Unchaining Human Rights
Is Really About
Unchaining Human Rights
Can democratic freedom be exported? This is a common question, usually directed at attempts to promote democracy in the Middle East and Africa. No one challenges the legitimacy of this question, but we should, for it is misconceived and answerable in only one way: one does not export to someplace what already exists there. It is not a matter of export, but of removing the chains that bind a people’s human rights. And the most central and essential human right is freedom. This is a right that everyone already has by virtue of being human.
The term “human rights” is recent in origin: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt first used it in a 1941 message to the United States Congress, when he declared that everyone has four human rights–freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from want and fear. Since 1941, there has been a vigorous international affirmation of these and other human rights. Many a nation’s constitution has included them, and they now are part of an International Bill of Rights. The latter comprises Articles 1 and 55 of the 1945 United Nations Charter, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, and the two international covenants passed by the General Assembly in 1966, one on civil and political rights and the other on economic, social, and cultural rights. There is now a United Nations Human Rights Commission that can investigate alleged violations of human rights, and receive and consider complaints. In our nation-centered international system, this is a momentous advance for the human rights of all people.
The conventions and declarations of regional organizations have further strengthened these human rights. To mention a few examples, the Council of Europe adopted the European Convention on Human Rights, and European nations now have the European Court of Human Rights and the European Commission on Human Rights. The Organization of American States adopted the American Declaration on Human Rights, and the American states have created the Inter-American Convention and Court on Human Rights. The Organization for African Unity (now the African Union) has created the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights. Moreover, there have been many formal conferences among states and interested international government organizations on human rights, such as the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights involving 183 nations.
All this international activity on human rights has multiplied the list of rights. People now have at least forty rights listed in the basic international documents on human rights, which are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that on Civil and Political Rights, and that on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The most basic of all these rights are those defining what governments cannot do to their people. From those stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these include everyone’s right to,life, liberty, and personal security; recognition as a person before the law, equal protection of the law, remedy for violation of their rights, fair and public trial, and the presumption of their innocence until proven guilty if charged with a penal offense; leave any country and return, and seek asylum from persecution; the secret ballot and periodic elections, and freely chosen representatives; form and join trade unions, equal access to public service, and participation in cultural life; freedom of movement and residence, thought, conscience and religion, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, and as a parent to choose their children’s education; freedom from slavery or servitude, torture, degrading or inhuman treatment or punishment, arbitrary arrest or detention or exile, arbitrary interference with privacy or family or home or correspondence, deprivation of nationality, arbitrary deprivation of property, and being compelled to join an association.
In effect, these human rights define what I mean by democratic freedom. A people’s freedom of thought, expression, religion, and association is basic, as are the secret ballot, periodic elections, and the right to representation. In short, these rights say that people have a right to be free.
Therefore, those condemning the lack of freedom in, for instance, Sudan, are not imposing their values on another culture. This is not a matter of value relativity. This is not a matter of exporting values. Demanding human rights, and thus freedom, for the slaves in the Sudan–or Chinese political prisoners, or the women in Muslim countries, or Burmese forced laborers–is simply demanding that their rulers obey international law, itself based on general treaties, international agreements, and practices.
This law is universal. Every Arabian, Chinese, Rwandan, and all the world’s peoples possess the internationally defined and protected human rights listed above–the right to democratic freedom. Rulers violating these rights of their people are therefore violating international law, and legally subject to sanctions by the United Nations Security Council. That such sanctions will not be imposed generally is a matter of politics and that so many violators are important members of the organization, and not a matter of law and rights.
True, with so many dictatorships in the world and resulting inaction of the UN on these rights, the skeptic may feel that these rights are just words. Even some of the governments that signed the human rights documents allow few rights to their people. Note, however, that they felt compelled to sign them. This shows the sheer power and legitimacy of the idea of human rights.
These human rights documents lay down a marker. They define what should be, what is right, the moral high ground. Those who deny such rights, those who say democratic freedom cannot be exported, must defend that view, not those who want to unchain these rights. Indeed, any violation of a people’s human rights by their rulers, as when the Chinese police arrest and torture people for practicing their creed or religion, is now a breach of international law. Unfortunately, the United Nations cannot automatically command sanctions or military intervention against governments for this. It is no longer a problem of what a people’s human rights are, but of international and domestic politics, power, and interests.
Even if international sanctions and intervention to unchain human rights are difficult, the international community has moved more than one step forward. It has clearly articulated the law protecting everyone’s rights. It does pinpoint the behavior of a government that is morally wrong. And if the international community cannot impose sanctions on the dictators who trample on their subjects’ rights, or intervene to stop them, at least now the United Nations and international organizations can subject them to moral pressure. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, makes this clear by stating that human rights are “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society . . . shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance . . . .”
In sum, a people’s human rights well define their freedom. It is not something exported, but what should be realized. Regardless of how others may want people to live because of their ideology, religion, or moral code, wherever people live, no matter their culture, no matter what government they live under, the following principle applies to all.
A people’s freedom–their human rights–is justified by United Nations certification, international treaties, agreements, and international law.