Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Human Rights, Not So Pure Anymore

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Human Rights, Not So Pure Anymore

Article excerpt

Human rights today means much more than defending individuals against the oppression of an unjust state.

The international commotion around the blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng aroused memories of earlier dissidents like Andrei Sakharov or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the East bloc heroes of another age who first made "international human rights" a rallying cry for activists across the globe and a high-profile item on Western governments' agendas.

All the familiar elements were there: the lone icon speaking for moral principle against totalitarian rule, the anonymous but courageous network at home that sheltered him, the supporters abroad who rallied around his cause, and the governments that made their choices based on a difficult calculus of moral ideals and geopolitical interests.

The cat-and-mouse game of Mr. Chen's surreptitious flight and America's response resembled Cold War intrigue, too, but dissidents then sometimes were pushed into their own underground railroads, and often states bargained over their ultimate fate.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights had virtually no impact on world politics in its time. It was only 30 years later that Soviet dissidents and refugees from Latin American dictatorships catapulted human rights to visibility. In part because it was so new, the idea of international human rights initially seemed an uncontroversial effort to establish moral norms above the fray of the Cold War's ideological battles.

Forty years into the era that Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn and many less famous dissidents founded, the meaning of human rights has now become familiar. In reporting on Mr. Chen, most publications, including this newspaper, used the terms "dissident" and even "prisoner of conscience" to refer to him.

But since the time that Amnesty International and other groups popularized those phrases, human rights -- a term that once meant the defense of individuals against the oppression of the state -- has come to imply other things, too.

Today, it is just as likely to be invoked by powerful states to wage war in distant corners of the globe, much to the chagrin of authoritarian leaders in wealthy rising powers like Russia and China, who see such "humanitarian interventions" as a violation of states' sovereignty -- not to mention a threat to their manner of rule.

The West's continuing reckoning with China is not likely to play out according to familiar protocols. China has always had a much more distant relationship with international human rights norms than the Communist states of yesteryear. In the Cold War, an era when America didn't ratify any human rights treaties, the Soviet Union did. The fact that their governments had done so gave dissidents' appeals to international human rights tremendous power at home.

Ironically, it was Communist Czechoslovakia's ratification of the main international human rights covenants in 1976 that brought them into legal force -- and helped spark the creation of the dissident manifesto, Charter 77, the next year. Prompted by the arrest of members of the rock band Plastic People of the Universe, Vaclav Havel and his fellow signatories criticized the government for failing to abide by the human rights treaties it had signed. Communist China, excluded from the United Nations at the time the first human rights treaties were drafted, still hasn't ratified the covenant for political and civil rights.

Another reason China's Charter 08 -- formed by Chinese dissidents on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration -- hasn't had an impact comparable to that of its famous Czech predecessor is primarily because today's geopolitical balance of power is very different from the one that favored Cold War dissidents. …

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