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History Table of Contents
1997 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1997
Canada and the Asia-Pacific Promise: Hope, Hype and Reality
A Meeting of Cultures and a Clash of Values:
Living Together in an Interdependent World

Clarence Dias,
President, International Centre for Law in Development, New York

The topic is supposed to be a meeting of cultures and a clash of values. I do not like this "clash" terminology, especially when it relates to values.

The written text I've produced tries to reverse the order and talks about a possible clash of cultures and a meeting of values. And in the meeting of common values an attempt at trying to resolve what was apparently a clash of cultures.

My speech essentially makes the following points:

  • One is the point I just made that cultural interactions often at times are perceived of as being clashes, but if there is a common reference point — especially of universal values — very often the clash disappears.
  • The second point I want to develop is the point that basically this current of talk of clash of civilizations and clash of cultures leads to a kind of adversarial attempt at dealing with the so-called clash and, in the process, the main loser is values. And the clash of values often is a process of devaluation of values.
  • The third point I want to make is that this devaluation of values is something we must work together to halt. We need values in today's interdependent global world more than ever before.

I'll conclude by basically talking a little about where I find universal values in the international human rights standards.

Before I begin, let me just mention I feel overwhelmed by the heavy weight of the past, because having arrived here at Couchiching I learned that last year one of the main speakers delivered the entire speech in verse.

Now, poetry is not my strong point. The occasional mixed metaphor, split infinitives, alliteration, bad puns; I'm in the game as long as it stays at that level. When it comes to verse, I'm afraid it's not going from bad to worse, but it's going from worse to worse.

But, nevertheless let me begin with a two-line exercise in verse, which comes from Shel Silverstein, who writes poems for children.

It goes something like this:

oh, if you are a bird, be the early bird and catch the worm for your breakfast plate.
If you are a worm, sleep late.

I assume in approaching this topic that we are not in the like it or lump it school when it comes to a meeting of cultures and our answer to those who are different is not to get away, hide out of sight. And that, therefore, we have a real attempt at trying to foster and create a global society of diversity.

I think when we talk about clash of cultures, meeting of cultures, it's very important to separate what happens when cultures interact and values interact at a personal level. It's a completely different dynamic when they interact at the inter- governmental level.

Let me just give you two examples.

Singapore: The celebrated incident of the youths who scribbled graffiti — a heinous crime in Singapore. One of them happened to be American and was subject to the punishment of caning and there was a hue and cry in the United States, and in Singapore.

The second example, the case of the Filipino maid in Saudi Arabia who killed her employer in the process of being raped. Her rape charge was vindicated. She was awarded damages for the rape, but for the killing she was awarded a penalty which was 10 times the amount of the damages she got for the rape, which is blood money under Saudi criminal law, and the death sentence.

Ultimately, the whole situation was resolved, basically, [when] she subjected herself to lashing and being deported from the country.

Filipino people raised the money to pay the blood money. And here I think is a good example of cultures and values clashing and the resolution being around a compromise, which none of us are likely to be happy with and I think that's where we need universal values.

Let me just quickly talk about clashes versus differences.

At an interpersonal level, if you're a Canadian visiting Asia, or we are Asians visiting Canada, there will be a lot that's in common that we experience from the differences. Some of the differences may be due to cultural differences; some of them logistical, or other factors.

But there are differences. And the differences relate to the way different societies perceive:

  • religion and its role in society and in governance;
  • the family and relationships within the family;
  • gender and patriarchy;
  • sexual freedom, sexual preferences and sexual display;
  • relationships between individuals and groups;
  • relationships between governments and governed;
  • attitudes towards the young, the aged, the disabled;
  • concepts of self-individual or collective worth and value;
  • the scope and role of scientific rationality; and,
  • the balance between rights and freedoms on the one hand and duties and responsibilities on the other hand.

This enumeration I've given you, I'm the first to admit, is itself a product of cultural subjectivity. And it comes from, essentially, my perception, based upon values from the society I come from, in being able to see the differences.

But, if it's at the level of Canadians and Asian people interacting, both Canadians and Asians will also find plenty of common ground in dealing with a number of practices often spuriously asserted as cultural practices that, in fact, seek to reinforce and enshrine privilege, patronage, excess materialism, self-centeredness, anomie, self-censorship, inaction.

It's possible from both cultures to be able to find a basis for addressing these kind of practices, which are bad if they occur in both societies.

But, when the clash of culture and values takes place at the level of government to government suddenly it gets abstracted and sublimated to being a clash over human rights, development, peace, democracy, governance.

