Forty-five years ago, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, remarkable human rights progress has been achieved and reinforced by a global wave of democratization. A system of international human rights principles and institutions, capable of bringing the weight of Western democracies and the world community at large to bear on human rights offenders, has been created.
But tangible human rights improvements should not obfuscate the nature and tempo of the progress or obscure its causes. It is a dangerous illusion to view human rights pursuits as some kind of grand morality play. Human rights policy successes have been achieved primarily because the United States began to treat the subject as a serious issue to be pursued in a realistic manner, integrated with other foreign policy imperatives and based on a sound conceptual footing.
Even more fundamentally, human rights progress was assisted by a string of U.S. foreign policy successes. The crumbling of the East Bloc, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism as a viable ideological construct have removed one of the major 20th century obstacles to human rights.
This cornucopia of positive changes does not signify that human rights problems are over. Significantly, solutions to traditional human rights problems such as torture, murders and disappearances are relatively straightforward. Human rights abuses usually have been caused by bad government. Apparatchiks, authoritarian leaders, corrupt warlords and the like are prone to oppress perceived political and personal enemies. The remedy is simple, at least in theory: fundamental behavior modification and, eventually, the displacement of the regime.
By contrast, human rights challenges that have beset mostly post-communist countries are more complex and ambiguous. Many nominally democratic governments still are unable, or unwilling, to root out human rights violations. In Russia, for example, the social, economic and political conditions in many parts of the country still resemble conmunist "islands" where not much has changed since 1991.
Many Third World dictators continue to challenge the U.S. view that political and civil rights, grounded in natural law, provide a vital foundation for any democratic polity. The high point of the new conceptual battle came at an Asian regional human rights forum held in Thailand last April. While challenging the universality of human rights, the Bangkok Declaration gave high priority to the so-called right to development -- that is, the right to receive Western foreign aid -- coupling this announcement with a strong denunciation of "any attempt to use human rights as a conditionality for extending development assistance. …