What Can and Should the International Community Do to Promote Human Rights?

Human Rights Dialogue 1.1 (Spring 1994): "Human Rights in the Post-Cold War Era"

The seminar devoted much of the day to exploring ways to improve the efforts of donor countries and multilateral institutions to promote human rights. The discussion covered six principal themes.

First, the seminar looked at how to devise an appropriate policy mix. There was broad agreement among participants that to influence the behavior of governments both carrots and sticks, constructive and punitive measures, should be considered. In opening a discussion of human rights with other countries it is important to lay several options on the table and decide together the most appropriate measures in relation to the cultural and security context. The key to devising effective human rights policy is a recognition of the fundamental distinction between punitive approaches and constructive measures: a punitive approach isolates alleged violators while constructive approaches includes them.

Herbert Levin of the United Nations Secretariat cautioned that the human rights community's push for the automatic application of punitive measures without consideration of the specific circumstances is often detrimental to bilateral relations. He cited the American experience in Central America and its current policy setbacks in China as examples. Cecilia Jimenez noted that aid conditionality, economic sanctions, and other punitive measures are double-edged from the point of view of the effects on human rights victims. On the other hand, another participant pointed out, there may be circumstances in which the human rights situation is so bad, such as in Burma, that constructive alternatives are not viable.

Another issue requiring donor attention is reconciliation, how the international community purges abuses. For there to be reconciliation, there first must be widespread understanding within the society that human rights abuses stem from deeply rooted systemic problems. Often, the use of torture, extortion, and other forms of abuse result from the fact that the police are poorly trained, poorly paid, and poorly supported, one participant pointed out. Means should be sought to have societies address the fundamental shortcomings within their security, judicial, or law enforcement system as a step toward reconciliation

The question of how and when to apply economic and political conditionality constituted a second theme. Several participants raised the question of whether it is possible to devise a system of conditionalities based on stages of economic development. Yvonne Thayer explained that her bureau is exploring the development of a "menu of benchmarks" to measure trends or pro-gress on human rights. There was significant interest among participants in this idea, although some cautioned that donors need to pay attention to consistency in the application of policy from one country to another. Inconsistency exposes the donor country to charges not only of imposing its values on another country but also of selectivity in the application of tese values. In fact, the perception that the West, particularly the United States, operates according to double standards has been a key concern of Asian governments.

But is policy consistency really possible or even necessary? One problem with a requirement for consistency is the great difficulty in categorizing countries in Asia due to the historical and political diversity among them. Taking our three case studies as examples, Burma is a fascist state, which, being relatively large and fertile, is capable of resisting external pressure and remaining self-sufficient for years. North Korea is a rigidly authoritarian communist regime, which while economically vulnerable is able to use the threat of nuclear force as leverage in foreign relations. The case of North Korea is further complicated by the fact that it is so rigidly controlled that governments that deal with North Korea have very little information about it. China, also a communist state, is less enigmatic than North Korea in terms of the flow of communication. It possesses significant economic and military potential, and while its human rights record has improved consi-derably under Deng Xiaoping, it continues to violate many civil and political rights. Such a range of circumstances makes it difficult to devise any one policy prescription for the entire region.

A second reason for varying policies toward countries is that in each case human rights must be ranked among other legitimate and often linked policy concerns. The U.S.-China clash over human rights demonstrates how human rights objectives conflict with other national interests, namely trade and security. Policies directed at improvements in one or both of these areas may indirectly enhance or threaten human rights depending on the particular set of circumstances. Furthermore, as Asian governments enter the human rights discourse, the attention each gives to human rights is uneven, which is another factor in the formulation of policy. The weighing of these factors has led the United States (and other donors) to devise varying policy prescriptions. As a result, a situation exists whereby often the nations with which it has the closest relations are held to the highest, and some might say the harshest, standards.

To address the question of how external pressure contributes to the promotion of human rights, one participant suggested that a study be devised to systematically assess the effects of pressure by the international community on Korea and Taiwan. Part of the effort would involve distinguishing the effects of external pressure from the liberalizing tendencies that accompany the processes of modernization. Consideration would need to be given to the level of self-sufficiency of the country in question and its susceptibility to external pressures.

A third theme of the discussions was the importance of dialogue and cooperation, both multilateral and bilateral, among donors. As Yozo Yokota remarked, "What matters is not only the appropriate mix of security, economic and human rights concerns that exist for any one donor policy, but also what mix other donors like Japan and Korea come up with." For the United States, given its tendency to go it alone, this is especially important. According to Yvonne Thayer:

It's ridiculous to think that the United States can do something as a lone ranger in Asia. We can t have an effective arms or economic embargo against Burma, for example, if there is not cooperation. So we consult with our allies very closely. But we don t expect that they will do exactly what we do.

Sophia Woodman of the New York-based NGO Human Rights in China added that especially because its motives are often viewed as suspect in other countries, such as China, the United States needs to work cooperatively with other donors.

