Human Rights vs Human Responsibilities

The one place you would not expect to find demand of “Human Rights” would be in a college, a Buddhist College I mean. One would think that 1) a Buddhist College would be extolling values above and beyond mere human rights and 2) students (monks in this case) would not really care much about human rights (HR). Afterall, Buddhism as a whole seem to point towards an attitude of non-attachment and non-self (no-self or not-self if you will!), it seem strange that they while working towards these ideals, would be so concerned with human rights. After all, without a self, who is to enjoy the rights or suffer their absence?

But this article is not about that. This article is about what I think Human Rights is and its place in an Asian society vs the role of Human Responsibilities.

Human Rights as yours truly once explained to someone refers to the basic rights that a human being has, should be given access to and not denied of. (According to a UN declaration, it also includes “Freedom” ). In a way, it defines the privileges and powers that we human beings have in relation to environment and people. Modern human rights as we know it include the right to “… … life, liberty and security of person. … …”, “… … freedom of thought, conscience and religion … …”, “… … freedom of opinion and expression … … ” etc etc. (In the good tradition of plagiarism, I’ve conveniently left out those clauses that I deem either uncommon to most people, or too common and accessible to us, or just because I didn’t want to quote the whole page here!)

Further, it is common belief that the western countries being the flag-bearer of human rights has the best human rights records! I say, au contraire! Apparently, there should be some correlation between establishment of human rights and its violation. But here there are two points to this. Presence of human rights violations does not necessarily lead to acknowledgement or formation of human rights; absence of such acknowledgement or formation does not imply absence of human rights violations. For one, it is because there are cases of human rights violation in western countries, that its citizens start advocating such rights! As mentioned above, we are not implying that there are no violations in Asian countries. There probably is, and should be prevented, but we should not assume that the west is all rosy and perfect examples of human rights.

The questions that then beget answering are 1) whether the lens through which we use to see Asian societies is relevant and 2) what is this Asian value system that seem counter intuitive to human rights ideals.

Just as it is difficult for us to understand others if we stand firmly in our views and not be empathetic
to others, if we use western values and try to judge Asian societies or use Asian values to judge western societies, we won’ help anyone; at best, we start picking at each other’s “faults”.  While human rights values are commonly agreeable, it is not the only value system that we all have.  To use that as the final benchmark against which everyone is measured is to be both myopic and over simplistic in our assumptions of human psyche and community values.  For example, each society and community may have their distinct religious, moral and cultural values.  As I note on the internet, there are numerous videos of pranks played on friends which to me seem outrightly awful but the producers of such videos seem to delight in the plight of friends, even if it results in public humiliation or physical harm.  Oddly enough, the “victims” in most cases seem to laugh it off and think it ok.  In Asian societies, such “bullying” behaviour is not absent, but is generally deemed as unfriendly.  On the flip side, westerners probably think of Asians being too uptight and not able to appreciate the humour.  Whether it is humour or illwill seem to hinge on the cultural value.  Add to that, an individual slant that everyone have, and it becomes unrealistic to simply assume that all societies (or countries) should simply adopt human rights as their banner.

As stated above, human rights is not out-rightly rejected in Asian societies but is amongst one of the values that Asians have.  This probably applies to western and other countries as well, but human rights seem to be top on the agenda for westerners, in particular Americans. So what other values are there?  We refer finally to our title “Human Rights vs Human Responsibilities”.  Asian societies also recognise human rights but sees and emphasises on the responsibilities that come with such rights.  While human rights focuses on the privileges and powers of human beings, human responsibilities balances it with the duties and responsibilities that we have towards others, things and the environment.  Without responsibilities and duties, human rights is almost like a free ticket to do what as we pleases.

This disparity focuses on the impact that we may have on others and consequently defines both the restrains within which we can exert our basic human rights.  In short, it is the simple recognition that the human rights of the majority is larger than the human rights of an individual.  On one level, this seem to mean that Asian values and western if not human rights values are destined to be poles apart.  The differences between a group centric focus vs an individual centric focus seem too overwhelming to reconcile.  This is however untrue.  The differences is more on the emphasis or the perceived emphasis rather than a black and white segregation.

Here, I want to draw attention to Article 29 and 30 of the Human Rights Declaration:

Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Note the emphasis on the duties toward the community in 29.1 , however vague this may seem, and the limitations imposed in
29.2 for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others etc.  And in Article 30, there is explicit removal of any ambiguity of implications that this Declaration grants anyone the right to destroy others’ rights.  Again, group over individual.

Am I then saying that western and Asian values are the same?  No.  we are still different.  But we have our similiarities.  Perhaps if this Declaration were drafted by Asians, the Article 30 would be Article 1, and Article 29 Article 2, just to emphasise the importance of group over individual rights.  But perhaps it is just the difference in linguistic expression that places different things differently.  So maybe we are more alike than we think.  Maybe the media has over sensationalised the differences and we chose to believe the media blindly.  Yeah, let’s all stone the media and bury them alive.  It is so much more convenient and easier to do as well.  Much easier than to open our eyes and give up our prejudices, and see for ourselves who we and others really are.  Or maybe we just want to believe that we are different.  That western societies as a larger “individual” vs Asian societies as a larger “individual” both want to be seen as unique and different from the other fella.  Yet, ironically, we still are not unique.  We are bound by this universal need and desire to be unique!  This desire and need to be unique makes us common!

As a footnote, monastics should perhaps think more about their duties and responsibilities vs their privileges and powers.  For with all the powers that Bodhisattvas and Buddhas have, they don’t use them to acquire more privileges and pleasures, rather they only use them to aid sentient beings along the path to Nibbana!

Hmmm … … is the Buddha Nature the universal “rights” of all sentient beings?  A universal sentient rights? 🙂