16 April 2009

China and the Future of Universal Human Rights

The following was something I wrote after attending China's Universal Periodic Review session in Geneva but was never able to get published. It explains some of the reasons why I've been so consumed with the idea of universal and indivisible human rights.

Earlier this year, representatives of more than 100 countries lined up outside a meeting room at the United Nations in Geneva for a chance to speak for two minutes on the subject of China’s human rights. The occasion was China’s turn on February 9 before the UN Human Rights Council as part of a new process known as “Universal Periodic Review” (UPR), in which each member of the United Nations is subjected to a uniform review of its compliance with international human rights provisions.

Only half of them got a chance to speak during during the three-hour interactive session that forms the main part of the UPR process. One speaker after another, lines were soon drawn between those countries who came to applaud China’s remarkable successes in alleviating poverty, protecting the rights of women and children, and promoting education and healthcare and those countries who came to criticize China for the shortcomings of its criminal justice system, its restrictions on free expression and religious belief, and its repressive measures towards restive minority populations like Tibetans and Uyghurs.

From the first group of countries, mostly developing nations from Asia and Africa, China was praised as a country that takes its commitments to human rights seriously and can serve as a model for best practices in the field of economic and social development. To the latter, mostly developed countries in Europe and North America, China still has far to go and much work remaining to do in order to safeguard the civil and political rights of its citizens. When the time came for China to choose which recommendations it would accept and which it would not, unsurprisingly it was the more critical comments calling on China to combat torture, restrict the widespread use of capital punishment, ensure the rights of all criminal defendants and their defense lawyers, extend religious freedom, and enhance the autonomy afforded to Tibetans and Uyghurs that did not make the cut.

This division—between economic and social rights on the one hand and civil and political rights on the other—reflects a rupture in the theory of human rights that has been festering for decades. In the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which serves as a founding document for both international human rights law and the institution of the United Nations itself, an array of economic, social, cultural, and political rights were envisioned as inherent, inalienable, and universal manifestations of human dignity. Individuals possess these rights automatically as part of their humanity, and it is the responsibility of states to establish institutions to safeguard those rights.

China and many other countries see things rather differently. To them, economic and social rights—rights ensuring an adequate standard of living, for example—are more fundamental than other rights. For developing nations facing serious challenges of poverty, lack of education, scarce resources, and overpopulation, use of strong measures to quell lawlessness or quiet dissent is often seen as necessary for maintaining the stability upon which economic development depends. Thus, the governments of countries like China prefer to consider “national circumstances” before choosing whether to extend or withdraw citizens’ rights. At best, civil and political rights are acknowledged only as aspirations for the future, after society’s economic needs have first been met; at worst, they are respected in name only, but in practice become empty rights, devoid of any real meaning.

Countries like China argue with some conviction that the theory of “human rights” was dreamed up in the west, adopted as a universal principle without real input from most of the peoples of the world, and has inevitably been used to attack developing countries and keep them subservient. They see the Human Rights Council and the UPR process as an opportunity to revisit these principles and, ideally, refashion a new rights theory that gives states more leeway to decide which rights are most important for their peoples. Such a conceptualization, likely to enjoy the support of a majority of countries, would be more “democratic,” they argue—tossing back another so-called universal principle they view with considerable skepticism.

If the will of this so-called majority—one composed of not a few governments with dubious claims to truly represent the peoples they govern—is allowed to prevail and the rights of individuals turned from something universal into something dependent on political or cultural boundaries, then many civil, political, and cultural rights will simply disappear over vast stretches of the earth. Seeing the Human Rights Council allowed to become a forum for this idea, the question becomes: is there be any institution left with the credibility and authority to stand up for the principle of universal human rights?

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