Regular donor country dialogue on human rights can be assured through the institutionalization of the debate, perhaps within an already existing forum. One likely possibility is the Group of Seven (G7), the annual meeting of leading industrialized nations. Participants generally concurred that with the input of knowledgeable individuals, such as country monitors, policy coordination could be substantially improved, and that it is also important to include parliamentarians in the process, given that much of the pressure on governments to take human rights actions often originates with these bodies.

Within Asia, the Clinton administration's two potential allies on human rights are Japan and South Korea. Both countries are aligned with the United States philosophically in that they adhere to the universality of human rights. Furthermore, through economic aid programs and increasing trade flows, both are capable of exerting influence on their neighbors in the region. In the Japanese case, human rights policy has evolved considerably since 1991. The sharpening of the debate within Asia on human rights and the role of foreign aid have forced Japan to define a position for itself in opposition to some aspects of the "Asian concept of human rights," without subscribing completely to the Clinton administration's vision of human rights and democracy. Likewise, the Republic of Korea identifies with the West and essentially supported Western positions at Vienna; but it also cautions the West against being too rigid in its application. (See p. 10)

Mutual understanding and coordination between the United States and Japan, the two largest aid donors in the region, on the promotion of human rights is essential, a number of participants noted. This is so given the powerful commercial interests both countries have in the region. If Japan decides not to press a country, such as Burma or China, to improve human rights and instead resumes normal economic relations, it becomes difficult for the United States to resist doing the same. This point is especially relevant today given the high priority the United States is assigning to maintaining access to markets in the region. The issue also raises a number of salient questions regarding the human rights impact of economic engagement or disengagement and the need to discern how economic leverage can advance the cause of human rights.

In his commentary on the effects of international human rights policy on China, Liu Binyan called into question Japanese motives. Describing the "eagerness" of Japanese business to reenter the Chinese market following the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Liu argued that Japan has too much invested in communist China to be a force for change in its human rights practices. Liu also cited rumors that the Japanese government cooperates with the Chinese government in dealing with dissidents in Japan, as evidenced by the fact that Chinese dissidents living in Japan are required to renew their visas every five or six months.

Several participants questioned whether the United States inclination to link human rights with democracy may hinder prospects for American cooperation on human rights with Japan and other potential allies. Yozo Yokota responded that a more significant difference between Japanese and American governmental approaches is that Americans are motivated by, and steadfast in their adherence to, principle. By contrast, Japan, like other Asian governments, tries to find "the best way, what is most pragmatic" and least destabilizing to the relationships. Yokota's comment recalled the view expressed earlier that it is the approach to human rights that differs between Asia and the West, not the concepts themselves.

Japan has been reluctant to define its stance on human rights in part because of its belief that the memory of Japanese abuses in the region during World War I is so strong that it could hardly take the moral high ground vis-à-vis other countries in Asia, according to Yokota. Although this attitude is changing in Japan, human rights there still do not have the sta- ture they do in the United States. Estrellita Jones of Amnesty International responded that most governments, including the United States, have a tainted history of human rights abuses, and that this shouldn t preclude a more forceful role in protecting human rights:

If we all have that problem, then that should be an accepted given, and in the effort of improving our own backyard, it still gives us the right—even the responsibility—to speak out. India spoke out on behalf of the release of Aung Sun Suu Kyi [the detained leader of the opposition movement in Burma]. We know human rights abuses in India are quite serious. But that doesn t relieve it of the responsibility to speak out.

Such sensitivities surrounding historical relationships might be better managed by relying on available international mechanisms. As Sidney Jones explained, "If you can t agree on economic sanctions, in Burma, for example, you might be able to agree to press for ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] access." It is likely that target governments would be more responsive to action by the United Nations than any unilateral action by a single donor. In addition, it was argued, greater efforts should be made to incorporate human rights considerations into the decision making of international development agencies like the World Bank, the ADB (Asian Development Bank), and the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

This discussion led to a fourth general theme of the seminar: the need for effective institutional arrangements in the region for addressing human rights. While there has been consideration of this point within the United Nations, there is still no equivalent in Asia to the CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe), the Council for Europe, the OAS (Organization of American States), and the OAU (Organization of African Unity) where human rights discussions can take place. Participants agreed that governments should also consider the viability of conditioning IMF, World Bank, and ADB loans on human rights performance, perhaps as an alternative to economic or trade conditionality by individual countries. Cecilia Jimenez added that the same institutions have in the past violated the principle of the indivisibility of rights by giving unequal attention to each of the four categories of rights: civil, political, social, and economic. She called for pressure to be exerted upon these institutions to reverse this.

Yozo Yokota spoke of the need for greater United Nations support for human rights. He argued, for example, that Burma requires a higher level envoy than a special rapporteur, someone with a broader jurisdiction than human rights who might serve as a mediator between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military. At the very least, in Yokota's experience, the special rapporteur needs the support of a monitor, perhaps assigned by the UNDP (United Nations Development Program), who is stationed in the field to keep track of daily events. But, he cautioned, any strategy to strengthen UN human rights observance of Burma can only be effective if the UN representative is accepted by the Burmese State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC).

