REPORTS FROM the World Conference on Human Rights held in late June in Vienna revealed an ethical debate freighted with consequences: development aid will be given or withheld, people will be tortured or released, military interventions will be authorized or prevented according to the results.
The central issue is this: Are there knowable, universal principles of justice that ought to serve as a plumb line by which to measure various practices of peoples, governments, cultures, societies, religions and traditions? Those who adhere to the biblical heritage have had to confront this question, for the ancient prophets claimed that the principles of God's covenant with Israel were pertinent to all the peoples of the earth, and that none could claim immunity from God's sovereign moral order. Christian theology at its best has adopted this universalism, and in a complex interaction with Western philosophy and jurisprudence it developed an ethic that, in spite of notable betrayals, forged modern notions of human rights. The 168 nations that gathered in Vienna for the first such conference in 25 years faced the question of whether such notions disclose something to which nations ought to subject themselves, and that should be enforced upon others.
The hope was that this conference would enhance the growing international consensus on human rights. In the past decade as one-party states, of the left and right, imposed repression, an increasing number of people in South America and Africa have acknowledged the importance of human rights. Further, nongovernmental organizations have become increasingly active in the past quarter-century. Nearly 1,000 advocacy groups, from Tibetan monks led by the Dalai Lama to Amnesty International led by tireless, nameless advocates, sent representatives to monitor the Vienna meeting.
Particularly notable were the women's groups who not only focused on issues of special importance to women--sex traffic, rape as an instrument of policy, the practice of clitoral "circumcision"--but also quietly raised doubts about some feminist theories. In appealing to "principles" and calling for laws to protect the moral agency of persons, women's groups were ignoring those who argue that appeal to principles or a quest for laws is a male, abstract approach that reinforces patriarchy. Don't trust those who attack human rights principles as "abstract," they seemed to say: "if you deconstruct these abstractions, we know who gets deconstructed concretely."
Another important shift was that Eastern European nations have repudiated the socialist view that "social and economic rights" must have priority over "civil and political rights," and that the state may restrict the latter to achieve the former. Meanwhile Singapore, Malaysia and Chile have taken it up in a new form. They speak of development vs. democracy, and resent international pressures toward democracy while they focus on development. In a shift of policy, the U.S. delegates acknowledged "the right of development," but within the movement toward civil and political rights.
Thus it seemed possible to move toward a wider articulation of human rights with less ideological conflict, and to take steps toward agreement about how to limit torture, "disappearings," prison labor camps, as well as the repression of religion, speech, press and independent organizations--usually the decisive indicators of gross violations.
From the start, however, the conference was threatened by an odd coalition whose arguments sounded like those one can hear from multicultural advocates in U.S. universities or seminaries. China, Burma, Yemen, Cuba, Syria, Iran, Libya and some other countries complained that human rights do not reflect a discovery of universal moral principles, since there are no such things, but are the cultural creation of Western religious and political traditions that no one has the right to impose on them. China was especially resentful at the attention drawn to its policies in Tibet and its use of forced labor in the manufacture of goods for export. …