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U.S.: Analysis From Washington -- Defending Human Rights, Defending Sovereignty

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 27 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Efforts to defend the human rights of people living in other countries often have been criticized as an attack on the sovereign rights of those countries. But in fact, such defenses of human rights protect state sovereignty by removing the causes of secessionist challenges and emigration.

The U.S. State Department Monday (26 February) made public its annual survey of human rights practices around the world. As has been true since the first such report was issued in 1977, this year's edition seeks to chronicle both the progress some countries have made in meeting internationally agreed-upon standards of human rights and also the failures of other governments to live up to these obligations.

The report this year surveys the state of human rights in terms of democracy, integrity of the person, press freedom, religious freedom, the status of women and children, worker rights, trafficking in persons, and corporate responsibility.

The report's introduction notes that 2000 "saw a number of advances in human rights, democracy, and fundamental freedoms. It singles out progress in Yugoslavia, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mexico, and South Korea for special mention. But, the report says, China's "poor human rights record worsened during the year" and conditions in Burma, North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Cuba, Belarus, and Turkmenistan remained very bad.

Moreover, the report says that violence in Israel and the occupied territories, Columbia, the Congo, Sudan, Indonesia and Russian actions in Chechnya remained extremely troubling. Each of the sections on individual countries includes information on both progress made over the last year and shortcomings that the State Department says must still be overcome.

Past history suggests that the governments of those countries which are criticized can be expected to complain loudly. In general, they are likely to argue that the report on their country is wrong, biased, or is the product of a political process in which Washington is rewarding its friends by ignoring what they do and punishing its enemies because of what they are engaged in.

Because human rights reports are used to determine how much assistance can be given to a particular country or countries, both the governments criticized and their supporters in the United States have in the past and will certainly now and in the future seek to revise the findings or at least prevent the findings from becoming the basis of policy.

But in addition to these special pleadings, both the criticized governments and many others are likely to bemoan the way in which such reporting about human rights violations represents a threat to state sovereignty. Those who believe that are certain to suggest that every state has the right to determine its own rules of the game domestically and that no other government should be in a position to pass judgment on what they do.

Such arguments when made by the worst offenders are likely to be dismissed, but when they are made by those less immediately subject to attack, then they must be taken seriously, if only to be rejected. Since World War II and since the United Nations documents were signed shortly after the end of that conflict, the international community has held up human rights standards for all.

Overwhelmingly, people view such human rights reporting simply as a means to improving the condition of individuals and groups even if such progress comes at the cost of reducing or redefining state sovereignty. Indeed, that observation certainly captures much of what is taking place.

But there is another and potentially more profound consequence of this kind of report, one that may defend state sovereignty in some areas even as it redefines it in others. By calling for the elimination of precisely those conditions that often power secession or emigration, these reports may promote the stability of the existing state system.

And consequently, some of the countries that are likely to complain the most this year may ultimately discover that they like their own citizens will benefit if they correct the abuses such reports describe.

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