The fifth general theme raised by the seminar was internal capacity building within Asian countries. One way that donor countries and multilateral agencies can be helpful in promoting human rights is to increase assistance for strengthening institutions and training within recipient countries. The international human rights community might, for example, urge governments to set up national committees on human rights. Cecilia Jimenez issued a warning that despite the positive potential of national institutes "they often fail miserably," and the internationalhuman rights community should pay special attention to how these offices are set up. She cited the example of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, created in 1987, which is staffed with people who are not advocates of human rights and a chairman who reportedly favors the continuation of paramilitary groups.

Several participants proposed that the international human rights community, including the American, Japanese, and South Korean governments, should press other governments to admit human rights monitors into their countries. Once permission is granted, the individual monitors should be given adequate training. The presence of monitors would facilitate data gathering and thereby support more informed donor as well as national policies.

In addition, greater financial assistance and training for national NGOs is key to the successful promotion of human rights, and enables them to participate effectively in international fora. James Ross, Asia director for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, noted that no NGOs exist in any of the case study countries—North Korea, China, or Burma—and argued that this is a serious problem. Referring to the suggestion of examining the experiences of Korea and Taiwan, he said, "compared to the situations in Malaysia and Singapore, the fundamental reason there was real progress in South Korea and Taiwan was because there were people working from within these countries." Other participants agreed, adding that regional and international support networks and exchanges should be strengthened. Furthermore, they said, every effort should be made to encourage governments to recognize domestic NGOs.

In the case of China, Liu Binyan said, in the aftermath of the widespread suffering the Chinese people experienced under Mao Zedong, there is greater political awareness and thus a willingness among citizens to reconsider traditional values. He encouraged international efforts to promote citizen education so that "they can learn more about themselves, about the world, and about the history of ideas and the struggle for political liberty worldwide." Likewise, Francoise Vandale noticed a dearth of books in the libraries during her trip to North Korea and suggested that making more publications available would be of great benefit to the people. One problem with this, however, is the fact that international human rights documents do not exist in most languages and are therefore inaccessible to many citizens around the world. Yokota stressed this point in his description of the human rights situation in Burma. He reported that economic, social, and cultural rights have improved in a limited sense, but there is little sign of improvement in the area of civil and political rights. "All articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are being abrogated in Burma. Translating the declaration and making it accessible to citizens would be a first step in empowering them," he said.

The sixth theme of the discussions was the need to ensure a place for human rights discussions in international relations. As mentioned above, human rights diplomacy does not take place in a vacuum apart from other competing national concerns, namely economics and security. Yet too often human rights are lost among these other interests. James Guyot of Baruch College noted the drawbacks of having a separate human rights office within a foreign office. While a separate office ensures attention to human rights, there is an attendant risk that compartmentalization will marginalize human rights in overall policy-making.

It is also important to consider the powerful role that business can play in the promotion of human rights. Because ruling governments need foreign investment, direct and indirect, businesses with investments and subsidiaries in countries with abusive governments can exercise considerable leverage. Yet often the human rights consequences of internaional business activity are largely ignored.

In the case of Burma, foreign investment has usually meant an infusion of money into the hands of Burma's ruling junta. Despite the support this lends to SLORC (not to mention the long-term economic, and—in the case of tropical hardwood exports— serious ecological consequences of some investments) companies have not been legally restricted or discouraged from investing. One seminar participant suggested that the human rights community work with corporations to design incentives for businesses to pay more attention to human rights.

Several participants voiced a concern that multinational corporations sometimes work at cross-purposes with the international human rights community, as well as with individual donor countries. Such a scenario was recently played out during Secretary of State Warren Christopher's visit to China. As Christopher struggled to defend the administration's beleaguered position, American business publicly exhorted the administration to remove the link between trade and human rights from its China policy. Another concern, as Herbert Levin pointed out, is that, as with the global debate on the environment at the Earth Summit in Rio, protectionist interests within donor countries, disguised as human rights advocates, might "take over" the issue and distort the worthy objectives of the human rights community.

*1* For example, Bilahari Kausikan, the doirector of the East Asian and Pacific Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, made this claim in "Asia's different standard," which appeared in Foreign Policy, no. 92, Fall 1993.
*2* "To Justify Flogging, Singapore Cites 'Chaos' on U.S. Streets," New York Times, April 13 1994, p. 2.
*3* It should be noted that neither the possession of handguns nor pornography is a human rights issue in a legal sense; they are constitutional issues. the point the speaker was making is that the values underlying these issues are changing in the United States, opening these subjects to debate.

Read More: Human Rights, Human Rights, Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Myanmar, Taiwan, North Korea, South Korea

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