A New Realism for Human Rights
What we need to build a broader constituency for human rights are compelling practical reasons why respect for human rights is in the best interest of the United States.
by W I L L I A M F . S C H U L Z
ut what does all of this have to do with a person in East Tennessee?" The question from the talk-show host on Knoxville's National Public Radio station was not a hostile one. I had been talking about Myanmar (Burma) and Bosnia, China and Chiapas, refugee camps in Congo, and police brutality in New York City, and now the interviewer was simply trying to bring it all home to his listeners. "I mean, I'm sure we all agree that these kinds of human rights violations are morally repugnant," he said. "But if I'm barely scratching out a living in East Tennessee, worried about having enough money to get my kids a decent education or to make the payments on a bigger house, what difference do all these abuses taking place so far away make to me?"
It was an excellent question, and in the hundreds of interviews I had given for Amnesty International over the years, it was one I had never been asked before. Nor was it a question that we in the human rights movement often ask ourselves. We have assumed that if we describe the suffering dramatically enough, good people will respond and want to stop it.
In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All (Beacon Press, 2001; $25), available from the UUA Bookstore at 800-215-9076. Visit Beacon Press.
That Knoxville interviewer had posed a question for which anyone in the business of changing the world had better be ready. For the most part this is not a question that human rights campaigners are well prepared to answer.
Since the crusades of the 1960s and 1970s, nearly every movement for social change in the United States, whether right wing or left, has combined a moral, religious, or aesthetic dimension with a pragmatic rationale in its campaign to win public approval. Nearly every movement to change the world frames the benefits of what it offers in both visionary and practical terms. Almost every one. Except, more often than not, the human rights movement.
ver the centuries human beings have devised different sets of standards by which to measure our obligations to one another. Almost 4,000 years ago a Babylonian king named Hammurabi issued a set of laws to his people. Among other things, Hammurabi's Codes established fair wages, offered protection of property, and required charges to be proven at trial. The Romans were probably the first to establish the concept of citizens' rights, but the modern American notion of rights derives from such seminal documents as the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791), and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789). The problem with all of these statements of rights, however, eloquent as they are, is that they applied to only one set of people, to only the English or to the Americans (and, given the "inconvenient" presence of women and slaves, not even to all English or American people). Moreover, even when these statements attempted to articulate rights that held for all of humanity, as the French Declaration did, only one group -- in that case, the "representatives of the French people, organized in National Assembly" -- had adopted them.
Remarkable as it seems, it took almost 4,000 years from the days of Hammurabi for the world to agree on a statement of rights that nearly everybody active on the international scene at the time acknowledged applied to everybody else -- even to one's enemies! -- simply because everybody is a human being. It took a world body (the United Nations), horrific carnage (the Holocaust of World War II), and an extraordinary woman (Eleanor Roosevelt) to carry it off, but in 1948 the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Once it was adopted, the world had a formal itemization of rights -- 30 articles of them, in fact -- that anybody could claim, from Hammurabi's rights to wages, property, and a fair trial to the rights to marry freely, to join trade unions, to receive an education, to speak an opinion, and to not be tortured. The mere articulation of such rights and their near universal acclamation was a formidable achievement.
But then came the need to enforce these rights, which of course was a problem. The only ones who had the power to enforce human rights, either directly or through the United Nations itself, were the very powers -- nation-states -- that might be guilty of violating them. If governments, then, could not be trusted to implement the Universal Declaration, despite having voted for it, what other power might be brought to bear?
The first candidate was moral suasion, what human rights champion Aryeh Neier has called "the mobilization of shame." After all, the creation of the Universal Declaration had been prompted in no small part by the experience of the Holocaust. Moral argument appealed to human emotion, to a sense of decency and fair play. It depended on evoking feelings of revulsion at the harsher forms human rights violations sometimes take and resonated with the familiar invocation, "Never again!"
By telling the stories of individuals and their suffering -- people like playwright Vaclav Havel of the former Czechoslovakia or journalist Jacobo Timmerman of Argentina -- human rights workers managed to put compelling human faces on larger political dramas. This was a particularly effective approach in the Cold War years. Although non-Communist governments were responsible for profound human rights violations in places like South Africa, Greece, or Chile, the dynamics of East-West tension meant that the epithet "human rights hero" would become peculiarly attached in the popular mind to brave Soviet dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and Anatoly Sharansky. Thanks to such authors as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, the gulag came to supplement the Nazi concentration camps as an exemplary locus of the hell into which human rights victims might be cast.
But the Universal Declaration had been born not just out of the Holocaust. The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials could make an equal claim to its parentage. So the second candidate to serve as counterweight to the perfidious fickleness of governments when it came to enforcing human rights was law. Although the Universal Declaration had not initially been intended to have the force of law, the Universal Declaration gradually assumed that status.
