In the last few years, certain East Asian1 elites have claimed there exists a set of common or shared Asian values that justifies their own special interpretation of human rights and the rejection of Western conceptions of liberal democracy. The most vocal elements in this debate have been gov¬ernment officials in Singapore, Malaysia and China. However, other govern¬ments in Asia have become associated with the argument in part because Asian states adopted by consensus the Bangkok Declaration on Human Rights in April 1993 which asserted that while human rights were universal ‘they must 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 back¬grounds’.2 Moreover, delegates to that conference also emphasized the right to development as a universal and inalienable human right, in effect giving such a right priority over those associated with democratic freedoms. This ‘Asian values’ debate has received enormous attention in the press and increasingly in the academic literature because it represents, currently, the most significant and sustained challenge to universal conceptions of human rights, in the absence of a confrontation with the former European communist bloc. Although the argument between universalists and particu¬larists is hardly a new one, and indeed has been a debating point in Western political thought for at least two centuries,3 this new phase in the argument has promoted the view that the West and Asia are on a collision course, and that there is some substance to the notion that we are on the road to a ‘clash

Human Rights, Democracy and Development: The Debate in East Asia’, RosemaryFootDemocratization, 4 (2) (1997): 139–153. Published by Frank Cass, London. Reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd,
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