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North-South divisions on meaning of Rights


June 24, 1993

North-South divisions on meaning of Rights

By Ashali Varma

Vienna –It started with the Earth Summit in Rio-perhaps as a natural consequence to the end of the Cold War—there was a subtle shift between the attitudes of the rich countries and the rest of the developing world.  It led to a  recognition of the right to development.  It also led to an active participation of NGOs in world affairs, who represented, in most cases, the poor and marginalized.

At the World Conference for Human Rights in Vienna, these attitudes have progressed.  The NGOs are now very much a part of the process.  The Third World is home to three-quarters of the earth’s population, and in economic terms constitutes the largest markets for industrialized countries.  The South has finally realized the power of its collective clout and is united in its efforts, at conferences at least, to deal with world problems keeping their own perspectives and development goals in mind.

In Rio the key words were biodiversity, climate change and resources for sustainable development.  The South claimed its state in development issues and forced the North to recognize the link between poverty, the environment and sustainable development.

InVienna too, the South has brought focus on human rights to the right to develop. As Minister Badawi of Malaysia, said, “Human rights and democracy are meaningless in an environment of political instability, poverty and deprivation”.

Under the circumstance the World Conference Slogan, ‘Know Them, Demand Them, Defend Them’, mean different things to different people depending on their state of economic development.

As Li Daogu of China put it, “If the international community genuinely cared about the human rights situation in developing countries, then it should help reduce their external debt burden, provide them with unconditional assistance and create a better international environment for their survival and development.”

The Singaporeans were even more emphatic, Foreign Minister Wong Kan Sen said,” poverty makes a mockery of all civil liberties. Poverty is an obscene violation of the most basic of individual rights.”

To emphasize unconditionalities, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas of Indonesia said: “Indonesia cannot accept linking questions of human rights to economic and development cooperation, by attaching human rights implementation as political conditionalities to such cooperation. Such a linkage will detract from the value of both.

Inan interview, Musa Hitam the leader of the Malaysian Delegation on Human Rights,

remarked “Universality in the fundamentals of human rights is fine. All we are asking for

is a widening of the concept from the purely political and civil to development rights. The role that we feel we could play is not negative as shown by Western media. We would like to contribute positively on getting a consensus, on widening the issue of human rights based on our own experience.”

Hitam says: “Malaysia, in 1957, adopted the Westminster form of Parliament lock stock and barrel. But by 1969 we were in trouble because we had to deal with a lot of problems and social unrest. We were realistic. We suspended Parliament for two years and involved people from all walks of like in a lot of soul searching. After getting the input from the people we decided to start afresh and were the only country in the world to return to a parliamentary democracy, which has adapted to suit our needs. You can develop without repression, with laws that protect your citizens. However, it is not necessary or even practical to adopt the Western world’s view 100 percent. In the long run, it is important for the North to realize the delicate relationship between developed and developing countries,” said Hitam. “We have to be positive and optimistic, as we have no other choice but to put the world in order. The mere fact that we are meeting after 25 years produces an exposure to each other’s problems. In fact, I’m surprised at the fast progress of the drafting committee, and I would like to think there will be a consensus and a willingness to come as close as possible to an acceptable solution.”