Human Rights: A Counter Narrative of the Eastern Thought - Sooraj Kashyap

Human Rights: A Counter Narrative of the Eastern Thought - Sooraj Kashyap

In 1990, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) created a metric to gauge human development. The index has forty indicators made by Charlie Humana, based on which the Human Development Report is released every year since 1991. But, the report has been criticized by many scholars and policymakers as incredibly biased towards the Western idea of human rights. The attack on this index is not entirely misplaced though since the Eastern countries have not fared well in this index year-on-year.

This begs the question why is it so? The answer to it is within the forty indicators itself. Humana’s indicators are based on the human rights doctrines of the Western countries, which is bound to misinterpret the actual human rights scenario in the Eastern countries. Thus, it opens up a wider discussion on what, why and how is the Eastern perspective different from the Western perspective when it comes to human rights.

Before diving into the specifics of the difference between the concept of human rights in the East and West, it has to be noted that it is not a comparison to decide which one is a better outlook. In fact, no other academician or policymaker would say so.

The Eastern countries certainly enjoy a sense of human rights and the freedom associated with them. But, they believe that law and order are of paramount interest to them. A sense of sustained law and order can sometimes mean an infringement on the private liberty of people which is admissible. This, under the Western narrative, can be viewed as authoritarianism or soft authoritarianism due to the heavy-handed involvement of the government in curbing the freedom of the people to ensure law and order. For example, Russia’s decision to introduce an Act which gives the government powers to monitor social media and call activities of its citizens under the pretext of curbing terrorism has seen a lot of praise within the country. But, the Western countries and the media see it as a gross infringement of the privacy of the people in Russia.

The Western narrative relies heavily on the principles of freedom of the press as well as political and civil rights. People give their individuality paramount importance and show their dissatisfaction with the government in a public way or in the polling booths. Due to the significance of individuality, people have a lower threshold towards governments that exercise any kind of infringement on private liberty, even under the pretext of ensuring security to the people.  Similarly, the American media and people were agitated with the kind of security and surveillance measures, the Bush government took after the 9/11 attacks as unconstitutional and this played an important part in his defeat in the re-elections.

Human rights in the East have taken a backburner due to the prevalence of a heterogeneous society. Thus, throughout history, different cultures living together has resulted in valuing community-based freedom. This stems from the prevalence of different belief systems, cultures and languages existing in the same society. The sense of living in a community comes from the idea of a family. Eastern cultures hold the institution of marriage and family very high and the significance of fulfilling the duties towards family is an integral part of the person’s identity. 

The West has always had a homogenous society, which meant that the societies developed in the same way throughout history. To make things clearer, the Western countries, especially Europe went through the Renaissance which resulted in the bifurcation in politics and the church. They also witnessed the Industrial Revolution and catastrophic wars. Thus, their progress through time has been the same. In fact, the heavy influence of the Renaissance can be seen in how the Western perspective views the freedom of religion under human rights, which is starkly different from the Eastern perspective.

In the contemporary world, the West sees the importance of adhering to human rights as a rubric to establish inter-state relations. This has been criticized heavily in the present times, as it has an imperial bias. The West believes that human rights are a legitimate prerequisite to have inter-state relations. This is one of the reasons why the Western countries have gone forward with humanitarian interventions in places of conflict or unrest, further complicating the situation in the process.

In 1989, the USA and Europe were important trading partners to China, but after the Tiananmen Square protests and the subsequent suppression, these countries levied heavy sanctions on China due to their human rights violations. This was unacceptable to China on two grounds; one being that the government had to take these measures to stop the escalation of the protests into a violent one; secondly, the domestic matters of China should be left to the government to be handled.    

China desperately needed countries to trade with, thus, it looked towards its neighbors in the region such as Japan and South Korea. These countries keeping economic benefits in mind created a good trade relationship with China. This was possible even though the three countries are vastly different in terms of political systems. This incident is a perfect example showcasing how Eastern countries do not perceive human rights to be a prerequisite in order to establish inter-state relations.

Bilahari Kausikan, the Director of the East Asian and Pacific Bureau, in his work stated, “Involvement of the human rights by the West in inter-state relations is a way to exercise influence or maintain the illusion of involvement.” This beautifully encapsulates how the West has been trying to strengthen its roots in places, where it can not exercise military presence, through the Western idea of human rights in order to maintain the status quo. But, this is being heavily challenged by the emergence of the East, which has brought in an alternative narrative thereby establishing the fact that at least in the sphere of human rights, there is no singularity in approach.

(Sooraj Kashyap is a second year student of the MA International Studies Program batch of 2018-20 at the Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune)

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Indian Review of Global Affairs or of Symbiosis School of International Studies.