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30.8.97/THE NATION

Last month wasn't the first time that Asean members wanted the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights overhauled. They tried once
before. In 1993, they invoked Asian values in a bid to derail
discussion at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna,.
They failed.

Now, four years later, they are back. And their target this time 
the 50th anniversary of the universal declaration in 1998.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took it upon himself to
fire the first salvo, and apparently, he has employed a more
sophisticated argument. Gone were Asian values. Instead, Mahathir
lamented that most Third World countries were not party to the

He is right. Many of today's Third World states were still
struggling to cast away the yoke of colonialism when the
declaration was promulgated in 1948. But while they were not
around in 1948, they were in 1993. And in Vienna, over 140
countries members of Asean included - reaffirmed the
"indivisibility, interdependence and universality" of human
rights. That, however, is conveniently forgotten.

We are, of course, not saying that the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights is sacrosanct. No document is. No doubt, there are
provisions in the declaration which can be improved and updated
with present-day realities. Here, perhaps the draft constitution
of Thailand can offer Mahathir some ideas. For example, the right
to a clean government. And the need for an independent
anti-corruption agency.

There are others which we think should be included - the right to
freedom from fear, of crime, violence, and for instance, nuclear
weapons. And the right to equitable development, both locally and
globally. Also important is the right to a sustainable

Mahathir and his supporters are fond of portraying the battle on
human rights as one between individual rights against collective
rights. But the declaration is clear on this - both rights are
equally important. The reason Mahathir's rantings hit a raw cord
in this part of the world is because most human rights discourse
appears to focus only on civil and political rights. Often
forgotten are social and economic rights.

Take for instance, the right to food, water and shelter. This is
often given lip-service by the West. Today, the world is facing a
situation akin to global apartheid - a structure propped up by
rich countries, multinationals, international institutions like
the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and the free
trade mantra promoted by the World Trade Organisation. Under such
a global regime of globalisation and economic liberalisation,
basic human rights are constantly being debased.

Freedom from hunger, for example, is a fundamental human right.
Under the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights, there is an obligation for governments to ensure an V
equitable distribution of world food supplies. Yet, 30 ^ million
die of starvation each year. Instead, food is often used as a
political weapon. The case of North Korea is one such example.
The very countries which whipped themselves into a froth over
human rights abuses in the hermit state now watch North Korean
children die.

It is important that the world should not, and must not, ignore
the grim reality that the majority of humanity are consistently
being denied their basic human rights.

Human rights is not a choice between food and votes. It is about

It is not only about freedom from torture. It is also about
freedom from starvation. It does not only mean the freedom to
vote, but also the right to education. Nor does it only mean
freedom of the press, but also the right to health.

The struggle for human rights is at once a struggle for freedom
from fear and want - equitable development and democracy are
inseparable. And in this, all governments around the world - both
rich and poor, East and West - have much to answer for.