Renée Loth

Human rights are absolute

By Renée Loth
December 18, 2010

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CHINA’S BITTER protest of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo last week is broader than simple pique over the prize going to pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, currently languishing in a Chinese prison. In its fury, China challenged the very notion of universal human rights, saying they are merely “Western values’’ imposed in a kind of moral imperialism on the rest of the world. China even launched a rival Confucius Peace Prize to highlight Asian ideals and ethics.

No knock on Confucius — whom the Communist regime did not always revere — and the more recognition for world peace, the better. But the assertion that fundamental human rights are somehow just a matter of Western cultural whimsy, like wearing shoes indoors or using the Roman alphabet, can be used to rationalize all kinds heinous practices under the banner of “tradition.’’

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written at the United Nations in 1948, drew upon all the great religious texts and founding documents of the world, not just enlightenment Europe. China was a signatory. When Eleanor Roosevelt set up the commission to draft the resolution, one of her vice-chairs was the Chinese diplomat P.C. Chang, who quoted Chinese sources repeatedly to show compatibility with innate human rights. More recently, China has taken to issuing its own annual report highlighting violations by the United States of the UN Declaration.

“China can’t have it both ways,’’ said John Shattuck, former assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Clinton administration, “criticizing the US and Western democracies for human rights violations, and then denying that they are universal.’’

Hypocrisy aside, broadly accepted principles of human dignity could be in jeopardy as China expands its geopolitical might. It’s one thing for China to hold most of America’s debt, or for Shanghai to top the list of local school assessments worldwide. It’s quite another for the concept that state sovereignty trumps individual rights to become the new global norm.

“Either rights are indivisible and universal or they are not,’’ said Charlie Clements, director of the Carr Center on Human Rights policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “And if they are not, then you can have anyone denying citizens their rights.’’

Of course, the notion that enforcing human rights constitutes an attack on a nation’s deeply held traditions is not limited to China. Clements points to women living under Taliban rule, who have been put to death for teaching girls to read, or for being victims of rape. “That’s what you get when you let people say that rights are culturally defined,’’ he said. Just this week the UN issued a report on Afghanistan, which found that forced marriages, honor killings, and giving away girls to settle disputes were ongoing practices.

Even in the United States, the advance of human progress has been resisted on the grounds that change would undermine cultural traditions, from slavery to women’s suffrage to capital punishment. It isn’t easy to look in the mirror. “I think what the declaration asks us to do is to rise above our nationalities and our regional or local cultural values to ask, what rights do we all share simply by virtue of being human?’’ Clements said.

China’s influence, unlike that of much of the developing world, is rapidly expanding. It used its muscle to persuade 18 other countries to boycott the Nobel ceremony. Even the UN commissioner for human rights, South Africa’s Navi Pillay, had somewhere else to be that day. It can’t be a coincidence that this year China overtook the United States as South Africa’s biggest trade partner.

Diplomats, activists, and people working in non-governmental organizations need to be sensitive to traditional cultures. Not every family artisan hand-knotting rugs in India is a victim of child labor violations. But some parameters can be drawn around what is acceptable cultural practice and what is coercive or abusive. Girls and boys can be educated separately, perhaps, but girls cannot be denied education altogether. And their teachers cannot be subject to acid attacks or beheadings.

The argument that all cultures are equally valid only goes so far. Human rights are not just a cultural preference, like wearing jeans or drinking Coca-Cola. As the world becomes more interconnected across religious, political, and cultural lines, we need to agree that some values are absolute.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.