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Human Rights and Diplomatic Wrongs | The Nation

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Human Rights and Diplomatic Wrongs

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The composition of the UN's Commission on Human Rights changes annually, since a third of the seats are up for grabs each year. Elections, which take place in the spring, determine which countries will be granted new three-year terms and which will cycle off come December 31. Ever since the body was founded in 1947, however, there have been three constant firmaments in this otherwise ever-changing galaxy. There have always been seats held by India, Russia and the United States. But this tradition will come to a halt next January 1: India's and Russia's representatives will still be there, but an American one will not.The United States was voted off the Commission on Human Rights this past spring. It also lost its place on the UN body that monitors the international drug trade.

Whenever there is a break from a long-standing pattern, it is tempting to focus on short-term causes. Critics of the new Administration are eager to see these two votes as a negative judgment on its unilateral approach to the arms race, cold war nostalgia and reversal of course on the Kyoto Protocols on global warming. Defenders of President George W. Bush, meanwhile, stress bad timing: The UN elections came while China was upset about the Administration's "tough" (though,to some hawks, not tough enough) handling of the spy-plane incident and while tensions in the Middle East were rising--something that presumably encouraged Arab states to join Beijing in voting against the United States.

However, one thing that the books under review make clear, each in its own way, is the need to place the issue in a long-term perspective. For example, Oxford-based diplomatic historian Rosemary Foot reminds us in Rights Beyond Borders that tensions between China and the United States were playing themselves out in Geneva, where the Commission on Human Rights meets, long before the term EP-3 became known to the American public. Moreover, as Robert Drinan (a Jesuit priest and former Democratic Congressman) and Noam Chomsky show in The Mobilization of Shame and Rogue States , respectively, too much can be made of the novelties of the new Bush Administration's policies.

Before going any further, let me stress that I do not mean to suggest that Drinan, much less Chomsky, is a fan of George II's approach to international affairs. Even though The Mobilization of Shame and Rogue States were completed before George W. began exerting influence in foreign policy, after all, there is plenty of criticism in both of an Administration that contained some of the same key players and was motivated by the same guiding principles as this one: his father's. For example, Drinan laments that during the "twelve years of the Reagan-Bush administrations," the United States was not "aggressively proactive" in the "defense of human rights." Chomsky is blunter: It is odd, he claims, that though Reagan and Bush liked to think of themselves as "guardians of global order," both had "unusually warm relations" with dictators, including some, such as Saddam Hussein, they would eventually come to call "mass murderers."

In other words, tempting as it might have been for Drinan and Chomsky to place the blame for the commission votes at the feet of the new President, neither would do so if given the opportunity, nor would they even say that only Republican administrations have been at fault. Why? Because both see enduring flaws in Washington's approach to human rights, flaws that transcend the Democrat-Republican divide. Drinan, not surprisingly, has more positive things to say about some Democratic leaders of the past than does Chomsky. Drinan praises Jimmy Carter, for example, for delivering speeches on freedom that "gave hope and inspiration to countless dissidents" and helped "the idea of human rights to enter the political and moral coinage of the nation and to some extent of the world." Nevertheless, Drinan, like Chomsky, argues that for decades there has been too little consistency and too much hubris in the American handling of human rights no matter who has occupied the Oval Office.

The Mobilization of Shame and Rogue States are, of course, very dissimilar books, as anyone familiar with the careers of the authors would expect. They differ in style: The former is more personal, the latter more extensively documented. They differ in emphasis: Drinan has more to say about religious freedom. And they differ in terminology: Only Chomsky says that the label "rogue state" can be logically applied to the United States as well as countries such as Iraq. Chomsky's basis for this provocative claim is that, in its "literal" as opposed to merely "propagandistic" sense, the term "rogue state" refers to those that feel free to override the directives of international bodies and "do not regard themselves as bound by international norms." By this standard, the Reagan Administration behaved like a "rogue state" regime when it denied the validity of a world court decision favoring Nicaragua, and the Clinton Administration did the same when it claimed NATO was free to act independently of the UN in Kosovo. Chomsky cites other past instances of military intervention in Southeast Asia and the Middle East as further evidence of a US tendency to take unilateral action that has far too often run amok. Drinan, though also critical of unilateralism, stops far short of calling the United States a "rogue state."

