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  Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad

Vienna Declaration

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New Internationalist article

Office of the Malaysian Prime Minister

Amnesty International (Malaysia)

Singapore Government

Singaporeans for Democracy


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Article 30: Repression in the name of rights is unacceptable



  • Malaysia's Prime Minister has challenged the notion that human rights are universal. He believes the UDHR's emphasis on an individual's rights rather than responsibilities to the community makes it unsuited to Asia.
  • Many voices from within Asia disagree.


The Vienna Declaration of 1993 stated: "All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated... While the significance of national and regional peculiarities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms."

The concept of 'Asian values' is the most sustained attack on the notion of universality pointing at differences in values and traditions between East and West. Advocates stress the importance of social harmony and claim that for developing countries social and economic rights are more important than civil or political rights.

On the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998 the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad proposed a review of the declaration claiming that human rights were culturally relative.

He argued that the declaration was a Western imposition on Asian societies, which ignored Asian values and therefore hampered development.

The leading promoters of 'Asian values', Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's Senior Minister, describe the primary Asian value as the belief that obligations to society and the rights of the wider community are more important than the rights of the individual.

Critics of the 'Asian values' concept refute the idea that a common set of distinctively Asian principles exists, given Asia's immense cultural, religious and political diversity. Former President of Singapore Devan Nair has stated 'Human rights and values are universal by any standard, and their violation anywhere is a grievous offence to men and women everywhere'.

Asians such as Aung San Suu Kyi the Burmese pro-democracy campaigner, Kim Dae Jung President of South Korea and Wei Jingsheng a political dissident expelled from China have also argued that human rights and freedoms are universal.

They argue the debate is not so much about cultural values, but political power and Asian values quickly become an excuse for authoritarianism, as it is generally the state that decides an individual's obligations to the community. Article 30 reiterates the indivisibility (or equal importance) of all the rights set out in the UDHR.


These case studies are individual examples of the relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rights they refer to are not exclusively relevant to the country or countries mentioned here. Equally, this case study should not be seen as the only human rights issue in this country or group of countries.


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