Thursday, 9 December 2010

China's Global War on Human Rights Why Beijing is promoting a world-wide rejection of postwar international norms.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THIS ON The Wall Street Journal

DECEMBER 9, 2010


Mr. Metzl, the executive vice president of Asia Society, served in the State Department during the Clinton administration and as a United Nations human rights officer in Cambodia. []

On Friday in Oslo, the Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Many around the world will watch, but a handful of world leaders won't be in attendance. Even the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, won't be there.

Their absences come after a relentless pressure campaign by China's government—one which is a symptom of a broader global transformation. Though China's rapid rise has had many positive implications, it has also seen Beijing severely undermine the international human rights system.

In the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust, a series of documents codified the principles of a universal human rights system. They included the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the genocide convention, which asserted that states no longer had the unlimited right to murder their own citizens. Because prewar nationalism had helped foment such catastrophe, compromises to absolutist concepts of state sovereignty—and assertions of individual human rights—were cornerstones of this revolutionary development in international affairs.

These norms and practices developed (unevenly and with large, deadly exceptions) over the second half of the 20th century. To give just a few examples: The 1975 Helsinki Accords, signed in spite of Cold War differences, codified certain human rights protections in international law; sanctions on apartheid South Africa played a key role in that country's transformation; and states took strong action to protect the human rights of Kosovar Albanians against their sovereign state. Inadequate responses to genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda were widely seen as failures to live up to a human rights standard that was nevertheless gaining increasing legitimacy.

China's rise has changed this.

Beijing often sees absolute national sovereignty as a key to national cohesiveness.

There are many reasons for this. The country has seen its sovereignty violated repeatedly by Western powers and Japan over the past 200 years. Today it fears secessionist movements in Xinjiang and Tibet, and it also seeks to assert authority over Taiwan. It is also animated by a culture that often places collective progress over individual rights. China's concept of sovereignty stands in sharp contrast to the norms of the postwar human rights system.

Wherever human rights are massively abused today, China is the main protector of the abusing government. In Sudan, China shielded the Bashir government in the U.N. as Sudanese troops and allied militias used Chinese arms to commit genocide in Darfur. Brutal regimes in Burma and North Korea similarly could not survive without strong Chinese support, protection and weapons. China has blocked efforts to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and to pressure Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka to adhere to international human rights norms.

Because China helps protect these regimes—and often benefits commercially, in the form of deals for natural resources—international efforts to protect human rights generally have no net effect on the abusing regime's actions. States must choose to stand up for human rights standards—with minimal prospects for success and often to their own strategic detriment—or not. That the latter option is increasingly chosen implicitly confirms that the state-enforced international human rights system is dead.

This doesn't mean that there is not a role for setting international standards, or that citizens' rights movements are dead, even in places like China. It also doesn't mean that human rights advocates should not rejoice at what China has done to bring hundreds of millions of its people out of abject poverty.

It does mean, however, that those unlucky souls around the world who find their rights massively abused by their own governments can, thanks largely to China, expect little or no help from foreign states.

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