on Human Rights
By JONATHAN POWER
But he's had his attempt at a re-write. It was a tragedy in the making, only averted by the relentless efforts of the human rights lobby, not least from the Asian non-governmental groups.
It's only a mere four years since the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna fought off an attempt by Malaysia, Singapore, China, Syria, Iran and Iraq to drastically water down the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved in 1948.
The spectacular thing about the Vienna conference was that at one time, early on, they seemed to have as many as 50 nations on their side. But, one by one, they all had second thoughts and by the end of the conference there was an unanimous vote in favor of the new text that was in many ways stronger than the original 1948 version. In 1948 the vote in favor was 57. This time it was 171, almost every country in the world.
If the final tally itself was remarkable so too were some of the explanations given by countries for their vote. The Russian foreign minister observed that "when violations of individual rights and freedom are involved Russia no longer accepts that the world community does not have the right to interfere in another country's sovereignty."
As for the so-called "Asian values" lobby whose protagonists, such as Dr. Mahathir, contend are very different from western values, the South Korean foreign minister sounded a trumpet that put many doubters to flight. "Lack of economic development," he said, "can never be used as an excuse for any abuse of human rights. History shows that special circumstances don't justify rights' abuses." Here was the spokesman for a country Confucian to its fingertips where family values and respect for authority still run deep. Nevertheless, it is the country which besides from going from rags to riches in a single generation has made faster progress than any other country in the world in achieving the full panoply of human rights, as elaborated in the Universal Declaration.
There was one other good thing about the Vienna conference. The mood of recalcitrance and rebellion that the Asian opposition initially generated help persuade the U.S. to finally change its long-standing opposition to including as human rights key economic rights. Until Vienna Washington had labelled them as "socialist" and somehow, therefore, anathema to it. So into the final text, alongside the right to free expression, democracy and habeas corpus, went the right to employment, nutrition and education.
Thus, the final document became not just more widely accepted but also even more far-reaching and demanding than the original one of 1948.
Neither Dr. Mahathir nor any of the other Asian backwoodsmen, not least China, can, if they are honest, any longer argue in their barefaced way that the precepts of human rights are a western invention imposed upon them. They are now accepted as universal values--as, by the way, most people in Japan, South Korea, India, Taiwan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka (all fully-fledged, open democracies) could easily tell him.
The "Asian way" is not as uniquely Asian or culturally driven as Mahathir contends. As Chris Patten, the ex-governor of Hong Kong has put it, "Why is anyone surprised as incomes grow, as the quality of life improves, as levels of skill and education rise, people start to expect to have more of a say in running their community's affairs? To make this simple point does not amount to cultural imperialism."
Unfortunately, the mind-set of authoritarian leaders is probably not shifted by any of the above arguments. For them the vulnerabilities and uncertainties of office make them cling to as many tools of government they can lay their hands on. The autocrats of South Korea, the Philippines or Thailand were not shifted except after an immense popular struggle. Neither were those in Argentina and Mexico or Rhodesia and South Africa. But the reason that autocrats do bite the dust in the end is because a powerful segment of the educated middle class and many leaders of the working class and peasant movements have realized one simple but telling point: all the world's richest countries are free, and nearly all the poorest are not. If dictatorship made countries rich, then Africa and Latin America, by now, would be economic heavyweights. Economic freedom and political freedom reinforce each other. This is why over the next 20 years India is probably bound to overtake China and why, as countries such as South Korea and Taiwan have prospered, they have become ever more democratic and self-critical. If there was a time when authoritarianism gave economic progress a fillip it has long past. Now openness and accountability, besides being a basic human instinct, have been shown to be an absolute prerequisite to permanent progress. This is not the time, Dr. Mahathir, to wind back the clock, as you yourself, in your own country, I suspect, will before too very long find out.
August 6, 1997, LONDON
Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER
and e-mail: JonatPower@aol.com
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