The 14th Asian Law Institute conference was hosted by the College of Law of the University of the Philippines from 18 to 19 May 2017 in Manila. Qiao Cong-rui, Julie Fraser, and Niu Ming, PhD Candidates and researchers with the Montaigne Centre, participated in the conference. The conference brought together academics and professionals from Asia and the world to discuss issues related to the theme “A Uniting Force? – ‘Asian Values’ and the Law.” Over 100 papers were presented relating to this theme, addressing a wide range of legal fields including commercial law, constitutional law, criminal law, and international law. The conference was divided into six sessions and comprised 36 panels. Academics and professionals contributed to the discussions concerning the concept of ‘Asian values’ by looking at legal and institutional arrangements or systems of key Asian countries.
The conference was opened with a welcome by Professor Topo Santoso, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the Universitas Indonesia, and a keynote address by His Honour Raul Pangalangan, a Judge of the International Criminal Court from the Philippines. Dean Santoso identified Asian values including emphasizing consensual approaches (over adversarial ones), collective rights (over individual ones), and harmony. Judge Pangalangan agreed, noting that the Asian values debate commenced in the 1990s is still relevant today. He reflected on the potential influence of Asian values on the participation of Asian States in the Rome Statute system, noting that it is the lowest of all regions. Judge Pangalangan suggested that their reluctance to join the system was due to a general mistrust of courts as well as international law, and a loyalty to non-intervention. Julie Fraser and Qiao Cong-rui presented at the conference their empirical research findings looking at the influence of home-grown values vis-a-vis the practice of formal institutions.
Fraser presented her paper exploring the role of Islamic law and institutions in promoting women’s right to family planning in Indonesia. This paper was based on her recent fieldwork in Java, Indonesia in January and February 2017. While Islam is the predominant religion in Indonesia – the State with the largest Muslim population – over 60 per cent of the world’s Muslims live in Asia-Pacific. In this way, Islam can be considered one of Asia’s value systems. The research sought to examine how value systems in Asia like Islam can be used as building blocks for promoting and protecting human rights in context. While the term ‘human rights’ was coined during Enlightenment in the West, the concept is much older and can find its roots in cultural and spiritual traditions around the world. For example, key concepts such as equality, dignity, and justice can all be sourced in the Qur’an, which has much normative overlap with human rights. Fraser’s paper took the example of Islam in Indonesia to understand and analyse the relevant spiritual and cultural values as resources for human rights implementation.
Fraser’s paper looked specifically at the protection of the right to family planning in Indonesia, and the role of Islam as an influential local normative system. The Indonesian Government has run a highly successful national family planning programme for almost 50 years, reducing the fertility rate by over half. The programme has been praised internationally and held up as a model for other countries. Many have credited the programme’s success to its early involvement of Islamic norms and actors across Indonesia. The crucial need to involve Islam arises from the Indonesian socio-cultural context, which is a powerful health determinant. In Indonesia, Islam has been instrumental in promoting the acceptability of certain contraceptive goods and services, and in increasing demand for such. In addition, Islamic institutions played an important part in advocating women’s access to contraceptives and in providing reproductive health services to the public. All of these activities were undertaken on the basis of Islamic law – and not international human rights law. This study highlights the essential role of local cultural norms, values, and traditions in effectively implementing human rights in context.
Qiao presented a paper, as part of her doctoral research, entitled “Resolving Mass Actions in China and Its Public Reception: A Case Study on Rural Resistance”. This paper departed from the perspective that China has been undergoing an extensive transformation from being politically oriented to rules-based since the 1980s. Collective complaints questioning unfair policy implementation and misconduct of grassroots functionaries were soaring in the 1990s and 2000s. The Chinese state has been undertaking to monitor and defuse rural resistance by channelling as many disputes as possible to the institutional resolutions alongside a general shift towards a modern rule-of-law system.
On the other hand, Chinese government doesn’t seem to overlook the traditional mentality of ‘righteous resistance for common good’ embodied in such mass actions. To some extent, the central government has been tolerating – if not voluntarily espousing – rural residents’ actions as they unveil flaws in the grassroots governance. This paper both examines the long-term ‘continuity’ aspect of institutional procedures for resolving rural collective disputes, and also uncovers the shifting public reception of the State-driven institutional reforms in the last two decades. The conclusion part integrates institutional and discursive findings so as to assess legitimacy and effectiveness of the existing resolution framework in rural China.
Niu also took part in several discussions on religious freedom in both theories and practices. The whole conference provided interesting perspectives that may yield valuable contributions to public policy and legal theory. The next annual ASLI conference will be held in South Korea in 2018.