Coming into my internship in Vietnam, I was a strong proponent of an approach to human rights that was cognizant and responsive to the lived experiences of those directly impacted, placing my approach to human rights more closely aligned to a bottom-up approach. While a top-down approach to human rights generally begins with an overarching principle(s) or an authoritative procedure from which human rights can then be implemented, a bottom-up approach relies on human rights as it’s applied in our everyday lives then links it to broader principles that one could rely upon to explain its moral weight and to resolve conflicts (Griffin 29). While some scholars are skeptical of the top-down approach of human rights since it can impose culturally ignorant and/or irrelevant rules on others (Posner), embodying coercive strategies reminiscent of Western imperialism over non-Western states, my internship encouraged me to reflect on the value of the top-down approach to human rights in spaces where civil society is heavily regulated and human rights work is under scrutiny.
My organization examined whether the Vietnamese Government has met its international human rights commitments from a top-down as opposed to bottom-up approach by using international human rights documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women as the sole benchmarks for what the Vietnamese government should seek to achieve. As a local Vietnamese organization working on domestic human rights issues, I would have thought a more nuanced approach to human rights would have been taken. So why this approach?
Through discussions with my colleagues and through the work itself, it was evident that international human rights documents established the benchmark for what my organization thought that Vietnamese society should aim to achieve regardless of the broader social, economic, and political landscape of the country. The work of my organization highlighted the ways that Vietnam was living up to these standards and the many ways it wasn’t. But what would a bottom-up approach look like in practice? My thought is that if this approach relies on a network of individuals, local and international human rights NGOs, governmental institutions, and community organizations to advocate for an approach to human rights that is grounded in the realities of those living in Vietnam, and civil society is under heavy scrutiny in in South-East Asia which I discuss in my previous blog, a bottom-up approach to human rights may not only put advocates at risk of state prosecution but may have a lesser impact because there are no other sources advocating for this approach.
On the other hand, I wonder if the use of the top-down approach is a question of cultural globalization. I personally found Vietnam to embody traditional ideas of the family unit including strict ideas about gender roles and physical presentations. However, at my workplace which was mostly staffed by younger Vietnamese people, I found ideas about human rights to align with Western human rights more closely such as for example, support for non-nuclear family structures and a focus on the rights of the individual (as opposed to the community). Perhaps this guided the work of the organization towards following the top-down approach to human rights. As I reflect on my work in Vietnam over the summer, I am only now asking myself these questions. For what it’s worth, these thoughts make me question the broader institution of human rights in a way I hadn’t prior to this internship experience.
Griffin, James. On Human Rights, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/mcgill/detail.action?docID=415605.
Posner, Eric. “The Case Against Human Rights,” The Guardian, 4 December 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights#_blank.