Still, when it comes to US Human Rights policies, there are important points of convergence between the two authors beyond a shared conviction that both Democratic and Republican administrations have erred. And they differ in emphasis: Chomsky says much more about military intervention, less about religious freedom.

For example, neither Drinan nor Chomsky accepts the notion all too commonly taken for granted here (though not in Europe, let alone China) that Washington's vision of human rights has always been that articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Each stresses, on the contrary, that Washington frequently shows disdain for two central tenets of that great UN document. First, that social and economic freedoms, on the one hand, and political and civil rights, on the other, should be accorded similar status. Second, that the Universal Declaration represents many different rights traditions, hence no single nation has a special claim as its main progenitor. Washington has flouted these ideas by signing covenants dealing with political and civil rights but refusing to do the same for ones dealing with social and economic freedoms, and by treating the Universal Declaration as just an updated version of our Bill of Rights.

To appreciate fully these criticisms by Drinan and Chomsky, it is useful to supplement their discussions of UN documents with those of Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School. I am thinking here of her elegant new study, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and of her pathbreaking 1998 Notre Dame Law Review essay on the subject, which Chomsky draws on in Rogue States. Glendon stresses that the first incarnation of the Commission on Human Rights, which was responsible for creating the Universal Declaration, was a cosmopolitan group, the members of which were influenced by and spoke for diverse traditions. On the commission were not just an American social reformer and former First Lady but also a Confucian intellectual, a French legal scholar and a Lebanese philosopher. On it also sat Mehta Hansa, the female delegate from India who convinced the group to avoid gendered language and refer to the rights that "all human beings," not just "all men," deserve.

Glendon stresses that the UN's 1948 document champions a holistic vision of human rights that owes much to the precedents set by the declarations of 1776 and 1789 but is not reflective only of Anglo-American and French traditions. She also emphasizes the concerted effort Eleanor Roosevelt and others made to insure that protection of "second generation" rights (for example, to shelter and decent working conditions) was considered a central feature of their document.

Drinan and Chomsky both find much to admire in the Universal Declaration's holistic approach to rights, something taken still further in the Vienna Declaration of 1993, which emerged from a conference the former attended as a delegate. To be sure, Drinan's optimism and Chomsky's pessimism concerning contemporary political conditions colors their comments on the Universal Declaration. Drinan calls it "the most important legal document in the history of the world" and celebrates the fact that the ideals proclaimed in it and in other UN documents have given rise to an "astonishing dream." Despite the horrors of the past half-century, he writes, "the progress and advancement in the area of human rights since 1945 has actually been more spectacular than might have been expected or even imagined." Chomsky strikes a more somber tone in a pair of essays, reprinted in Rogue States , that were written to mark the Universal Declaration's fiftieth anniversary. For example, he begins one by saying that so many people continue to suffer unjustly that admirers of the document should think of the famous Confucian adage that described the Master as the sort of virtuous person "who keeps trying although he knows that it is in vain."

There is no disagreement between these two authors, however, when it comes to the importance of the Universal Declaration's refusal to relegate social and economic rights to a secondary status. Both insist, like Glendon, that the United States has failed to live up to the spirit of 1948 by unduly privileging, in its practice and rhetoric, those political and civil rights that loom particularly large in the American tradition. Drinan and Chomsky also take issue with US resistance to the idea, which many in other countries argue is a direct extension of the logic of the Universal Declaration, that the "right to development" is fundamental. Each might also have stressed,as Glendon does, that downplaying material concerns marks a divergence from the ideals propounded by the husband of the best-known drafter of the Universal Declaration: Freedom from want was one the "Four Freedoms" Franklin Roosevelt described in a famous speech.

