ASEAN Discourse: The Rhetoric of Human Rights and Asian Values

Sutherland, Claire (2006) ASEAN Discourse: The Rhetoric of Human Rights and Asian Values. Borderlands, 5 (2). ISSN 1447-0810

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In politics, each opposing party or political force tries to win general acceptance for its own discourse type [...] The stake is more than 'mere words'; it is controlling the contours of the political world (Fairclough 1989, 90).

1. The rousing rhetoric of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in the early 1990s did much to fuel a debate on the specificity of so-called 'Asian values' and their contribution to regional development. In a provocative conference speech on 'Rethinking Human Rights' delivered in Kuala Lumpur in 1994, Mahathir queried; "What, we are asked, are Asian values? The question is rhetorical because the implication is that Asians cannot possibly understand human rights, much less set up their own values" (Makaruddin 2000, 207). The present article sets out to explore the accuracy of this statement relative to the Association of South-East Asian Nations' (ASEAN) current position on human rights. It asks how ASEAN understands human rights, and whether it has made moves towards 'setting up its own values'. Since 1996, ASEAN has been collaborating with an informal coalition of working groups aiming to establish a human rights mechanism in the region. Efforts in this direction have been influenced by debates surrounding the difference, if any, between a specifically South-East Asian reading of human rights and the concept of universal human rights.

2. The article places ASEAN's human rights discourse in a post-structuralist theoretical framework and discusses the context in which it evolves, before going on to look at a specific case of ASEAN rhetoric, which is in stark contrast to Mahathir's approach. The focus will be on discourse and ideology, as embedded within discourse theory and expressed through the rhetoric of ASEAN elites. Itself a notoriously vague term, the concept of discourse has been not only clarified, but also reconciled with ideology by Laclau and Mouffe (2001). It will serve to analyse the relationship between Asian values, ASEAN and human rights. Do South-East Asian understandings of human rights merely express a general distrust of Western government discourse, or is an alternative reading being developed to that of 'the West'? The article concludes that ASEAN has yet to develop a hegemonic human rights discourse, and that the Asian values approach is only one of several routes being taken towards establishing a 'common sense' understanding of human rights in the region. Mahathir's pronouncements only coincide to a limited extent with the subtle and varied discourse influencing ASEAN, and his flamboyant style as a self-appointed spokesman for Asian values does not reflect the attitudes expressed in some quieter, lesser-known rhetoric.

Item Type: Article
Subjects: L200 Politics
L700 Human and Social Geography
Department: Faculties > Arts, Design and Social Sciences > Social Sciences
Depositing User: Becky Skoyles
Date Deposited: 21 Mar 2019 13:10
Last Modified: 10 Oct 2019 21:32

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