There was a lot of self-congratulation in the United States and Europe in the 1990s over a post-Communist new world order marked by a global stampede to democracy and, by implication, a wide embrace of traditional Western concepts of civil and political rights. There is certainly a new world order. But it is not the one many predicted.
The global majority of governments–those of developing and transitional nations–may have embraced more open elections and other paraphernalia of democracy, but their understanding of human rights continues to diverge from the Western (or, now, Northern) model, which emphasizes political and civil liberties. In much of the global South–and for a mixture of reasons, not all of them noble in Northern eyes–there is a strong argument that top priority should go to development issues, to economic and social rights. The luxury of governance can come later.
On human rights, a bellwether area in international affairs, the opinions and strength of the global South will pose a considerable diplomatic challenge to European and North American governments and human rights organizations in the years ahead–a challenge for which US diplomacy is least prepared. There is no official American participation in recently created institutions that are building new norms in international law and human rights, notably the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Human Rights Council.
December 10, the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a time to take stock and engage in a search for common ground with the twenty-first century’s global majority. It serves no good purpose to trash the UN’s human rights apparatus and the new Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental body dominated by blocs of nations often unfriendly to the United States (which is boycotting it). That has been the policy of the Bush administration and pro-Israeli groups, among others. Nor does it make much sense to assume, as many liberals do with a justified sense of chagrin, that the current American human rights record is too embarrassing to allow credible participation in any international human rights body. Solid, persuasive diplomatic work needs to be done and, yes, maybe some philosophical compromises made. Multicultural America should be at the forefront of the debate. Instead, the USA is MIA.
Some history: in 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt went to Congress to propose the lend-lease agreement to aid European allies under siege by Nazi Germany, he said four freedoms must prevail in the world. These he described as freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his or her own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear. At that moment in history he defined the last of those as a freedom from aggression anywhere in the world.
With the persistence of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose work shaped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights seven years later, the president’s four freedoms were incorporated into the declaration–and expanded. Freedom from want was fleshed out considerably to cover rights to education and “a standard of living adequate for health and well-being…including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood.”