A different sort of American inconsistency also worries Drinan and Chomsky: Washington's tendency to use different criteria when judging the records of allies as opposed to enemies or competitors. Chomsky is at his best when elaborating on this theme, detailing the many abuses that have been committed by countries supported by or working with the United States to which US political leaders turned a blind eye. Always on the lookout for diplomatic double standards, he finds much grist for his mill here, particularly where Latin America is concerned. He continually contrasts criticisms leveled at Castro with things left unsaid about nearby right-wing authoritarian regimes.

Drinan uses Latin American examples to similar effect. A central theme, for instance, in his discussion of the Fraser Bill is that this admirable piece of mid-1970s legislation, which called for human rights concerns to be made more central to American foreign policy decisions, was inspired by anger over the 1973 coup in Chile. According to Drinan, hearings on the US role in the fall of Allende and rise of Pinochet led members of Congress to feel "embarrassed that the United States in its struggle to stop Soviet aggression ended up arming dictators because they were enemies of our enemy."

These Latin American contrasts work well, but East Asian ones could have done the same rhetorical job. Take, for example, the very different US responses to the Kwangju massacre of 1980 and the Beijing massacre of 1989, events that had much in common. Whether Washington responded vigorously enough to the latter is an open question, though my own feeling remains that the decision to send informal envoys to China within a few months of the June 4killings undermined the efficacy of the first Bush Administration's 1989 censure of Beijing. What is unquestionable is that more was done to show displeasure with the Chinese Communist Party leadership than had been done nine years earlier vis-à-vis South Korea's right-wing authoritarian government.

The contrast relating to the Olympics is particularly stark. In the early 1990s some American politicians insisted that the honor of hosting the 2000 Games should not go to any country that did not hold free elections or had leaders whose hands were stained by the blood of a massacre. Whatever the merits of this argument--a variation of which was heard again in recent months in debates over China's successful bid to host the 2008 Games--it is worth noting that every part of it would have applied to South Korea in the early 1980s. Yet no senator or representative seems to have been troubled then by the idea that Seoul was being considered to host the 1988 Games. In this kind of contrasting response to similar acts of brutality and the assumption that Washington should determine where the Olympic Games are held, even though an international body makes the call, we get a sense of why the recent UN votes went as they did. It is definitely true, as some commentators have noted, that many countries that are much less free than this one will have seats on the Commission on Human Rights next year. At voting time, however, a country's domestic record may matter a good deal less than patterns associated with its handling of international issues.

After reading either The Mobilization of Shame or Rogue States, it becomes abundantly clear that pride certainly went before this particular fall, as did sharp divergences between rhetoric and practice. And the United States has other Achilles' heels as well where human rights are concerned. For example, with China, we are among a dwindling number of countries that conduct executions, something many people in Europe and elsewhere consider a human rights abuse. And even though a central part of human rights ideology is that all lives are of equal value, we often seem disproportionately concerned with the plight of those victims abroad with whom we can most easily identify. Hence the frequent misremembering of the Beijing massacre as an event in which those who died were students lobbying for democracy and carrying banners emblazoned with GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH and similar slogans. In fact, the majority of those killed were workers who had turned out to support the students, largely because of a shared disgust at official corruption.

Should we then see the latest vote for the Commission on Human Rights as a long-overdue wake-up call for a country with a distorted national self-image as a global champion of human rights and clearsighted interpreter of the Universal Declaration? There is something to be said for this notion. And yet, as Rights Beyond Borders shows, there is at least one good reason to lament the loss of a US presence on the commission: While Foot is no apologist for Washington, she does draw attention to the positive things that have come from US efforts in Geneva and elsewhere to bring pressure to bear on Beijing over its record of human rights abuses.

Foot's main interest, unlike Drinan's and Chomsky's, is not the United States, I should stress, but China; so policies and rhetoric emanating from Washington become relevant to her only through the way they are understood in or affect Beijing. Still, in her discussion of China, Chinese-American disputes relating to human rights loom large. Her overall argument, though made with considerable subtlety, can be summarized as follows. Even though the Chinese Communist Party continues to perpetrate many abuses, positive developments have taken place in recent years that, when taken together, mean that many citizens of China now live more freely than they formerly did. Helping these changes along has been Beijing's increasing "enmeshment" in an international human rights regime. And US criticism has facilitated this enmeshment.

