The international human rights logo

The international human rights logo

In 1948, the fledgling United Nations, fired by a spirit of goodwill and harmony and disgust over the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust, adopted a Univeral Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most inspiring and hopeful documents ever written. It’s well worth reading in full (and it’s not that long). It sets out that all people are created equal and outlaws discrimination, of course, but goes further in safeguarding the right to property, the right to an education, the sanctity of the family, the right to leave countries, the right to a fair legal process, and even the right to vote and run for office. It built on the Enlightenment principles that animated the American and French Revolutions and extended them to the whole world – a very audacious maneuver considering what happened a few years earlier.

And yet, the world has constantly let the UN Declaration down. Like the organization associated with it, there is no way to enforce its principles in a world where countries adamantly guard their sovereignty. Even when it was drafted, the UN had a Security Council power (the Soviet Union) whose national ideology went against a lot of these principles (the right to property, free speech, the right to leave…). China would soon turn Communist as well. Muslim countries have debated ever since whether some of these principles (especially the ones dealing with religion) are compatible with sharia (Islamic law).

With the UN basically toothless in enforcing its own principles, it has therefore fallen to powerful rich countries with an interest in human rights to enforce them — so basically, the West. And really mostly America. Although the concept of “human rights” as defined by the UN have broad appeal, only a few countries are really able and willing to enforce them overseas. And wouldn’t you know it, those countries are the same ones with imperialist legacies.

This sets up one of the most profound, ongoing, and vexing dilemmas in international affairs: What should a country do when others violate human rights? It’s a problem that has come up again and again since 1948, and there’s no agreement on how to solve it. On one hand, human rights are nearly universally acknowledged. There might be some quibbling over whether human rights are being violated, but if they are, then it’s hard to argue that that shouldn’t be stopped. But on the other hand, most countries are fiercely proud and resent others interfering in their business. In a world shaped by colonialism, being lectured by former colonizers is bound to scrape a few nerves.

America tends to get caught in this bind a lot. If it pursues an activist foreign policy, it’s labeled as an arrogant imperialist, bumbling into wars, bossing other, weaker countries around, applying its own standards to vastly different cultures, and even being racist or hypocritical. If it pursues a more hands-off foreign policy, it’s labeled inept, impotent, cowardly, cynical, morally blind or callous, and even racist or hypocritical. Sometimes I think the same people even make these accusations, but in different situations or against different administrations.

As I hope you can see, this is the definition of a dilemma — a problem with no good answer. Especially with places with suspicious attitudes toward outsiders and bitter histories of foreign exploitation, it can be hard to figure out what the West should do.

Take, for example, the issue of term limits in Africa. Barack Obama, on a trip to Ethiopia this July, gave a speech in which he said, “Africa’s democratic progress is also at risk when leaders refuse to step aside when their terms end.” This sentiment has since been enshrined as official American policy: that heads of state must step down when their terms are constitutionally up. It can point to disastrous experiences when leaders hung around for too long: Zaïre’s descent into an orgy of bloodshed after Mobutu Sese Seko’s dictatorship, Zimbabwe’s economic collapse under Robert Mugabe’s 35-year reign, the convulsions of the Arab Spring — which included Libya and Egypt, African countries. Even when long-ruling dictators don’t cause disasters and state collapse, they undermine trust in their intentions: Are they hanging on just to stay in power and rake in the money? Are they planning for a succession somehow, or neglecting any institution-building?

Central Africa is already putting this policy to the test. Burundi’s dictator, Pierre Nkurunziza, wants to run for a 3rd term, despite ruling for 10 years already. This sparked protests, which were met with mass arrests and beatings, which have sparked riots and deadly violence. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the local dictator, Joseph Kabila, is rumored to be planning to stay in power despite having ruled for 14 years — which sparked violent protests earlier this year. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame has been around for 15 years (or 21, since he really controlled the country for that long) and is rumored to be planning to run again in 2017 anyway. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni has stayed in power for almost 30 years and has scrapped term limits altogether.

But what can the US do? Put economic sanctions on these countries, and squeeze already impoverished Africans? Impose travel bans on the offending leaders, and piss them off without most likely accomplishing anything? Go to war in a part of the world that’s probably not in its vital national interest? Fund rebel groups in the area that have their own agendas, and who have usually committed war crimes in the past? Any of these measures could be seen as imperial overreach and superpower bullying — and frankly, would probably not get the leaders to step down.

That leaves 1 viable option: complaining/whining/cajoling/persuading. And that, accordingly, is what the US has done. It also has not achieved much. Critics have attacked the US for cowardice and tacit acceptance of political gangsterism. The leaders have told the US to mind its own business.

China presents a sustained challenge to Western hopes to enforce a universal human rights standard. It flagrantly violates them in all sorts of ways — a deeply flawed judicial system, forced abortions and restrictions on family size*, rigid censorship, discrimination against religion and certain ethnic groups, and of course, a government closed to public participation except at the village level. It is also a Security Council power and newly assertive on the world stage. It also holds the world’s biggest foreign-exchange reserves and is deeply intertwined with the global economy, including the Western economy. It also has a big, influential and rich diaspora with strongly nationalist feelings towards its ancestral country.

