The Need for an Intercivilizational Approach to Evaluating Human Rights

Human Rights Dialogue 1.10 (Fall 1997) "Efforts, East and West, to Improve Human Rights Assessments"

Contemporary debates over human rights and the international mechanisms for their protection reflect fundamental problems in today’s human rights regime. The promotion of human rights is an extremely important means of realizing the spiritual and material well-being of humanity. But human rights advocacy is a tool, not an end, and its usefulness and flaws must be constantly scrutinized. I have thus engaged in a critique of some of the standards currently used by Western NGOs to assess the state of human rights within countries. These standards are not objective and are often insensitive and inappropriate to non-Western realities; therefore I argue for the development of an "intercivilizational" approach to human rights assessments.

A Western "universalist" approach assumes that a common value system based on Western philosophy will be achieved through legalistic mechanisms; an intercivilizational approach instead assumes the existence of plural value systems and seeks their integration. The notion that what is universal is something Western must be dispelled. Over and over again, the "Asian way," Islam, the social customs of Hinduism, and the ethics of Confucianism are cited as examples of particularity, while the "European way" or Christianity are not. Even when Senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore criticizes human rights diplomacy as Western universalism, he defends his culture in the name of relativity or particularity, thereby reinforcing Westcentrism. Unless an intercivilizational approach is adopted, it seems unlikely that a non-Western value could gain universal acceptance. That said, the major human rights instruments and declarations, to which the overwhelming majority of nations are committed, can provide a first cut at identifying intercivilizational human rights. The intercivilizational validity of existing provisions can then be measured by the degree to which their formulation is inclusive.

An intercivilizational approach would assess human rights conditions according to common international human rights policies and practices, taking into account the social, political, economic, and historical realities of the countries being judged. Such an approach is not intended as a defense of arguments made by some developing countries for not protecting and promoting certain civil and political rights. Rather, it aims to free the human rights discourse from the Westcentric practice of viewing "authentic" human rights as civil and political rights, while giving only lip service to economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights. Governments have long characterized ESC rights as political programs or as abstract rights, lacking in judicial enforceability. The monitoring bodies of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the European Social Charter, the American Convention on Human Rights, and other human rights conventions, as well as the International Labor Organization, support the dual nature of state obligations under most economic, social, and cultural rights provisions: states are obligated both to refrain from violating rights and to work toward their realization.

Under an intercivilizational approach the obligation of states to ensure that all persons under their jurisdiction can enjoy subsistence with human dignity would have primacy. There are a variety of ways to realize human rights beyond judicial enforcement; for example, through government social policy, human rights education and publicity, and supervision by domestic and international media and monitoring bodies.

Judging whether existing assessments provide a comprehensive notion of human rights—one that gives ESC rights equal attention to civil and political rights—is the first step in developing intercivilizational standards of assessment. To begin this process, I examined three of the most widely circulated annual human rights reports produced by West-based NGOs—Amnesty International Report, Human Rights Watch World Report, and Freedom in the World, by Freedom House—and Charles Humana's World Human Rights Guide. The Guide was adopted by the United Nations Development Programme as an index of political freedoms in its Human Development Report 1991, but subsequently dropped.

Overall, these reports do not reflect an intercivilizational perspective. Mostly descriptive in their methods, the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports deal almost exclusively with civil and political rights. Freedom in the World does provide information on countries' economic systems, purchasing power parities, and the population percentages of ethnic groups. It also contains a table that compares social and economic indicators, like real GDP and life expectancy, across countries. But the few references to socioeconomic factors are limited to crude national statistical data, which do not reflect the socioeconomic reality of individuals.

The observations and judgments in the Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House reports lack accountability. They generally do not disclose the criteria used to select countries or to make judgements. Such omissions are most serious in the case of Freedom in the World, which uses a system of rating based on the status of political and civil rights, from 1 (most free) to 7 (least free), and then classifies countries as "free," "partly free," or "not free."