And in the creation of these concepts, there is really the creation of dichotomies which make it very difficult to resolve.

I do not have the time to go into this in some detail.

Let me, instead, try to give you, by way of vignettes, a kind of trialogue which is largely drawn from my observations of the global conference which the UN, with its modesty, calls the UN Global Conference Continuum from Rio to Rome.

In these conferences you had the Canadian government speak at times, you had Asian governments speak at times and you had Asian civil society actors and actresses, NGOs and other speaking at times.

Let me just illustrate the kind of clash of values behind these kinds of concepts; take you through an imaginary — but not imagined — trialogue that took place in each of these.

On human rights, the Canadian government would say, for example, in Vienna and other places: Gross and systemic violations of human are unacceptable, but if Canada's economic interests are involved let's deal with the issues at the bilateral and not at the UN level.

If you fall on the first side of the "but," and Canada's national interests are not involved, conditionality; conditionality in foreign relations, conditionality in development assistance.

If, however, you fall on the other side of the "but," and Canada's economic interests are involved, let's get into a policy dialogue.

Asian government representatives, and it's not only Malaysia, unfortunately, including my own government in these kind of settings, would say: Human rights are Western and imposed. We need to make a trade off between development on the one hand and human rights and environment on the other hand. Economic, social and cultural rights come first, civil and political rights and environment later.

Asian civil society actors and actresses would say something different. They would say human rights are for the purpose of keeping human life human; human rights are for the purpose of being able to mobilize against inhuman wrongs; human rights above all are to ensure the right to be and remain human and these considerations must outweigh all the other considerations that governments bring to the table.

I'll give you just one more illustration of the kind of dialogue that has taken place around development.

Canadian government spokesperson: Development must be sustainable, it must be human development and it must promote Canada's economic interests and spheres of economic influence. Development, increasingly, must be undertaken more and more through trade and investment and less through conventional aid.

Asian governments representative: We agree fully. There's nothing to disagree about on this. We will match your concern about return on investment and return on environment, but first of all let us commit ourselves to ensuring the sustainability of our relationship, so that development, whether through aid or trade, will continue over time.

Asians NGOs and Canadian NGOs together: Wait a minute. Our view of development is not your view of development. Development is not only about having more. Importantly, development is also about being more. And from an environmental point of view, often, more is less. And, paradoxical though it might seem, less is more.

Bill Clinton, when he went to the APEC summit in Seattle, talked about the paradigm shift from development through aid to development through trade and investment.

If ever I have come across an oxymoron, fit to rank with military intelligence, it would be, essentially, development through trade. Development is usually directed by priorities; it cannot be driven by consumption and production.

And it is the international values contained in human rights and international environmental law, which are often abused in practice between governments, admittedly so, that enable us to precisely take on situations where they are being abused and criticize them as being situations of human rights abuse.

It is precisely because of the universal values in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in international environmental law that when you have the United States government using Super 301 to do its usual bullying act, we can turn back and say, yes, what you're doing has its message encoded in the instrument from which you are doing it, namely GATT. GATT stands for, in your view, greed, aggression and theft through trade.

And, similarly, NAFTA might be, having it encoded in its own procedural element: no accountability, freedom or transparency allowed. And as far as APEC is concerned, coming from Asia, and the Asian People's Forum, the general consensus is: Asian people please exercise caution.?To end, then, we do have in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a set of universal values, which are universal — not because they are in a legal document — but because across cultures in different parts of the world those human rights are being asserted and claimed by people even though their governments say they don't exist.

And this is the phenomenon that the Mahathirs of the world are encountering. This is the phenomenon the East Timorese have a different view of human rights from what within ASEAN is talked about as human rights.

Let me end by going back to the birds and worms I started off with and, essentially, say how would Canadian values, or Western values, deal with the problem of the birds and worms? And we keep hearing it often and there's a lot of overstatement to it, but in any overstatement there's also a germ of truth — that Western societies are adversarial.

And their approach would be to say to the worms of the world, organize, organize, get together and become ornithological carnivores.

Our Asian values — consensus, harmony and all that kind of stuff; Gandhian — would be attempting to preach vegetarianism to the birds of the world.

The universal human rights approach would recognize that the worms of the world do very prosaic, but very important tasks in soil fixation and other things and the birds of the world are not only beautiful, but they add.

And, therefore, a human rights approach would be one which would try to develop society so that the worms of the world would go about their prosaic tasks unsung, while the birds of the world, like Shelley's skylark, could ever singing soar, and ever soaring sing.