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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights
Joanne R Bauer & Daniel A Bell eds.

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
394pp. Index. Hb.: ISBN 0-521-64230-2. Pb.: ISBN 0-521-64536-0.

The human rights issue has been debated from extremely polarised viewpoints in the West and the East. The book under review has succeeded in laying a firm academic middle ground in the vortex of intellectual clash between the Eurocentric version of universalism and the authoritarian version of cultural relativism.

This book is divided into four parts. The first part deals directly with the "Asian values" debate, initiated by the emotional repulsion professed in the early 1990s by several Asian politicians toward the "arrogance" of imposing "Western-style" human rights on the Asian nations. Following a careful, critical anatomy of this reaction, the next part reflects upon possible ways to make the international human rights regime more flexible and inclusive to reach a new consensus. Then, the third part unveils that classic Asian thoughts like Buddhism, Islam and Confucianism could contribute in an innovative way to the enrichment of contemporary universal norms. The last part is composed of comparative and country-specific studies that highlight the ambiguous nature of globalisation. The cause of universalism is defendable, but the concepts and norms of human rights should be extended in order to accommodate the complex realities as well as to gain persuasiveness and authenticity in specific local contexts, which is the central message of this book. While the arguments in respective chapters are far from homogeneous with conflicting implications, they are arranged by the editors in an exciting and admirably skilful way.

By the time of publication of this book, however, the Asian authoritarianism seems to have lost its original momentum for self-assertion, mainly due to the recent economic setback which entailed the regressive escalation of human rights violation in several countries. Tragic examples can be found in today's Indonesia. The violent assaults by manipulated mobs against the ethnic-Chinese minority and the recent atrocities committed by pro-Jakarta militiamen in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, are reminiscent of the past divide-and-rule practice of the Western colonial authorities. The sound multi-disciplinary approach manifested in this book could be supplemented by a historical inquiry into the problem of the internalisation of notions and practices peculiar to the colonial times, implicitly or explicitly, in the minds and the institutions of modern Asia, though the degrees and outcomes of this historical process vary according to countries and regions. It seems that the significance of this factor is somewhat underrated in this book on the whole.

Nevertheless, the perspectives set forth by this collective work, whether communitarian or not, still remain immensely valuable and relevant to the current quandaries faced by the Asian nations, and do offer enormous encouragement to every actor of emerging civil societies in East Asia. As such, this scholarly landmark deserves careful reading not only by academics but also by concerned citizens worldwide.

Yoichi Mine
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Stellenbosch (South Africa)

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