then the UN after WWII, the condescending tone remains to some extent. For instance, in the statutes of the current International Court of Justice, one of the sources of international law are the general principles of "civilised nations".

By contrast, what came with decolonisation is also instructive. While the ills of colonisation must be rejected, newer violations have also arisen, irrespective of the colonial (or non-colonial) past. Some groups have accumulated power as elites, holding the reins of power by command and control ("the fiat factor") with their fiefdom. This repression, oppression and suppression of post-colonisation times are also objectionable, especially when coupled with the shrinking civic and political spaces witnessed in the Asian region today.

From another angle, the unbalanced development faced by parts of Asia, in the interface between developing and developed countries, invites an openness to lessons learned from this region, impelling the global community to look more broadmindedly at what Asia has to offer.

There are many great principles and practices emanating from this region, predominantly drawn from the experiences of the land. Prominently, the idea of non-violence espoused par excellence by Gandhi has a feature – Ahimsa ("do no harm") -- proudly from Asia affixed to it. The comforting notion of spiritual care and kindness is also not necessarily religious but based on empathy, with many pro bono activities, such as legal aid and assistance offered by civil society.

Some of the most lauded human rights defenders are women from the Asian region. In today's world of climate change, indigenous peoples exemplify natural guardians of the forests with wisdom not only for this generation but also for generations to come.

All these elements represent values and narratives that do not necessarily have to be uttered but are felt as exemplars that can be multiplied quietly and peacefully. They can help raise minimum international standards, such as human rights and the laws and customs of war (alias international humanitarian law), representing universal values rather than lower them.

If there is a shift from values to narratives, people's voices and choices must be heard more acutely in a plural and inclusive setting that is not state-centric but grounded in peopled-based democracy. Free and fair elections, based on a multi-party system, respectful of various stakeholders, are a must, with placement for majority rule but not neglecting minority rights. The story-telling which is at the heart of such narratives is the gateway for not only those who rule but also those on the margins, steeped in self-identity and self-esteem, respectful of the art of dissidence.

The crux of the matter is this: who is making the argument, claiming values and narratives? Regrettably, in many parts of Asia today, the non-democrats or semi-democrats try to hijack the debate, offering their delusion of the Asian way, which, in their obfuscation, is a manner of self-preservation through monopolization. In truth, the most constructive argument is not to claim homogenisation through "Asian values" and its progeny, "Asian narratives". Instead, the preferred path is for heterogeneity embodying diversity and inclusivity -- to enable and not to inhibit. Hearteningly, therefore, it is auspicious to explore "values in Asia", and be enriched by the panoply of "narratives from the Asian Region".

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University. He is currently a UN Special Rapporteur under the UN Human Rights Council, Geneva. He is the author of "Challenges of International Law in the Asian Region".

Vitit Muntarbhorn

Chulalongkorn University Professor

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He has helped the UN in a number of pro bono positions, including as the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; and the first UN Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He chaired the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and was a member of the UN COI on Syria. He is currently UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, under the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (2021- ). He is the recipient of the 2004 UNESCO Human Rights Education Prize and was bestowed a Knighthood (KBE) in 2018. His latest book is “Challenges of International Law in the Asian Region”

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