Beyond Universalism and Relativism: The Evolving Debates About 'Values in Asia'

86 Pages Posted: 31 Oct 2002

See all articles by Randall Peerenboom

Randall Peerenboom

UCLA School of Law - UCLA School of Law

Date Written: September 20, 2002


The growing power of the international human rights movement has unsurprisingly led to a backlash both in Asia and the West. Perhaps the most serious threat to the movement to date came when increasingly assertiveness Asian governments, buoyed by years of economic growth, issued the 1993 Bangkok Declaration challenging the universalism of human rights and criticizing the international human rights movement for being Western-biased. This Article advances three main theses. First and foremost, it is time to move beyond universalism and relativism. The debate, often engaged in at an exceedingly abstract level, is no longer fruitful, in Asia or elsewhere. Most of the contested issues concerning human rights are too specific to be resolved by falling back on claims of universalism or relativism.

Second, the "Asian values" debate was not a single debate, not only about values in Asia, and not only about universalism versus relativism. Rather it was a series of debates about a range of issues. It is a mistake to reduce the many complex debates to the politically charged and easily resolved issue of whether authoritarian governments (sometimes) have invoked culture to deny citizens in their countries their rights. It does a disservice to the difficulty of the issues and the increasingly sophisticated and nuanced views of those who are trying to take diversity seriously to simply dismiss them as apologists for dictators.

Third, the Asian values debates have evolved, and will continue to evolve. We are now in the second round, with no indication that many of the issues will go away any time soon. It is now time to assess where we are and where we are going. While the Bangkok declaration led to a flurry of books and articles, there has been no systematic attempt to assess the second round of debates or where the debates are likely to head in the future. This Article assesses the key issues in the first two rounds of debates and then in the third and concluding section considers where the debates are likely to head next, with some suggestions as to what is needed to advance the discussion and help resolve some of the persisting impasses.

Keywords: human rights, universalism versus relativism, Asian values, comparative law, jurisprudence, Confucianism

Suggested Citation

Peerenboom, Randall, Beyond Universalism and Relativism: The Evolving Debates About 'Values in Asia' (September 20, 2002). Available at SSRN: or

Randall Peerenboom (Contact Author)

UCLA School of Law - UCLA School of Law ( email )

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