Chuan Leekpai, the Thai Prime Minister, told the United Nations-sponsored conference of 49 Asia-Pacific countries, including such targets of human rights campaigners as Iraq, Syria, China and Burma, that changes in practices 'must emerge primarily from within'. Human rights should 'evolve at their own pace if they are to be peaceful and sustainable'. His words were seen as a criticism of Western attempts to impose human rights conditions on aid and trade relations.
The five-day gathering in Bangkok will seek to draft a common regional position for a world conference on human rights in Vienna in June, billed as the human rights equivalent of last year's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The goal is the most fundamental reassessment of the UN Declaration on Human Rights since it was adopted in 1948. The outcome of the Asia-Pacific meeting is seen as particularly significant, as the countries of east Asia have gone furthest in evolving an alternative definition of human rights to the one espoused by the West.
Confucian values of subservience to authority and respect for elders and the family are often cited to propound a theory which emphasises 'group rights' rather than those of the individual. It is also argued that basic human requirements such as food, clothing and shelter come before political rights. One of the tasks in Vienna will be to examine the link between development and 'the enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights'.
East Asia, where economic growth has outpaced political development, is becoming more assertive in challenging the Western contention that human rights and wealth go together. The gulf is especially wide in China, whose coastal provinces enjoy the world's highest growth rate as political rights are suppressed. Peking, however, has found considerable regional support for its argument that political and economic stability count as much as any legalistic insistence on individual freedoms.
The countries meeting in Bangkok are conspicuously reluctant to criticise each others' human rights records. Amnesty International said yesterday that the UN had failed to address human rights violations because its member nations refused to give it the ability to do so. Noting that less than 1 per cent of the UN budget went to human rights programmes, Amnesty said: 'There is a clear lack of political will on the part of member states of the UN to confer on its human rights mechanisms the necessary status, authority and capacity for action.'