By contrast, Humana's World Human Rights Guide does explain the method of assessment. The Guide classifies the degree of protection of 40 selected rights in 104 countries into four categories: 1) unqualified respect for the rights; 2) qualified satisfactory answers for occasional breaches thereof; 3) frequent violations thereof; and 4) a constant pattern of violations thereof. However, Humana too fails to specify his criteria for judgment according to the scales he lays out. Moreover, only three of the forty rights chosen come from the ICESCR. The Guide does not address articles 10, 11, or 13 of the ICESCR, which deal respectively with protection of and assistance to the family, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to education. Humana justifies this by saying that his questionnaire could make only limited use of the articles of the ICESCR because "promises and aspirations cannot be measured."

The fact of the matter is that the degree to which committments under the ICESCR have been realized by states parties can be assessed. For example, a question of whether and how adequately a state accords to mothers paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits could be evaluated by inquiring into the existence of such practices, the amount and period of payments or security benefits, and other objective features. -Data on daily caloric intake per person could be a measure of the standard of living, while the literacy rate could shed light on the right to education. Of course, there is room to argue over whether and to what extent these figures can adequately demonstrate an individual's enjoyment of ESC rights, as standard economic and social indices are expressed in the aggregate. However, the inadequacy of the data is even more serious in the case of civil and political rights.

In his Guide, Humana accords extra weight to seven rights when assessing countries, relying on what he regards as a “straightforward exercise of common sense” in prioritizing rights. While there might be global agreement on giving greater weight to rights whose violation involves physical suffering, it is doubtful whether the entire international community would agree with Humana’s selection, which includes freedom from capital punishment. The Guide’s assessment is based on the subjective view of the author, which reflects the bias of Western NGOs and media.

Had Humana taken an intercivilizational approach to prioritizing rights, he would first have identified the juridical significance of the right in question by determining: 1) how many states are party to the instruments that provide for the right in question; 2) whether states party to the instruments are allowed to derogate from the protection of the right; 3) whether the right is construed to be a peremptory norm; and 4) whether violation of the right is an international crime. In fact, states party to the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which aims for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty, number only 31 out of the 140 states that had ratified the covenant as of December 1996. Prohibition of the death penalty does not constitute a contemporary norm in international law. Moreover, how one judges the death penalty depends heavily on one’s worldview and religious, philosophical, or ontological beliefs. Is the right in question adhered to, endorsed by, or at least construed to be compatible with the teachings of major religions? Is there an equivalent norm among the major legal systems or social ethics transcending civilizational boundaries? From an intercivilizational perspective, freedom from capital punishment would not likely be given higher priority than other freedoms.

All this is to suggest that far more sophisticated methods are needed to rate human rights conditions within countries properly. Such methods would have to meet the following minimal requirements: 1) they must reflect the major international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICESCR, and the ICCPR, in a comprehensive and well-balanced manner; 2) they must have been derived from an inclusive process so as to have intercivilizational legitimacy; 3) they must be statistically sound; and 4) they must make explicit the bases and procedures underlying the rating system. This would entail describing the actual data they use, the standards for selecting and judging data, the identity of those who operationalize the concepts used, the procedures employed to minimize biases and preconceptions, and other information needed for accountability.

Transparency and accountability are required not only of governments, but also of influential nongovernmental actors. Without these, it is difficult for the West to respond to Third World charges of "cultural imperialism" or biased self-righteousness. Only when more balanced standards are applied in judging human rights conditions in countries around the world will violators be denied the defense of biased judgment. Intercivilizational assessment standards would also make it possible to evaluate countries’ claims to exemplary economic, social, and cultural rights conditions by ensuring that rhetoric is accompanied by sincere efforts to realize these rights. An intercivilizational approach to human rights could thus play double role: first, it would liberate the human rights discourse from domination by Westcentrism; and, second, it would expand and improve commitment to all human rights on a global scale.

Read More: Global Governance, Globalization, Human Rights, United Nations

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