Yash Ghai


The history of human rights is ancient but its contemporary salience can be traced to the establishment of the United Nations and the proclamation by its General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, the UN and related agencies have concluded a number of Conventions to implement the provisions of the Universal Declaration by elaborating detailed formulations of specific rights and establishing some machinery for their supervision. The basis of political authority in Asia is rooted in concepts and practices different from those in the West. Another plank in their argument is that most of the rights which the West is purveying are "western" in origin, oriented towards an individualistic society and therefore inappropriate to Asia where the values of communal action are highly prized. The author asks, if there is no substantial basis in community, culture or religion for economic and social rights, then why do Asian governments place such rhetorical emphasis on them? They sometimes say that civil and political rights are meaningless if the people are poor and illiterate. There is of course considerable truth in this, but there is reason to be sceptical about the sincerity of the governments for they have done little to establish economic rights or promote civil rights in countries which have achieved great economic success. The more plausible reason is that the talk of economic and social rights is diversionary, an attack on civil and political rights. Governments are anxious to minimise challenges to their authority or legitimacy, which means (as it seems to them) the suppression or emasculation of political opposition. The globalisation of the debate on rights and the position of Asian governments therein raises several issues, three of which will be taken up here. These are the question of conditionalities; the relationship between civil and political rights on the one hand and economic and social on the other; and the connection between democracy and economic development.


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