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Monday, November 04, 2002

Human rights: A suitable target for foreign policy? Cover story The Economist April 12, 1997

"WE SET this nation up to make men free, and we did not confine our conception and purpose to America," proclaimed President Woodrow Wilson in 1919. As the century draws to a close, the Wilsonian idea that it is America's mission to promote freedom abroad retains a powerful grip in his country.

On a recent visit to China, Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House of Representatives, told his hosts that the idea of freedom was so central to American identity that a Chinese-American relationship that did not include discussion of human rights was impossible. In such a dialogue, proclaimed the normally garrulous Mr Gingrich, "I can't speak. I have nothing to say." Yet, for all the boldness of Mr Gingrich's words, western policy on human rights is a mess.

For the past six years, the European Union has sponsored a motion censuring China at the annual session of the UN Human Rights Commission. This year, however, France and Germany have backed off, making a common EU position impossible.

In Washington meanwhile, the Clinton administration has been facing a barrage of accusations that America is sacrificing human-rights policy on the altar of trade with China. Fighting for human rights in places like Myanmar and Nigeria has become more difficult as a result.

The whole shambles will merely confirm the prejudices of sceptics who think that the very notion of linking human rights and foreign policy is mistaken (see article). "Realists" argue that the "internal affairs" of other states are not the proper business of foreigners.

that rule is broken, they say, the door is opened to all sorts of unnecessary disputes. Why argue with another country if it presents no threat to your security and is prepared to co-exist with you peacefully?

The realists also often argue that it is hubristic to try to export western ideas of freedom to places with different traditions and levels of development. Attempts to introduce western political models into poor countries have a habit of coming unstuck: look at Africa or Cambodia.

The West's own experience teaches that rights evolve over time. Universal suffrage came to Britain only in 1918. Racial segregation continued in parts of the United States until the 1960s. These are powerful arguments, but they are not ultimately convincing.

It is true that in the long run internal changes, particularly wealth and better education, tend to be the main agents and underpinnings of civil rights. But that is not to say that there is no role for external pressure.

In some places-South Africa, for one-such pressure has undoubtedly helped to bring change. The pressure need not be for wholesale reform. It is possible to object to governments torturing or silencing their citizens without asking them to adopt the American constitution in its entirety.

But why bother to object? Why should it matter to the citizens of Western Europe or America if one lot of foreigners is mistreating another lot?

For several reasons. The first is simple morality. If you hear your neighbour beating up his children, do you give a shrug and say it is none of your business? Most people think not.

Realists argue that the moral rules that apply to individuals do not apply to states, whose relations should be governed by considerations of national interest not of morality.

But countries are made up of individuals, and in democracies their wishes are meant to be reflected. Few voters would endorse the idea that their governments should completely ignore moral issues in making foreign policy.

Most tend to feel-correctly-that at some stage their own countries would be defiled by maintaining uncritical relations with an utterly barbaric government. Who would argue for normal relations with Nazi Germany?

Good for one, good for all But morality is not the only reason for putting human rights on the West's foreign-policy agenda. Self-interest also plays a part.

Political freedom tends to go hand in hand with economic freedom, which in turn tends to bring international trade and prosperity. And governments that treat their own people with tolerance and respect tend to treat their neighbours in the same way.

Dictatorships unleashed the first and second world wars, and most wars before and since. Democracies seldom, if ever, take up arms against each other. Even in more prosaic issues than those of war and peace-the observance of international agreements on trade or the environment, for instance-liberal democracies are more likely to play by the rules.

They, after all, accept the concepts of scrutiny and legal challenge. A world in which more countries respected basic human rights would be a more peaceful and orderly place.

All very well, the sceptics reply, but even with a global economy the world is not a global country with a global set of laws, a global police force to enforce them and a global judiciary to try wrongdoers. Moreover, in the real world, western democracies trade enthusiastically with countries like China and Indonesia.

They may wince at massacres in Beijing or East Timor, but they will not, in Jack Kennedy's words, "pay any price, bear any burden" to promote liberty. They will almost certainly not go to war and they are generally reluctant to disrupt trade.

The countries singled out for a bashing are often soft targets, like Myanmar, which offer few economic opportunities and have little power to hit back. Sometimes when the West claims to be acting in the interests of human rights, it is really responding to domestic pressures-such as protectionist demands against cheap competition.

It is true that there are elements of inconsistency, even hypocrisy, in the West's attempts to foster the cause of human rights round the world. So what?

That is an inevitable consequence of the fact that human rights are only one of many foreign-policy concerns. Keeping the peace and encouraging trade are also important goals.

The point is that democracies should both accept and proclaim that promoting freedom is an important aspect of foreign policy.

that objective should be pursued will depend on circumstances. Some governments are more brutal than others; some are more susceptible to pressure than others.

Depending on the egregiousness of the offence and the other interests at stake, supporting human rights may mean anything from armed intervention to a statement in parliament. The effort will not always succeed, but it is unlikely to be wholly ignored.

Nowadays autocrats are defensive, especially when they are accused of failing to respect human rights-witness China's outraged protestations every time it stands accused.

The idea of democracy, and indeed the practice, albeit often in a flawed manner, is spreading as never before. Pressure for human rights discomfits oppressors, encourages their victims and, in the long run, makes the world safer. Apply it.
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