Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 10 (Fall 1997): Efforts, East and West, to Improve Human Rights Assessments: Articles: "The West" Is Not Only the United States: European Assessments of Human Rights

Sep 5, 1997

At a human rights conference organized by the Institute of Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing in 1994, a few Chinese colleagues confronted me with comments about the human rights behavior of “Western governments,” specifically regarding basic economic and social inequalities, social security, medical care, and care for the homeless. These comments turned out to be mainly directed toward the United States, and I quickly pointed out that a dialogue between Asia and “the West” on the nature and universality of human rights should not assume that the West is limited to the United States. Though the revulsion in the United States toward the suppression of human rights in China is widely shared in Western Europe, there are other human rights issues on which we differ from our American friends and certainly from the dominant views espoused by the U.S. government.

Differences of opinion about the nature of human rights exist not only between “the East” and “the West,” but within “the West.” While in most Western European countries, for example, capital punishment has been abolished by law as well as in practice as a wanton violation of the right to life, in most states of the United States it continues to be applied. In addition, while 136 states, including 23 Western states, have by now ratified the ICESCR, the U.S. Congress has so far refused to do so and continues to portray these rights as mere aspirations or ambitions rather than as human rights. Moreover, in most Western European countries, meeting such basic human needs as the rights to education, adequate housing, medical care, and food is a fundamental task of government.

Assessments of human rights performance also differ within the West. For instance, the U.S. State Department publishes its highly informative annual report on human rights practices, which covers every state in the world (except, of course, the United States). However, in line with the U.S. perspective on human rights, these reports deal predominantly with civil and political rights, such as the prohibition of torture and arbitrary arrest, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and freedom of religion, and do not contain any information on economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights, let alone on the rights of collectivities, such as indigenous peoples, or the right to development.

By contrast, in 1985, at the initiative of the Norwegian Parliament, a new series of assessments was started by two independent human rights research institutes: the Norwegian Human Rights Project and the Christian Michelsen Institute. Their joint report, Human Rights in Developing Countries Yearbook, discusses the performance of selected developing countries in relation to all human rights, including ESC rights. Contributions to the Yearbook are now prepared by independent human rights institutes in other Northern European countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Austria, and my country, the Netherlands.

To date, nine Yearbooks have been published and the 1997 edition is being prepared under the guidance of the Christian Michelsen Institute in Norway. They are organized thematically around topics such as the relationship between foreign policy and development assistance, the right to development, and positive measures in development cooperation. Originally, the countries selected were those receiving development assistance from one of the Nordic countries or the Netherlands, but more recently the selection has been made on the basis of available expertise. Unlike the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report, the Yearbook is an independent publication. While its thematic choices reflect the traditional emphasis on development assistance and human rights common to the foreign policies of Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, the studies in the Yearbook do not necessarily reflect official policy.

Within each volume, the country reports are written according to common guidelines, including a fact sheet, a summary, and coverage of the government’s position on human rights. Country reports cover the system of governance and the right to participation, civil rights, economic and social rights, equality and nondiscrimination, and the rights of peoples and minorities. In addition to providing background material, the section on economic and social rights includes data on: the right to an adequate standard of living and freedom from hunger; the equal right to work and to the enjoyment of just and favorable conditions of work; the equal right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; and the right to education. The main sources for these sections are the OECD’s Geographical Distribution of Financial Flows to Developing Countries, UNDP’s Human Development Report, and the World Bank’s World Development Report. Wherever possible the reports are also based on fact-finding missions.

The Norwegian contributions to the Yearbook was subject to an extensive evaluation commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the project’s contribution to its impact on the building of institutions, competence, and capacity in aid-recipient countries. The evaluation generally praised the academic quality of the Yearbook contributions, declaring that “compared to other existing sources, the Yearbook offers more reliable and less biased monitoring criteria.” It recommended, however, that more use be made of expertise in Africa, Asia, and LatinAmerica, possibly through the involvement of qualified research institutes in those areas, and that the Yearbook’s distribution be improved.

In another external evaluation of the Yearbook, which appeared as a report of the Christian Michelsen Institute in Norway, the human rights monitoring of Northern European Democracies was again praised for giving equal weight to ESC rights. However, this evaluation also suggested the need to move even closer to a more culturally, historically, and politically sensitive monitoring model through the promotion of self-monitoring over external monitoring, specifically the “self-monitoring of donor-country international human rights policies and practices” rather than the “external monitoring of the national human rights practices of Southern hemisphere recipient countries.” It was argued that such a monitoring model, coupled with “reversed monitoring” (i.e., having recipient countries monitor donor country human rights practices), would lead to greater moral and political consistency with regard to implementing and enforcing human rights.

The Northern European organizations collaborating on the Yearbook, as well as their funding organizations, are currently exploring ways to address the recommendations made by evaluators so that they can continue to contribute to the development of more balanced human rights assessments in the West.

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