Over the years national constitutions took the strictures of the declaration as guidelines for their own descriptions of rights. Legally binding treaties, covenants, conventions, and protocols, most of them derived in good measure from the Universal Declaration, were built up. The declaration eventually took on the character of what is called "customary law," and to violate somebody's human rights became not just a matter of doing something wrong but a matter of doing something illegal. Legal rhetoric became the second favorite lexicon of the human rights movement. Despite Canadian jurist Louise Arbour's observation that "international law is the aristocrat of law, practiced by people in limousines being polite," in recent years the International War Crimes Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have tried hard to turn principles into prison time for human rights criminals.
These two forms of discourse -- the moral and the legal -- have remained for more than 50 years the principal argots in which human rights have been discussed. This is because they reflect two of the most invaluable resources we can bring to bear in the struggle to end human agony -- appeal to conscience and resort to court.
It is not that we who care about human rights are wrong to speak in the tongues of ethics and law. Not at all. It is just that they alone are not enough. Not enough to win a major audience. Moral arguments may appeal to a relatively small segment of a community for a very long time or they may appeal to a fairly large segment of a community for a rather short time, but they are unlikely, by themselves, to hold a large number of people's attention forever. If the "CNN effect" has been credited with forcing American politicians to "do something" to stop the mayhem voters see on their televisions at night, "compassion fatigue" has been equally as popular an explanation for the apparent limits to people's interest in foreign catastrophes. After all, human rights crimes are messy; severed limbs and piles of corpses do not make for pleasant breakfast viewing. Appeals to morality reach in a consistent fashion only that portion of the public for whom morality bests convenience in its long-term understanding of the world.
What we need to make the human rights "sale" -- to build a broader constituency for human rights, to convince larger numbers of people that human rights matter -- is a third form of rhetoric, a third set of arguments, a third understanding of suffering's significance. What we need are compelling practical reasons why respect for human rights is in the best interests of the United States. If ethical issues are to hold people's attention over an extended period of time and if legal issues are to be of consequence to someone other than jurists, they must be framed, to the extent possible, in the language of realpolitik. If the American public is to care about human rights crimes committed against their fellow citizens in the United States, they must understand how those crimes endanger their own interests. If large numbers of Americans are ever to care about human rights violations around the world, they must be able to see the implications of those violations for their own lives here at home.
I am simply suggesting that, like every other movement for social change, we be ready to answer the question, "But what does all of this have to do with me?"
mericans may not be tightfisted when it comes to philanthropy, but it is rumored that we have grown indifferent to the sweep of events beyond our borders. Of $190 billion in charitable giving in 1999, only $2.7 billion went to organizations that deal with international affairs. When asked whether what happens in western Europe or Asia has any personal relevance, Americans reject the notion by substantial margins. Even in the case of Mexico, 55 percent say that events there have no impact on them. Such apparent indifference is reflected in the diminishing coverage U.S. news outlets give to international affairs.
Furthermore, when asked by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations to describe what the United States should take as its most important foreign policy goals, Americans appear preoccupied with domestic needs. Although preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is named as the most important foreign policy goal (82 percent), the next two most critical objectives are considered "stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the United States" (81 percent) and "protecting the jobs of American workers" (80 percent). "Promoting and defending human rights in other countries" scores low on the list (39 percent, down from 58 percent in 1990).
When we look more closely at Americans' opinions about the country's role in the world, however, the results are more encouraging. Two-thirds say, as they have for more than two decades, that the United States should take an active part in world affairs rather than try to isolate itself. Almost as many Americans believe that the United States should take part in United Nations peacekeeping operations in troubled parts of the world. When asked for a rationale for this tilt toward globalism, the public displays a fairly sophisticated grasp of the interconnection between morality and pragmatism. Although 66 percent say that "when innocent civilians are suffering or are being killed," the United States should contribute troops to a UN effort "whether or not it serves the national interest" (a highly moralistic position), even more (78 percent) agree that "if we allow things like genocide or the mass killings of civilians to go unaddressed, it is more apt to spread and create more instability in the world so that eventually our interests would be affected" (a far more strategic insight). More telling still are the number (79 percent) who concur with the observation that "because the world is so interconnected today, the United States should participate in UN efforts to maintain peace, protect human rights, and promote economic development. Such efforts serve U.S. interests because they help create a more stable world that is more conducive to trade and other U.S. interests."
Reinforcing that connection -- for the public at large and also for those who shape public opinion -- is critical to spreading the human rights message. Doug Clifton, the executive editor of the Miami Herald, may not have been happy that his July 1995 e-mail message to his newspaper staff appeared in Harper's magazine under the heading "Bosnia: One Big Yawn." But he need not have been too distraught, for he is far from alone in his sentiment: "If anyone has an idea on what to do with the Bosnia story," he wrote near the height of the killings in that country, "I welcome it." He went on to admit:
I'm embarrassed to say I long ago stopped reading this story of enormous human tragedy and significant global consequence. Why is that? Some of it is my personal failure. I'm callous, parochial, and maybe even stupid. But more of it may be my -- our -- professional failure.
