The East and West of Democracy and Human Rights

Democracy and Human Rights have become a buzzword in the 21st Century. After the ascension of the Biden administration in the United States, we are seeing a new foreign policy based on these two concepts. We often see politicians and leaders using these terms as rhetoric. Such observation also established scholarly arguments that democracy and human rights are becoming new tools for advancing policies.

While the West is promoting its democracy and human rights policy worldwide, several events and subsequent responses such as the burning Quran in the European states and Cartoons in magazines often create a counter-debate of whether there are varieties of democracy.

Against this backdrop, it is worth revisiting the different shades of democracy and human rights across space and culture. For that, focusing on causal relations and methods of perception seems helpful.

Culture, Economy, and Democracy

Culture, economy, and democracy share a causal relationship among them. In both ways, these concepts influence each other in practice. John Stuart Mill and Montesquieu also believed that economic development and culture both matter for democracy.

As culture and economy are of wide varieties in the world, the idea and practices also tend to differ across space, culture, and economy. For instance, democracy worked in the West but why it doesn’t work in Middle East is still a debated discussion.

Such observations also brought forth the idea of non-Western or oriental democracy, thanks to the non-Western scholars who studied the African and Asian experiences. We can also call it the ‘Eastern Democracy’. The poor performance of Western democracy in Asia and Africa, and the subsequent debate led scholars to study and develop these versions in accordance with the regional or country experiences.

Likewise, scholars have also questioned the universality of human rights. Generally, human rights have been perceived as uniform and universal having the same implications everywhere. But Professor Jack Donnelly in his article ‘The Relative Universality of Human Rights’ questioned the universality of the concept that it is subject to culture and space. Widely respected Human Rights Scholar, Donnelly explored the issues of religious freedom and cultural relativism and identified that rights are universal, but our practices are not identical due to cultural differences. For instance, we acknowledge religious freedom for everyone. But in practice, we often see families disown members, or members forced to leave their homes due to religious conversion. Often, without force or disown, it is almost impossible to practice different religions under one roof.

The East and West

Western Democracy is perhaps the most circulated concept in the modern world. It is characterized by individualism, a strong economy, and the visible practice of secularism.

The ‘Non-Western’ or Eastern version suggests that democracies in the rest of the world are largely characterized by culture, family ties, clan or tribal allegiance, economic conditions, and most importantly — religious sentiments in many places. 

As a result, the values and practices are hardly identical in many instances. For instance, during the recent speaker election in the US, the senate faced a deadlock that forced the senate to hold an election for the 15th time. Such incidents may strengthen US democracy. But if the same event would take place in South Asia or Africa, it would hardly strengthen democracy; instead, it would put democracy in danger due to its own vulnerability.

Again, the recent incidents of the Quran burning and desecration across Europe and occasional cartoon sketches by European magazines also bring freedom issues. Who sets the limit? And how do we protect the sentiments of others? Remain an open question in this regard. However, the practices and perceptions regarding the event suggest that the boundary and protection of sentiment also vary across space and culture. In Europe, the Quran burners do not face any punishment or state intervention; but in most countries of Asia, there are security acts and state mechanisms to punish or intervene to protect persons or sentiments.

For instance, Cartoon Sketches or slurs in the public domain about a thing or person may be taken as freedom of expression, but things aren’t the same in the global South. So, we often see cyber security laws or defamation laws trying persons that attacked another through artistic means or in cyberspace. Such different perceptions also suggest that there are cultural differences influencing democratic features.

Apart from the Eurocentrism and cultural differences regarding democracy, there are also questions about our existing method for understanding democracy. As culture and economy influence democratic practice, can we actually understand the global democratic situation through quantitative analysis? 

For instance, two significant indexes at this moment are the Democracy Index (DI) and the V-Dem Index. Both of the indexes have their own methodology to understand the global democratic situation. But it seems the indexes contradict each other. For instance, the well-accepted DI in 2022 ranked Bangladesh in the 73rd position among 167 countries- a gradual improvement from than last two indexes. But in the same year, V-Dem — in an in-depth scientific study on quantitative data ranked Bangladesh between 130-147 position in several indicators, without any improvement in the few years. The same contradictions can be observed in many other countries as well.

It seems such drastic contradictions are the result of setting one particular type of democracy as the standard. Due to cultural and economic factors, it is quite impossible to determine any quantitative value for democratic features. The different results and indicators of the two indexes suggest that they had different values for different standards.

So, there is no objectivity in understanding our democracy worldwide. Moreover, there should be wide acceptance of different types of democracy other than the Western model. And lastly, not acknowledging non-Western compulsions, is a parochialistic mindset that hinders the diversity feature of the concepts itself.

The idea of democracy is still abstract, slippery and hotly debated. Even though the core value remains the same, the features and practices differ. The advocacy and scholarly attention are bringing the issues to the front. The politicization and Western hegemony over ideascape are the main reason behind the debate and confusion. The West must acknowledge the variety of democracy and the non-Western tradition derived from Asian and African experiences. It will also fulfill the diversity feature of the term itself.

[Image by Gerd Altmann / Pixabay]

Aziz Patwary is a British-Bangladeshi and a former employee of World Bank. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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