The Bangkok and Vienna Declarations

In March 1993, three months before the World Conference on Human Rights was due to begin in Vienna, representatives from 34 Asian countries met in the Thai capital Bangkok to finalize a statement on the region’s position on human rights. China played a leading role in formulating the statement, known as the Bangkok Declaration, which qualified the idea that human rights were universal. Instead it stated that human rights should be “considered in the context” and “bearing in mind the significance of” varying national, regional, historical, cultural and religious factors. The declaration promoted a culturally relativistic interpretation of human rights, based on “Asian values” and emphasizing economic and social development as preconditions to progress in human rights. Respect for national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of states are primary principles of the Bangkok Declaration in a direct challenge to international human rights norms, as well as promotion of human rights by “cooperation and consensus”.

At the Vienna conference in June that same year, all participating 171 UN member states adopted by consensus the Vienna Declaration, which confirmed the universality, indivisibility, interrelatedness and interdependence of all human rights as the overarching principle. The Vienna Declaration also confirmed protecting human rights as the priority task of the United Nations, of the United Nations, among other things by recommending the creation of the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights.

These two declarations, passed on the same year, have come to epitomize competing interpretations of human rights around the world.