Foot sees in China a nearly perfect test case for the proposition that acceptance of international norms really does matter. Few people outside the Chinese Communist Party's inner circle would dispute the claim that serious human rights abuses continue to occur in China. It is also, however, clearly a country that has undergone a dramatic transformation of late where the discourse of human rights is concerned. Twenty-five years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration, the official line was still that this was a bourgeois document designed to cloak the predations of capitalists and imperialists. To speak positively of renquan (human rights) was to risk being dubbed a lackey or a traitor. By 1998, however, the Universal Declaration's fiftieth anniversary was treated in Beijing as a moment for celebration and reflection on the state of an international human rights project of which China considered itself a part. Foot argues that this discursive shift matters. It helped improve some lives and, perhaps more significant in the long run, was accompanied by institutional developments.

One thing she finds promising is that Beijing has shifted from denouncing the Commission on Human Rights to seeking a vigorous voice within it. This is a clear indication that Beijing "has moved--or been shoved--along a winding and bumpy path" toward full integration into a global human rights regime. The diffusion of "human rights norms is neither linear, nor incapable of being periodically halted," she admits, but when "viewed over the longer term, and despite the recent political chill in China, global criticism of China's human rights record" has had positive effects. For example, an "infrastructure that can help to protect human rights has begun to be built, and it stands ready to be drawn upon in the advent of progressive political reform."

American pressure on China has played a role in the growth of this "infrastructure," according to Foot, and has sometimes led as well to specific positive moves, such as the release from prison of prominent dissidents and the signing of UN accords. Once Beijing accepted international human rights standards--even with caveats regarding China's supposedly special status as a less developed country that subscribes to "Asian values"--the ground began to shift beneath the Chinese Communist Party's feet. The government has been forced to develop more sophisticated excuses for its failures, train more specialists in fields like international law, translate more Western works on human rights into Chinese, and so forth. This, at least, is Foot's argument, and she makes it very well. The United States cannot take all the credit for these changes, but Washington's role in doing such things as sponsoring motions in Geneva calling for censure of Beijing has been significant. This is true even though such motions have always been defeated in the end, and even though one result of China's "enmeshment" has been that Chinese counterattacks on the United States as a land of inequality and racial injustice have become much more sophisticated.

Foot's study, though it makes important points and manages to be both scholarly and readable, is marred by one thing: It focuses almost exclusively upon political and civil rights. This choice is understandable. When the global community has criticized Beijing, the tendency has been to emphasize issues like the limits placed on speech, political dissent and religious behavior. Nevertheless, paying more attention to social and economic rights would have made Foot's book even better in two significant ways. It would have put it more in sync with the spirit of 1948, and it would have helped us come to terms with a major new issue: namely, more than two decades into Beijing's Reform Era, during which the government has been slow to replace old social welfare mechanisms with new ones, some of the biggest human rights problems concern social and economic freedoms.

All this suggests that the human rights challenge brought into focus by the recent UN vote is a multifaceted one. In the United States there is a need to find ways to criticize Beijing (and other governments with abhorrent human rights records) that are less hypocritical, patronizing and self-serving. Doing this may even help us regain representation at the Commission on Human Rights. Meanwhile, other countries must pick up the slack in insuring that China continues to be pushed along the "bumpy" road leading to full enmeshment. And Americans concerned with Chinese affairs might do well to follow the lead of NGOs like Human Rights Watch and start paying more attention to social and economic issues. We would do well to combine pleas for the release of persecuted dissidents and Falun Gong members with expressions of outrage over the mistreatment of other vulnerable groups. The most notable of these, perhaps, are the many migrant workers who have poured into Chinese cities only to find themselves in the ironic predicament of being exploited and treated like second-class citizens in a land where the proletariat was supposed to reign supreme.

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