What Price Human Rights? an Exchange

Article excerpt

Dear John:

I have noted with interest your recent appointment to the Commission on International Religious Freedom, recently created to report on violations of religious rights around the world. You would not have accepted this assignment, I am sure, if you did not care about stopping human fights abuses. At the same time your bona fides as a conservative make you an exquisite interlocutor with whom to debate the state of U.S. human rights policy today.

As far as I am concerned, that policy is pretty much of a mess. I don't believe that human rights ought to be the sole consideration governing U.S. international relations or even always the primary one. But I do believe that they ought to be a serious factor in how we relate to other nations, and that violations ought to have real and consistent consequences. That is both because respect for human rights is endemic to America's understanding of itself and because ignoring human rights crimes often has profoundly deleterious effects upon our national interest. (One of the reasons we are now so tangled up in Bosnia and Kosovo is because two Presidents waited far too long to counter Milosevic's evil ambitions.)

Given this premise, then, it helps not at all for the United States to send China decidedly mixed signals on its abominable human rights record. It is certainly confusing at best to trumpet our outrage at abuses in pariah states like Cuba and Libya while ignoring similar violations by allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, or trading partners like Nigeria and Indonesia. To waffle on the Land Mines Treaty or the International Criminal Court (ICC); to let Karadzic and Mladic go scot-free; to ignore Africa altogether - the policy is a mess. But it is too easy just to blame the administration. For in my view far too many conservatives have also abandoned bedrock principles when it comes to human rights. After all, the protection of individual liberties against oppressive governments is supposed to be at the heart of conservative political theory. But as Jesse Helms points out in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, it is the conservative business community that has opposed economic sanctions designed to win those liberties. I personally believe sanctions to be of limited utility, and even then only in very circumscribed situations (and Amnesty itself takes no position on them); but they certainly ought to be included in our quiver. So should the possibility of military intervention. But it is too often conservative voices that most vociferously resist a U.S. peacekeeping role overseas to stop the slaughter of innocents,

It troubles me that a Republican Congress allows taxpayers' dollars to be wasted when U.S. security assistance is used to commit human rights violations in places like Colombia or Turkey, and when political asylum seekers, many of whom have stood up for American values in their home countries, are tossed into county jails with the general prison population.

I know from your recent article in these pages on the International Criminal Court ("Courting Danger: What's Wrong With the ICC", Winter 1998/99) that part of your own criticism of the human rights movement has to do with your disdain for so-called "customary international law." But of course the basis for most customary law when it comes to human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenants that flow out of it. Such principles of international law were incorporated explicitly into the International Religious Freedom Act that established the commission on which you now sit because, without them, your impending criticism of other nations' treatment of religious minorities would risk sounding hollow, parochial, even xenophobic.

Elsewhere you have implied that General Pinochet should be tried, if at all, by his Chilean compatriots ("The Global Prosecutions", Foreign Affairs, January/February 1999). But given Pinochet's manipulation of the Chilean constitution before he stepped down - and his threats to cause mayhem ever since - that is like asking a jury to render a verdict while a defendant holds a gun to its head. …