Buddhism and Human Rights

By Damien V. Keown; Charles S. Prebish et al. | Go to book overview
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Charles R. Strain

The morning's paper in late August, 1995 brings the news that the Chinese American human rights activist Harry Wu has been released from a Chinese prison, that Hillary Rodham Clinton will lead the American delegation to the United Nations Women's Conference in Beijing this September despite objections that the very site of the conference undermines its potential to promote the rights of women across the globe, that the Vatican has appointed Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor who is severely critical of "rights talk" as the sole currency of contemporary public ethical discourse, to head its delegation to Beijing, and that Catholics for a Free Choice, a Washington based advocacy group, has decried this choice as inconsistent with the goals of the conference. What are we to make of the controversies that these news items herald? Is "rights talk," as in the African American folktale, a tar baby to which and with which we are stuck in a blind struggle for power?

Step back just two years. Today's controversies reflect a turning point that was reached at the United Nations Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in June, 1993. Vienna witnessed the coming to prominence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as the vocal leaders in the global struggle for human rights. Their leadership contrasted sharply with the visible stalemate among nation states as they jockeyed to define the outcome of the conference in ways which would reinforce their respective status quos.

Particularly dangerous to the moral claims of human rights advocates was the cooptation at the Vienna conference of the arguments of moral and cultural relativists by a number of nations with poor records in the area of civil liberties. The reality of cultural diversity and the particularity of traditions shaping the worldviews and values of peoples became the rationale for denying the universality of human rights. According to an official Chinese representative to the conference, "The concept of human rights is a product of historical development...One should not and cannot think of the human rights standards and model of certain countries as the only proper ones and demand all other countries comply with them." 1 Particularly pernicious in this

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