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World: Analysis from Washington -- Human Rights Advocates Face Difficult Challenges

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 8 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- As the world marks International Human Rights Day this week, the principle that all human beings have certain basic rights is increasingly under attack from three and to a certain extent unexpected new directions.

Both the nature of these attacks and even more their source may mean that advocates of human rights will face a more difficult set of challenges in the future.

In the past and unfortunately even now, authoritarian governments and political movements have sought to deny people the rights that the international community has identified as fundamental.

But these abuses did not by themselves challenge the principle that every human being has certain inalienable rights. The three new challenges do precisely that.

First, ever more governments and peoples around the world are arguing that human rights as such do not exist. Rather they argue that rights are part and parcel of specific national or cultural traditions.

They suggest that what the West calls "human rights" had its origin in the Western political tradition and that efforts to impose such "rights" on non-Western countries represents a form of Western cultural imperialism.

In the past, many authoritarian and especially communist regimes made this argument. But increasingly it is accepted as legitimate by many in Western democratic states. And acceptance of it there makes often restrains those states from speaking out.

Second, ever more corporations and businesses in Western democracies make the case that economic development should take precedence over the defense of human rights.

Sometimes such groups argue that economic development will create the conditions for human rights in the future, but sometimes they argue more baldly that defending human rights in other countries should not be allowed to get in the way of immediate profits.

Few Western leaders have accepted this view, at least in public, but it has had an often negative impact on their defense of human rights.

On the one hand, it has made them even more selective in taking up the cause of human rights. Under pressure from businesses in their own countries, many of them are willing to remain silent when such regimes deal harshly with their own populations.

And on the other, this view has often trivialized their defense of human rights when they do speak out. Opponents of human rights now can point to the failure of some Western leaders to say anything about other groups.

And these opponents can note the increasing willingness of some Western governments to certify some countries as having a good human rights record even when they do not in order to gain economic advantage.

Over time, this pattern has undermined the ability of supporters of human rights to draw on the power of their governments to advance their cause.

And third, a growing number of analysts in the West are arguing that the West should be more modest in its efforts to promote democracy and human rights abroad.

Instead of pushing for human rights everywhere, these analysts argue that the West should seek to promote them and the democratic societies they are part of only in places where democracy has already taken root.

Such a view is more than superficially attractive to many: it suggests that Western governments should concentrate their efforts where they will do the most good rather than taking what might appear to be a scatter-shot approach doomed to failure.

But this view too undermines the principle of the universality of human rights both by effectively writing off large parts of the world as somehow unworthy of a Western defense of such rights and by thus further trivializing the principle itself.

What all three of these challenges to the principle of the universality of human rights have in common, of course, is that they come less from governments abusing human rights than from people who live in countries where citizens can enjoy them.

And that may be the greatest challenge of all for those who care about human rights: making sure that those who enjoy such rights now will not give up the struggle for the extension of such rights to everyone else.