Re: Human Rights Research (fwd)

Cliff Sloane (cesloane@MAROON.TC.UMN.EDU)
Wed, 31 May 1995 23:26:16 -0500

This was a reply to an inquiry on SEASIA-L which I recently reposted
here. I found this reply particularly good, so I am sharing it with the LIST.


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 29 May 1995 21:52:03 -0600
From: J. Alan <jalan@MERLE.ACNS.NWU.EDU>
To: Multiple recipients of list SEASIA-L <>
Subject: Re: Human Rights Research


A number of thoughts come to mind regarding your
proposed research on western/asian -- individual/
group views of rights.

First, the units of analysis you have in mind
("Asia," "Asian," "the West," "Western," and so on)
are much too broad to yield much that is meaningful.
To examine questions of basic human rights from the
vantage point of these massive abstractions will
certainly situate you nicely in the debates (more
like posturing) going on among Suharto, Lee Kuan Yew,
Mahathir, Clinton, Christopher, and all the rest.
But I doubt you'll shed much light on what's really
happening on the ground.

Rather than starting with nation-states and a huge
east-west perspective, why not look at things more in
terms of vertical power within societies, and how these
debates and struggles are unfolding?

Put another way, what makes you so confident that Suharto
or Mahathir or LKY or Li Peng or any other dictator speaks
for the rest of their populations in advancing the "Asian"
view of things? Maybe they are in fact speaking on behalf
of powerful and privileged Asians, while everyone else
(except the brave, the foolish, and the desperate) must
remain relatively silent. As currently designed, your
research will not say much about these internal, vertical
struggles (which are at the heart of what is "Asian" or

Second, your project strikes me as overly static on the
question of culture (as if there really is a western or
asian view of things that is meaningful across all groups
and classes and countries). If you were to think of
culture as far more contentious and conflicted (that is,
having a great deal to do with power), you would probably
design your project a bit differently.

There are plenty of people in Asia who think the individual
is the basic starting point for interpreting one's rights
and position in society. Likewise, there are plenty of
people in North America and Europe who hold that the group
take precedence over the individual. These people are
no more "Asian" than individual-oriented people in Asian
countries are "Western." For the scholar, this sort of
labelling is circular and begs most of the most interesting
questions. For powerful and threatened people (like those
across Asia who attack human rights as cultural imperialism),
it is politically useful to brand those from within their
societies as "westernized" when they try to challenge the
power of the privileged few (who are, as they readily explain,
amassing their personal power and wealth for the good of the
group). [Aside: On your "get development now / get democracy later"
point, it is fair to ask how much richer the Singaporeans have to
get before they start to enjoy some freedoms?]

By casting these *indigenous* struggles in terms of
east/west or asian/european, your project plays into the
hands of those opposed to human rights wherever they may be
(and there are quite a lot of them in the "individual" West).

In short, I recommend strongly that you take a fresh look
at what it is, exactly, you are doing this research for.
If you want to sell lots of books and make dictators like
Lee Kuan Yew, Suharto, Li Peng, and Mahathir real happy,
go ahead and do the Asia/West thing. If you want to
make a real contribution with your scholarship, I think
you're going to have to rethink your project design.