Human Rights Protection of Ethnic Minorities A cross-cultural perspective
September 29,2016 By:chinahumanrights.org
Human Rights Protection of Ethnic Minorities
A cross-cultural perspective
André van der Braak,
Professor of Buddhist Philosophy in Dialogue with other World Views
VU University, Amsterdam
Human rights in China are a highly contested topic. The People's Republic of China (PRC) authorities, their supporters, and other proponents claim that existing policies and enforcement measures are sufficient to guard against human rights abuses. According to some Western observer, however, the human rights situation in China, also with regard to the protection of ethnic minorities, leaves much to be desired.
How come there is such a wide discrepancy between some Western and Chinese views, when it comes to human rights? This paper wants to argue that it is, to some extent, due to philosophical hermeneutical issues. Undoubtedly, the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (hereafter UDHR) has been a major step forward in the protection of human rights of ethnic minorities all around the world. However, there is still much discussion about the universal applicability of the UDHR. Given their Western origins, is it truly the case that human rights are universal? In this paper, I want to investigate what steps can be taken in order to broaden the world wide appeal of the UDHR.
Supra-cultural and super-cultural
Joseph Prabhu distinguishes three approaches to the legitimization of worldwide consensus to the UDHR, which he describes as supra-cultural, super-cultural and inter-cultural. The supra-cultural model, as he describes it as exemplified in the natural rights tradition. The other option is to ground human rights in a secular universal value.
The supra-cultural model is hard to defend in light of cultural diversity. Whether one posits a divine essence (“God”) or a biological essence (“human nature”), its expression is always culturally mediated. And especially in the light of the diversity of many ethnic minorities in China, it is difficult to revert to a so-called “universal value” in a way that is acceptable to these many minorities.
In light of such challenges to the supra-cultural model, many take refuge in a super-cultural model.
However, Prabhu argues that in such a model, universality is confused with uniformity. The standards of the West, as being the most evolved culture, are used as universal standards that need to be emulated by less evolved, non-Western cultures. In order to meet this objection, one could argue that their discovery in the West does not make human rights less universal.
The super-cultural model, Prabhu argues, represents a form of cultural imperialism. It imposes a Western ethnocentric standard on the rest of the world in order to arrive at universality. It also suffers from epistemological blindness: it does not recognize that the dominant Western way of conceiving human rights represents only one way of looking at things, and that there are other, non-Western perspectives on human rights that need to be explored.
The intercultural model
Such an encounter is made possible by the third model, the intercultural model.
The challenges for such a cross-cultural hermeneutic of human rights are similar to the challenges for cross-cultural philosophy in general. In order for such a hermeneutic to be successful, epistemological and ontological boundaried need to be crossed.
The Chinese scholar Chenshan Tian, director of the Center for East-West Relations at Beijing Foreign Studies University, has explored such comparative hermeneutics. He speaks about the “cultural veil” separating China and the West. He argues that the Chinese notion of renquan 人权simply does not match the English notion of “human rights.” They do not correspond, are not synonymous, and cannot be translated into each other.
A Consensus Approach to Human Rights
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, in his essay “Conditions of an unforced consensus on human rights,” proposes making a distinction between the norms in the UDHR, the underlying world views and values that legitimate those norms, and the legal forms that put those norms into practice.
Taylor argues that we should distinguish between norms of conduct and their underlying justification. The same norms of conduct can be justified by different philosophical concepts. However, they could still agree on the same norms, regardless of their underlying philosophical justification.
Taylor offers a plea for “loosening the connection between a legal culture of human rights enforcement and the philosophical conceptions of human life that originally nourished it.” An unforced world consensus on human rights might initially agree on the norms, but disagree on the underlying philosophy of the person and society. Later, a process can follow of mutual learning, leading to a “fusion of horizons” in which the moral universe of the other can become less strange.
Human Rights and Confucianism
Joseph Chan, professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong, approaches human rights from a neo-Confucian perspective. It is often claimed that Confucianism is incompatible with human rights.
The Chinese philosopher Tongdong Bai has recently extended Chan’s artice in order to further discuss how human rights can be endorsed from a Confucianist point of view. While acknowledging that the basic ideas of Confucianism are not compatible with the interpretation of human rights that is adopted by contemporary liberal societies, he attempts to come to a different understanding of human rights according to Confucianism.
With regard to the human rights protection of ethnic minorities, the consensus approach seems especially important. Rather than relying on Western metaphysical notions of individuality, individualism and the inherent equality of all human beings, we need to find a way to find a Chinese philosophical justification for supporting the norms of the UDHR.
Although the label ‘human rights’ may originate from the West, human rights as an expression of humaneness have been part of the Confucian fabric of Chinese society for millennia already. Social institutions like the family and the community, as well as values such as reciprocity, resilience and self-help, have been supporting and protecting the human rights of many Chinese since time immemorial. However, participants in the international human rights discourse often fail to notice such a rich Chinese human rights culture. When looking for human rights in China, they seem only interested in legally enforceable rights within an individual/state paradigm, which determines human rights relations in the West.
Through intercultural conversation based on a cross-cultural hermeneutic, we can hope to move forward towards the universality which the UDHR proclaims, but whose actual achievement still lies in the future.