China is among the world’s most serious and unrepentant human rights offenders. It clearly believes that the government must not have any opposition or restrictions to its power at all. This is the kind of totalitarian ideology that brought us World War II and the Holocaust — and brought China economic and social ruin under Mao Zedong. It views its people as subjects to manipulate for its grand national strategy. The West increasingly sees it as a possible threat to the international order; even if it’s not particularly interested in exporting its political system, it supports dictatorships that also flagrantly abuse human rights.

But it’s also a key part of the international order, and isn’t exactly hell-bent on overturning it either (at least not since the Mao era). It’s definitely not in the interests of the West to alienate it or piss it off. Chinese economic strength played a major role in seeing the world through the dangerous shoals of the collapse of 2008-9. Western businesses love China for its business-friendly environment, its huge, materialistic market, and its decisive government.

As a result, the general Western line in regards to human rights in China is similar to America’s in regards to term limits in Africa: complain about it regularly, even make it a “high priority” in bilateral relations, but don’t let it get in the way of too many things and don’t do anything else. (Sometimes Western leaders meet with the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, which is meant to be a rebuke of Chinese policy there, but they haven’t led to anything.) There are calls for Western countries to do more sometimes when China does something outrageous (like boycotting the 2008 Olympics as punishment for repressing Tibetan protests), but they are rarely heeded. And like Africa, this policy has had neglible results. Critics howl about Western groveling and hypocrisy and ineptitude. China tends to whine about foreign interference in its domestic affairs (although in recent years it has gotten used to the rhetoric and just ignores it).

So what can the West do? Ignore China, and it sends the signal that countries can violate human rights and abuse their citizens if they’re powerful and rich enough. Punish China, and it could create a peeved, vengeful, erratic country like North Korea, only with much more wrecking potential. Welcoming China into the international community has had huge benefits for its people and the rest of the world. Is standing up for human rights principles worth sacrificing that?

Barack Obama has had to navigate these situations several times as president. Just this week, an election was held in Myanmar. Myanmar was once a horrible, repressive, paranoid regime that cut itself off from the outside world and beggared its people. Then, in response to fears that China was becoming too dominant, it released political prisoners and loosened political restrictions. The West — led by Obama — rewarded Myanmar by dropping its economic sanctions and reviving diplomatic engagement with it. But it now faces a wave of fanatical Buddhist hatred against its Muslim minority, and relations with other minorities remain tense and suspicious. The military remains in overall control, with a lock on the parliament thanks to a 25% representation guarantee. Should the West really continue pressing for human rights reform when Myanmar has conceded so much — and when its people have gained so much?

There is a similar situation with Cuba. Cuba has been shunned for decades by the US, a relic of the Cold War when it cooperated closely with the Soviet Union and tried to plant nuclear missiles on its territory. It has suffered from a lack of imports and a lack of foreign investment. Realizing that the policy has failed, Obama lifted it in 2014. Trade and tourism have picked up and diplomatic relations have been reestablished. But Cuba still violates human rights. Should the US continue punishing it for being a dictatorship when this strategy hasn’t worked, and when both countries have clearly gained from warmer relations?

The point I’m trying to make here is, human rights is hard. It may seem like a good-vs.-evil issue, but addressing it is much trickier than it may seem. Does isolating a dictatorship do any good? What kind of economic sanctions are most effective? Are human rights violations really grounds for war? What if fighting the war actually causes human rights violations? Is it right for countries to constantly nag each other about human rights? (And this is almost always a West-vs.-the Rest dynamic.) If Western countries don’t stand up for human rights, would anyone else?

The West has certainly been guilty of hypocrisy. It’s nice to Saudi Arabia but harshly critical of Iran when both countries maintain strict Islamic social codes. It has supported dictatorships that have tortured and terrorized their people in the name of opposing… Communist dictatorships that tortured and terrorized their people. It complains about fraudulent elections in Cambodia while warming up to Vietnam, its neighbor, which doesn’t even bother holding elections. It has embargoed Cuba and bombed North Vietnam while toasting Mao Zedong. It has armed and stayed close to Pakistan, a duplicitous, deeply intolerant sponsor of terrorism, while criticizing and shunning democratic and tolerant India. But it’s important to remember that countries always follow their national interests first and put human rights concerns second; to do otherwise would be foolish (and unrealistic).

If there’s one human rights strategy that does enjoy broad support, it’s support for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International tirelessly and bravely campaign around the world for governments to live up to the UN Declaration, expose their lies and coverups, and do their best to fight abuses with what they have. This means that many dictatorships do what they can to swat them away, mindful of what a nuisance they are. They enjoy widespread support in the West, not only because their goals are so noble, but because they can say things that governments often can’t. Western governments also sometimes support NGOs within foreign countries that fight against human rights abuses, but these are always in danger of being strangled by their governments, since they see them (probably rightly) as vehicles for Western influence.

There is no satisfying conclusion to this issue. It’s a problem that the world will go on dealing with. It’s a hard case, one that I’m not convinced anyone has found a perfect solution for. My main point is: Be realistic in what you expect from Western governments. Despite their own numerous failings on domestic human rights, they often genuinely care about how foreigners are doing. They just aren’t sure what to do about it, or whether larger strategic or economic interests should be sacrificed for principles. Human rights may be a topic college students get fired up and march in the streets over, but it’s a heckuva lot easier to criticize Western government policy than to actually figure out what to do.


China has recently loosened this policy.


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