The Human Rights Debate

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the U.S. has led to the concentration of a lot of media attention towards human rights violations in China, amongst other issues such as U.S-China trade relations and China’s border disputes with neighboring countries, and its alliance with “rogue states” such as North Korea. Along with President Obama, a bipartisan group in Congress has called on Jintao to introduce human rights reforms in China, especially addressing issues such as the denial of religious freedom and the use of coercive abortion, a phenomenon that has come to play an important role in the context of China’s one child policy. (An interesting watch is this video on forced abortion by Women’s Rights Without Frontiers).

At the Press Conference in Washington, Obama said:

“So, today, we’ve agreed to move ahead with our formal dialogue on human rights.  We’ve agreed to new exchanges to advance the rule of law.  And even as we, the United States, recognize that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China, the United States continues to support further dialogue between the government of China and the representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve concerns and differences, including the preservation of the religious and cultural identity of the Tibetan people.”

In response to which Jintao said,

“China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights.  And at the same time, we do believe that we also need to take into account the different and national circumstances when it comes to the universal value of human rights.”

Hu Jintao’s statement raises a very important debate that is at the center of the conversation about human rights and its validity and utility. There have been many disagreements about the “sources” of international law and the pillars of human rights. There are the Universalists who claim that human rights are all encompassing and applicable to every single culture in the world regardless of whether one is from Sub-Saharan Africa or Central Europe. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the cultural relativists who claim that it’s neither fair nor accurate to assume that the same laws apply to everybody simply because of the amount of diversity that exists in this world. A commonly used argument used by those opposing universal human rights is the idea of Western neo-imperialism, the idea that just because the West says something is right doesn’t make everything else wrong.

The important question to be asked is, “How can universal human rights exist in a culturally diverse world?”

Writing a United Nations Background Note on this very topic, Diana Ayton-Shenker talks of how the purpose of universal human rights is not to impose one standard on everyone so that the whole world can become one cultural homogenous and banal place. On the contrary, what it does is very minimal and basic, i.e. imposing “one legal standard of minimum protection necessary for human dignity.” There is also relative flexibility in adhering to and complying to these laws. As we have seen in many cases around the world, whether its media rights in China or prisoners’ rights at Guantanamo Bay, enforcement is not universal. It is up to the good judgment of states, other institutions and people to ensure that human rights are respected. Most of the time, things don’t happen this way.

Another important point to be made is that respect for human rights is not always universal. Some people and countries get a lot more attention in the media for their human rights abuses than other countries do. For instance, we are all constantly bombarded about how Chinese journalists are tortured and how Iranian bloggers are arrested. But the attention given to other human rights abuses in the world has been limited. In the U.S. for example, the dictatorship of Ben-Ali in Tunisia, an American ally received so little attention in the past. There is also the case of the war in the DR Congo, which is genocidal in nature, but the attention it is given in mainstream media is not proportionate to the gravity of the crisis. Perhaps, like in the case of Rwanda, the international community will choose to wait for the last possible minute before attempting any action. Not looking far, it is undeniable that some serious human rights violations are taking place in this very country. Take what’s happening in Guantanamo Bay, or the lack of transparency in Afghanistan and Iraq, and policies such as “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” which had to go through an intense series of debates and bureaucratic wrangling to be repealed.

It is possible to argue that at least in the U.S, there is room for dialogue and dissent, which will enable the amelioration of human rights. Moreover, while the efforts of Obama and Congress to promote human rights in China are extremely admirable, it is important to be fair and equal in recognizing where the fault lies. Yes, the fault lies with officials in such countries as Cuba, China and North Korea. But doesn’t it also lie with administrations in DR Congo, Israel and Saudi Arabia? Shouldn’t the playing field for accusations be level?

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