During the past decade, several leaders and intellectuals in East Asia have challenged the notion that human rights are universal.

  Instead, they argue that human rights privilege Western values and are not well suited for Asia.

  Many voices from within Asia disagree, as pro-human rights and democracy groups abound within the region.

  Universality Debate

  There have been disagreements over which human rights are truly universal since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948.

  At that time, Western democracies stressed the universality of civil and political rights, while the Communist bloc favoured economic and social rights.

  The Vienna Declaration of 1993 reaffirms that all human rights are 'universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.'

  However, it does allow for some divergence in the application of these rights, as it recognises that 'the significance of national and regional peculiarities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind.'

  East vs. West

  In the 1990s, several prominent East Asian leaders argued that human rights are culturally relative to Western societies.

  At the forefront of the so-called 'Asian values' debate is Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia, and the former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, along with several other public intellectuals in the region.

  Although their arguments vary, advocates of Asian values maintain that there are clear and often sharp differences between the values and traditions in the East and in the West.

  They argue that Asians tend to value community and Westerners value the individual. Whereas Asians appreciate order and harmony, Westerners appreciate personal freedom.

  Other so-called 'Asian values' include saving and thriftiness, insistence on hard work, respect for leaders and family loyalty.

  Dr Mahathir and Mr Lee argue that the supposedly universal human rights documents and treaties actually privilege Western values to the detriment of Asian values.

  Rights vs. Security

  Some Asian leaders have also argued that since not all Asian nations are as economically developed as Western nations, it is not fair to expect them to uphold all of the rights listed in the Universal Declaration.

  Nations such as China and Pakistan have claimed that they may have to sacrifice some political and civil freedoms in order to protect the economic security of their people and the stability of their societies.

  In 2000, Dr Mahathir warned his fellow Asian nations that too much democracy can lead to violence and instability.

  The annual UN Human Development Report released in July 2002 argues that moving toward democracy actually makes for more stable societies, rebutting the argument that a slower shift to democracy is necessary to maintain order.

  Critics of 'Asian Values'

  Critics of the Asian values arguments refute the idea that a common set of distinctively Asian principles exists, given Asia's immense cultural, religious and political diversity.

  Moreover, many 'Asian values' also exist in the West and so-called Western values are found in Asia.

  Certainly not all Asians believe that human rights are Western.

  The 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'.

  Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy campaigner, Kim Dae Jung, the 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.