A key challenge faced by those engaged in international human rights policy and practice is adopting an effective framework for protecting and promoting human rights around the world in a way that preserves and articulates their universal nature, while at the same time respecting local values and practices.
One way to approach this challenge is to examine values, norms, customs and practices in non-Western cultures which can act as ‘receptors’ for human rights principles and practice. A new Dutch collaborative research project adopts just such an approach (and is thus called the ‘Receptor Approach’). It brings together experts from around the world and from a variety of disciplines – law, anthropology, sociology, political science, international relations and philosophy among others.
The Receptor Approach assumes that human rights do not necessarily have to be implemented by legal means, as is the case in Western countries. Instead, it seeks to promote them through local institutions. Governments may not be robust enough to manage the legal approach. Homegrown remedies increase the legitimacy of international human rights standards.
The initial focus of this project is China, which has generally taken a combative approach to the Western-led human rights agenda.
The Netherlands School of Human Rights Research is partnering with China’s Institute of International Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Research Centre for Human Rights at Shandong University School of Law to examine the possible uses of the receptor approach in China. A June 22-23 conference launched the partnership.
I spoke at the conference on the promotion of human rights in less developed countries, and the need to build upon existing values and institutions. Among the highlights:
Models, ideas, and policies that are imported into a country without any consideration for local context can all too easily end up largely divorced from and autonomous of the societies that they are supposed to serve, producing consequences quite different from what was intended. . . .
Openness to alternative approaches can only benefit the world’s poor. New approaches are needed to help less developed countries politically, economically, and culturally. Some of these may come from strands of Western thought much neglected up to now. Some may come from non-Western sources, such as China. In most cases, the best approaches will be hybrid products that combine local experiences and knowledge with what has been learned from international sources. . . .
Campaigners for human rights will achieve more in developing countries when they seek to build on the values and institutions that people already understand and use . . .
First, the human rights agenda will be more readily accepted universally when it integrates the legitimate aspirations of all people and addresses the long-term needs of all societies. . . .
Second, frameworks that allow some local customization to needs and circumstances are much more likely to prove beneficial than a single one-size-fits-all approach. Human rights need to enhance the wellbeing of individuals, families, and societies over the long-term and not just act as isolated end products that take precedent over everything else—as often seems to be the goal today. . . .
Third, embedding human rights concepts within the traditions of Africans, Asians, Arabs, and other peoples is probably the only way for them to have a wide impact in many cases. Western ideas and concepts may often make little sense to non-Western peoples, especially when they live in less developed countries and have limited exposure to the wider world. Ideas and words may not have equivalents in local languages or be understood by the very people they are meant to help. Even when translated and understood, they may not be readily accepted, especially if the form remains highly foreign to them. . . .
Fourth, a focus on local circumstances will make the need to strengthen institutions much more apparent than is the case today. The promotion of human rights depends on the capacity of institutions. When they do not work well, or are easily hijacked by the powerful and rich, they can easily become a tool that undermines rather than enhances human rights. Indeed, most of the 3 or 4 billion poor or near poor around the globe have never met a lawyer, have never known a policeman they could trust, and have never been to a court that treated them as equals. . . . The greatest human rights problem in the world today is the weakness of institutions of law, justice, and public order that the world’s poor must face on a daily basis. . . .
Development means change on two levels: how people think and work on a micro level; and how societies organize and manage their affairs on a macro level. The advancement of human rights depends on both. The more human rights are embedded in the ways individuals and communities think and work the more widespread will be their natural bottom-up adoption. The more local institutions are capable of ensuring that laws and norms are properly followed, the more these will be able to ensure that top-down protections are in place. A judicious promotion of human rights should focus on both.