The cover of Newsweek (Asia) has a simple dramatic picture of two rather slight, very clean, Caucasian hands, tied behind someone’s back. Even the rope is clean.
Mark Twain famously said that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. Let us review the plausible obituaries for the “death of human rights.”
Human rights, as we now understand them, are the product of the period since World War II. Human rights, as theme, or discourse, or ideology, began with the United Nations Charter of 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It was a good beginning.
DEATH NUMBER ONE: THE COLD WAR
The new United Nations quickly became non-functional. The cold war, historians say, was underway before the peace treaties were signed. The Soviet Union was grabbing as much of Europe as it could, and the US began its major policy of “containment” of the Eastern Bloc. And then China went communist. The hope for a consensus on something like human rights was dead.
Not so. The US accused the USSR of human rights violations. The USSR accused the US of human rights violations. Both sides ‘talked the talk’. The USSR, we have to remember, had enacted a constitution in 1936 that proclaimed more rights than any Western legal system had ever recognised. In contrast racial segregation continued in schools in the US into the 1950s.
DEATH NUMBER TWO: DECOLONISATION
We all know that it is nasty countries in the developing world that block human rights at the UN – Zimbabwe, Libya, Uganda, Pakistan, Malaysia – even squeaky clean Singapore. Decolonisation was officially endorsed by the UN in 1960. There was a new ‘third world’ majority in the UN. Surely that meant the death of human rights.
Not so. Newly independent countries had their own human rights agenda. They loved their membership in the UN, for it confirmed their new international status. They pushed for (a) the end of colonialism and neo-colonialism, (b) economic development, and (c) strong action against racism. This agenda was aimed at the old imperial powers, including the Soviet Union.
The US led Western Bloc and the USSR-led Eastern Bloc both sought support from the developing world. Both had to take a strong line against racism.
Racism became the consensus human rights issue in the United Nations in the 1960s and it led to (a) the first major international human rights treaty (on racism), approved by the UN General Assembly in 1965, (b) the first UN body to which states, who signed the treaty, had to report regularly (the first of now perhaps ten such “treaty bodies”), (c) the first independent experts with mandates to investigate human rights abuses in any member country, (d) the naming of violating countries (which had been taboo among the polite well-dressed diplomats in New York and Geneva), (e) UN organised world conferences on human rights (the first big ones on racism).
DEATH NUMBER THREE: THE UNIPOLAR WORLD
With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the cold war was over. The West had won. The United States was now the only superpower. The United States did not have to be nice to the developing world, for developing states could no longer shift their allegiances to the Eastern Bloc. Foreign aid from the West declined sharply – and aid was increasingly conditional.
The Western bloc was now pushing the developing world around. Aid, military cooperation, trade privileges were increasingly tied to the human rights performance of developing states. The Asian tigers, with their booming economies, responded that they had “Asian values.” Asian loyalty to family, community and nation, they said, were superior to Western ideas of ‘universal’ human rights (with their individualistic, competitive bias).
Dr. Mahathir, every week gave a speech somewhere condemning Western patterns – pornography, teenage pregnancies, drugs, homosexuality. Singapore said at a UN conference in 1993 that human rights were largely ‘contested’ ideas. Rising Asia was putting UN human rights in the deep freeze.
Not so. The Asian financial crisis of 1997/8 ended the smug ideas of Asian exceptionalism. Asian values, it seemed, involved greed, corruption and crony capitalism. And the most important backer of the anti-universalist stance sold out. The major country that had backed Singapore and Malaysia and India and Indonesia in their skepticism of ‘Western’ values signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and put ‘human rights’ in their constitution.
Why did China abandon the fight? Its banks were technically bankrupt. It needed to open its economy and attract foreign investment to ride out its crisis (and avoid the economic collapse that had felled the USSR). It had to convince foreign investors that it would play by international trade rules. It had to join the World Trade Organization. Membership in the WTO would be blocked in the US Congress unless China started talking the human rights talk. So it ‘talked the talk’ and got in. Now the Chinese economy is saving the Western world.
DEATH NUMBER FOUR: THE NEW POWER RELATIONSHIPS
No one talks of the ‘unipolar’ world any more. The reign of the US as the ‘only superpower’ ended rather quickly, confirmed unmistakably by the ‘subprime’ mortgage crisis in which US extravagance upset the world economy. Now we hear talk of a bi-polar order – the US and China. That, of course, is a big oversimplification, but the fact it can be said suggests how basically international relations are being transformed. The G-8 club of smug rich countries has disappeared, now replaced by the G-20 with Brazil, Russia, India and China identified as the BRIC group, each doing better at the moment than the EU, the US or Japan.
And what is the agenda of the G-20 and the BRIC group? First, overcoming the current financial crisis. Second, better trade terms. Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton both visited China and essentially said nothing about human rights. Why? Because Chinese economic growth is the top priority for everyone. What a change from the visit of President Bill Clinton, who lectured China on human rights live on national television. He was delivering World Trade Organization membership to China, and China had to be nice. No longer. So human rights, finally, are dead.
Not so. China has “human rights” in its constitution. Brazil, now an international player, has the most gay-friendly government in the world – beating out the wonderful Netherlands, who held the crown for so long. The alliance of Black African states and Islamic states that kept LGBT issues off the UN agenda are now facing the new “universal period review” in which nice countries like Sweden get to ask them why they haven’t repealed their sodomy laws and recognised same-sex relationships.
And the US never sanctioned China over human rights anyway, so Hillary is not really backing off from established US policies. It only sanctions countries that are not economically important for the US – like Myanmar. Maybe we are now achieving the ‘multipolar’ world that the European Union kept saying was coming (particularly during the dour years of unipolarism under George W).
Human rights, as we now understand them, began their development in 1945 and 1948. They grew slowly. It took 20 years from the Charter to the approval of the first important human rights treaty by the General assembly. The UN first got investigatory, reporting and adjudicative powers on human rights in the 1960s. They had to develop slowly.
Human rights have grown at times, and stagnated at times. But in the 65 years from the Charter, there has never been a reversal. We are still on track, though we often seem to run low on gas.
No funeral. No flowers, thank you.
Douglas Sanders is a retired Canadian law professor living in Bangkok. He is a member of the ILGA Communications Team in Asia. He can be contacted at sanders_gwb @ yahoo.ca.