THE debate over "Asian" versus "Western values" is an obstacle
to international consensus building on human rights, according to Thomas Hammarberg,
Cambodia's new UN Special Representative on Human Rights.
"I can't see, for example, [that] the international rights of the child are
in contradiction with any of the cultures in this part of the world," he said.
"It's easy to use these terms about what is "western"... as a pretext
for not implementing [basic] standards..."
Speaking at the beginning of his first official visit to Cambodia, Hammarberg said
human rights were about fundamental standards which were universally intended and
should be universally applied.
"I don't think this discussion defines well what the human rights struggle is
all about, but I do think it's important that one is careful about the perception
of human rights in [other] countries and cultures.
"If we are going to be effective in the implementation of human rights we can
not be completely ignorant about how human rights will relate to local customs...and
I don't think it's surprising there are some societies that have problems with the
individualistic approach of some western countries," he said.
Hammarburg said the debate over Asian and Western values had been around for about
five years but was more a question of interpretation than fundamentally opposed views.
"[Last year] we brought together leading representatives of the world's major
religions to discuss the notion that even children have individual rights and they
all agreed it was an important principle," he said, adding that any differences
were based on perceptions of the relative importance of society and the individual.
Currently a special advisor to the Swedish government on humanitarian issues, Hammarberg
is also a member of the Refugee Working Group within the multilateral Middle East
Peace Process and Chair of a UN committee compiling a study on the impact on children
of armed conflict.
For two years previous to that he was the Secretary-General of Save the Children
and spent six years as Secretary-General of Amnesty International during the 1980's.
His appointment as the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative on Human Rights
in Cambodia follows the resignation of his predecessor, Australian judge Michael
Though widely considered a "brilliant" man, Kirby drew criticism from elements
of the Khmer press which variously described him as "imperialist" and "arrogant"
- a perception which is said to have contributed to a breakdown in the relationship
between Kirby and Cambodia's Co-Prime Ministers.
However, Hammarberg said the problems experienced by his predecessor appear to have
had little impact on the Royal Government's attitude toward himself or the role he
"I know there were tensions, especially during the past year. But when the High
Commission mentioned my name, they [the Co-Prime Ministers] didn't object... and
the response we got when we asked for appointments was positive."
Hammarberg agreed the sensitive issue of human rights can easily lead to tensions
and that his job requires considerable diplomatic skill. As for his personal style,
he describes it as "principled but constructive".
"I think it's important to be able to present one's case in a convincing manner
and be able to listen at the same time... this job has a clear element of dialogue,
it's not a question of lecturing each other. I will, of course, write honest reports
and I know from my previous work that some people don't like that.
"I see the principles as given, they are not my principles - they are international
agreements to which this government is a party...So basically it's a question of
explaining those principles - what they mean and how they have been applied in other
Hammarberg acknowledged that he had taken on the job at a crucial time when progress
in respect to human rights appears to be faltering as a result of economic hardship
and political tension.
He said the international community had an enormous responsibility to Cambodia because
it had contributed significantly to "the mess". But he also urged Cambodians
to embrace the issue of human rights.
"It's very important the leaders demonstrate a positive attitude... publicly
and within their own organizations. At the same time this long haul work of education
must continue...the most important thing is to convince the next generation, not
only with books and words, but in spirit."