Asians challenge Western ideals: Eastern nations insist economic development should come before human rights such as freedom of speech

ASIAN countries will be in the forefront of opposition to the West at this week's human rights summit in Vienna. They are not simply rejecting outside criticism of the way they treat their own people, but leading the Third World in challenging the entire Western concept of human rights.

The Asian stand was spelt out after a preparatory conference in Bangkok two months ago, when a 30-point declaration stressed non-interference in countries' internal affairs, and gave economic development equal status with individual rights, such as freedom of speech. In another clause, which some critics regard as undermining the whole concept of universal human rights, the declaration said rights should be seen in the context of a nation's history and culture. Amnesty International called the document a step backwards, saying it would put Asia behind Africa and Latin America on human rights.

Although there is much disagreement among Asian countries on many aspects of human rights, nearly all appear to share the view that the West is often overweening in its attempts to promote its views. Even Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister of Malaysia, which is rarely criticised, said last week that his country was familiar with the double standards practised by the West.

It was more important, he went on, first to ensure the satisfaction of development needs before moving to define human rights. 'When people are dying and starving, they can't exercise human rights anyway, so priority must be set on which one comes first,' he said. Mr Mahathir was consciously echoing China, which stated in a 1991 'white paper' that food, clothing and shelter for its people came first, 'without which other rights are out of the question'. Indonesia and Singapore are among other countries which appear to put development not just on a par with individual rights, but ahead of them.

The Asian challenge reflects the growth in self-confidence that comes from rising prosperity. Western attempts to link aid to observance of human rights are seen as a cynical tactic to limit competitiveness. In any case, with the fastest-growing economies in the world, East Asian governments are becoming immune to such pressure. 'You wouldn't have the Africans taking the lead in rejecting aid conditionality - they are in no position to do so,' said Sidney Jones, director of the US-based rights group Asia Watch. 'But they may fall in behind the Asians.'

Beyond rejecting Western norms, some Asian countries are evolving an alternative philosophy, based on the theory of 'group rights'. The extended family is more important in Asian society than the individual, some argue. The concept of 'face', Confucian values of subservience to authority and respect for elders, and the Asian instinct to seek consensus are all cited in support of the claim that the duties the individual owes to society are as important as those owed in the other direction.

Western nations' insistence on individualism at all costs is blamed for their problems of crime, addiction and family breakdown, while greater social cohesion is said to explain Asian countries' economic success. China has found support for its claim that political stability, rather than political freedom, is a right.

Western observers concede that there are differences, but claim that these are often exaggerated for ulterior purposes. 'It is the less democratic governments which tend to talk most about group rights,' said Ms Jones. 'Those governments in Asia which have moved towards democracy, such as South Korea, place much more emphasis on concepts like the rule of law. Development in itself increases the desire for individual rights, if only to protect private property and other economic gains.'

The result in many prosperous Asian countries has been the rise of vocal human rights groups, undeterred by government attempts to dismiss them as middle-class, unrepresentative and over-Westernised.

But the position of Japan - unquestionably democratic, Asia's leading economy and the world's largest aid donor - shows how hard it is to straddle East and West. In Bangkok, Tokyo asserted its right to question other countries' human rights records, and to take their performance into account when allocating aid, but in practice it rarely does either. Like most Asian countries, Japan is extremely reluctant to criticise its neighbours in public. It signed the declaration, despite its reservations.

Last week a private group of prominent Japanese businessmen, academics and former officials attacked the 'excessive human rights diplomacy' being practised by the United States in certain Asian countries. Japan also wanted to see improvement in human rights in Asia, said the chairman, Kenichi Ito, but felt that economic development should come first, to avoid the chaos experienced in Eastern Europe.

(Photograph omitted)