Cultural values and perceptions

The fact that that there is so much room for misunderstanding the 'otherness' of varying cultural differences and that there is often no single approach or perspective regarding human rights issues, means that it is necessary to view these issues within their historical and ideological contexts. Differing values and concepts inform human rights perceptions that are indelibly linked to historical and cultural contexts. Further, it must be recognised that cultural values and perceptions are neither monolithic nor static.

For not only are there multiple concepts of culture and tradition between various states', but also within them. It is important to avoid national stereotypes for this reason, as traditional or reformist ideological trends may be at play. In Australia, the main human rights discourse may be divided in perception between 'left' or 'right' notions or even be divided between social groups, a problem highlighted by Australia's multicultural status.

Such cultural interpretations will also determine the resulting differing cultural child-rearing and educational practices, each based upon various global ideologies. On an American Kindergarten Delegation tour of the People's Republic of China for psychologists, educators and sociologists, William Kessen noted the difference in child-rearing and educational practices between China and Western countries (Kessen, 1978: 73). He was concerned with how beliefs and assumptions had the power to mould and condition children, with how ideology was involved in shaping character.

In Chinese children he noted lower levels of learning disabilities, hyperaction and neurosis to those found in the West; he further found them more attentive, orderly and able to work concertedly in large numbers (Kessen, 1978: 74-75). Amongst these phenomenon, he notes that few Chinese children wear eyeglasses, as twenty minutes each day of their school-life they perform eye exercises; this myopia prevention becoming an illustration of how ideology becomes a fact in human societies (Kessen, 1978: 74).

The Western social definition of children is complex, for as children are defined by those they meet, they are perceived to have different identities for their parents, teachers, doctors, peers, etc. , thus they receive many contradictory messages from adults. In opposition, Kessen notes the Chinese have developed a "shared sense of what a child is", that there is consistency in regard to what is expected of children as appropriate behaviour; this Kessen believes responsible for the socially calm, adept and dutiful adults that are produced as these children invariably rise to their expectations (Kessen, 1978: 76, 77).

As Kessen described between Asian and Western philosophies, indeed there do exist vast cultural differences. However, whilst it must be acknowledged that there are many such real differences to be bridged, as in the case of cross-cultural reporting, their authenticity must still be ensured. For although there are genuine cultural differences, it is possible that an issue may merely be used to deflect criticism of a regime, to in fact exploit children's rights in ideological battles that make it difficult for the possible beneficiaries to realise their legal significance (Douglas and Sebba, 1998: 18).

The AAPP notes that many of the protests against Western human rights activism that took place during a March, 1993 Asian states' meeting on human rights were viewed as often disguising ulterior motives (Milner,ed. , 1993: 4-5). For example, The Bangkok Declaration which arose from this meeting insisted human rights should be: "considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds".

(FEER, 1993:17). However, this Declaration, with its stress on a distinctive Asian human rights philosophy was viewed by a number of commentators, including representatives of Asian human rights activist groups, as "a political ploy by certain ruling elites to preserve their existing methods of rule" ('Cultural Divide' in FEER, 1993: 20). It indeed is possible for various groups within society to manipulate culture to suit their own interests.

For example when Muslims place prohibitions on some activities of women and girls, they are adopting a selective interpretation of their religious doctrines, for according to certain readings of the Koran there is nothing to prevent them from assuming key roles in public life (Milner, ed. , 1993: 15). Indeed, it is important to acknowledge the political agenda behind the advocacy of stability or change when considering any human rights claims, yet the anti-Western claims surrounding The Bangkok Declaration still cannot be dismissed lightly.

For Western human rights can also be seen to have a political agenda, indeed the very foundations of human rights discourse is essentially European. Such a critique was made of the following statement by the Australian Foreign Minister, Senator Evans: "Australia's level of activity on human rights issues is, on most reckonings, greater than that of any other country in the world…

the level of our activity, its non-discriminatory and universal approach and our willingness to accept international scrutiny of our behaviour have all given us real credibility as a country with genuine, non-political objectives in the human rights field" (Evans, 1991). There were many in the Asian region who put forth the accusation that Australia was not as vigilant as it claimed to be and denied the notion of Australian policy as non-political. Further discomfort was made apparent with the apparently easy assumption that it was possible to talk of 'non-discriminatory' and 'universal' approaches (Milner, ed. , 1993: 3).

As the AAPP makes clear, Australian human rights motives have been questioned and branded as hypocrisy for many reasons, including our historic links to Western imperialism and because of the way Australia's Aborigines have been treated (Milner, ed. , 1993: 28). There is even suspicion as to whether Australia uses human rights diplomacy as a modern substitute for imperialism, for as Western powers withdraw politically from the region, human rights issues provide the opportunity to recruit Western assistance.

Further, this allows Australia to use the pressure of international opinion to encourage Asian neighbours to accept the same human values as operating in Australia, thus making these neighbours less threatening (Milner, ed. , 1993: 28). The moralistic and universalistic claims of Western countries in regard to human rights issues have long been a basis for cynicism. The accusation of imperialist domination has resulted in a sustained perception of Western didacticism in the human rights arena. Thus Lee Kuan Yew states: "Let's get the history right. The Universal Declaration was written up by the victorious powers at the end of World War II…

The Russians did not believe a single word… The Chinese… were espousing the inalienable rights and liberties of man to get American aid to fight the communists" (Yew, 1993: 21). Indeed the 1948 Declaration may be seen as an attempt by the originally Western dominated UN to impose normative consensus and a frame for international legal rule over those states emerging from colonialism as new states seeking international acceptance (Milner, ed. , 1993: 24). For those who may indeed doubt the legitimacy and sincerity of human rights activism, Western stances assumed during the imperialist past may allow for an unflattering equation.

Such historical context provides legitimacy to such fears, which is why The Bangkok Declaration was determined to create an 'Asian' approach to human rights issues, for it was felt that in order to protect Asian 'independence', such policies should be developed from within, not imposed from outside (Milner, ed. , 1993: 4). The Christian and European origins of much human rights thinking also furthers the accusations of western domination in the international human rights arena, hence the argument that the West is attempting to impose alien views derived from "post-Renaissance liberal Western traditions" (FEER, 1993: 16).

Even the aims of international human rights law can be seen as based upon Western ideology, for in attempts to raise the value of the individual in the state's eyes and to improve the quality of individual daily life (Douglas and Sebba, 1998: 15), those cultures who perceive of human rights in a collective sense are asked to redefine their values. In the dominant Western human rights discourse, the Liberal Tradition, the rights of the individual are privileged as it is assumed that only the individual has the ability to define their interests and make rational choices.

The role of the state is to act as an unbiased arbiter in conflicts of interest, and also to play a minimal (as the state's role is seen as necessarily antagonistic to individual rights) and 'neutral' part in the guarding of 'public interests' (Milner, ed. , 1993: 9). This type of cultural individualism has been criticised by Asian leaders as hedonistic and self-serving, generating rampant consumerism, an absence of familial responsibilities and an unnecessary burden upon the state (Milner, ed. , 1993: 9).

In the very production of 'welfare states' has been linked to this legal emphasis on the 'rights of individuals', as social and economic disadvantages result in claims against the state. This view of the West as individualistic and lacking social responsibility conflicts with collectivist cultural traditions that see it fit limit the rights of individuals in favour of the collective well-being, which the state serves to protect.

The state invests not in welfare, but in infrastructure and community programs and it is viewed as a communal responsibility to help the needy (Milner, ed. , 10). The opposition of individual and group perceptions of human rights results in diverging political practices and perspectives on what constitutes human rights abuse which must be recognised when considering human rights issues.