We dutifully report each day's events, every one a bit more horrible than the last, and pretty soon all begin to look and sound alike....
Yes, I care about man's inhumanity to man, but I care more about whether this latest event brings the world or the U.S. closer to the brink. A reader -- even a high-minded, liberal-thinking one with a worldview -- wants to know, "What does this mean to me?"
Clifton's admission, I suspect, made not a few human rights activists queasy. We come to this work out of a sense of conscience and are often impatient with those who fail to share our urgency. But the truth is that we have few people to blame but ourselves. By emphasizing the field's legal and policy dimensions, we have lent the impression that human rights are the business of specialists. By relying on national media and high-level contacts to influence decision makers, we have, with a few exceptions, paid little attention to grass roots organizing.
There are many ways to mobilize action. One of the best methods in the short term is to put moral claims front and center. That is no doubt what should have happened in the case of Rwanda. To have made claims of self-interest in the face of mass slaughter might well have been perceived to be intellectually tenuous or to have rung ethically false. But in the long run, the way to build a widespread demand for any social agenda, the way to reach the millions of people who are not now and never will be "activists," the way to prepare public opinion to respond to genocide when it occurs is to couple moral pleas with cogent practicality. Do that and we take a critical step toward gathering a constituency. But to do that we must be willing to entertain Doug Clifton's question: What does this mean to me?
One of the striking features of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations poll is that at least two of the top three goals -- "stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the United States" and "protecting the jobs of American workers" -- are linked to combating human rights abuses. That is also true of some of the other goals Americans rank highly, such as "controlling and reducing illegal immigration," "improving the global environment," and "reducing our trade deficit." Yet "promoting and defending human rights in other countries" ranks relatively low on the list. Obviously, despite the public's affirmation that morality and national interest are related, there is a "disconnect" when we get down to hard cases. The average American is fuzzy about just how human rights violations affect the world around them. In that respect Americans are in distinguished company.
hat a "liberal" or "conservative" view of human rights issues might be is sometimes hard to fathom. Is it "liberal" or "conservative" to want to stop torture? Because the terms "liberal" and "conservative" are rarely helpful when it comes to matters of foreign policy, analysts have sometimes divided foreign policy makers into the categories "realist" or "moralist." Henry Kissinger is often considered the quintessential "realist" who made decisions about international relations not on the basis of the world as we might like it to be but on the basis of the world as it is in all its shoddy, backstabbing, dangerous complexity. Jimmy Carter is regarded as the epitome of a moralist, who as president tried to base U.S. relations with other countries on principles of justice, mutuality, and human rights. But neo-conservatives like Robert Kagan and William Kristol also champion using U.S. power to advance moral concerns.
In part because aspects of Carter's presidency, including his foreign policy, are often popularly considered to have been unsuccessful, human rights over the past two decades have come to be associated with weakness and self-indulgence. To the extent that subsequent presidents have employed human rights concerns in foreign policy at all, it has often been in the fashion of an amateur cook with a favorite spice used either to disguise a bad recipe or to make a new one taste more familiar. (Recall, for example, Central American policies, Bush's war in the Persian Gulf, and Clinton's tough stance in Haiti -- all pursued for hard-edged political and economic reasons but all presented to the public pungent with the whiff of rights.) However it may appear, "realism" has largely dominated foreign policy thinking, and "realists" tend to have little truck with human rights.
Here, for example, is Alan Tonelson, a fellow at the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington, D.C.: "During the Cold War a plausible case could be made for denying an ideologically hostile rival superpower targets of opportunity by fostering democratic practices abroad. But in the absence of such a rival, the state of human rights around the world does not have, and never has had, any demonstrable effect on U.S. national security." Here is the grandpappy of "realism," diplomat George Kennan: "I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights. . . . I don't think any such questions should enter into our diplomatic relations with other countries. If others [private parties] want to advocate changes in their conditions, fine -- no objection. But not the State Department or the White House. They have more important things to do."
"Realists" regard the pursuit of rights as an unnecessary, sometimes even a dangerous extravagance, often at odds with our national interest. What they seem rarely to garner is that in far more cases than they will allow, defending human rights is a prerequisite to protecting that interest. What we require is not less realism but a more expansive, sophisticated, comprehensive form of it -- a "new realism" for an interconnected age.
Whether it be war and peace, international trade, economic growth, the security of jobs, the state of our environment, the public health, the interdiction of drugs, or a host of other topics, there is a connection between Americans' own interests and international human rights.
I do not want to claim too much here. I am not suggesting that every human rights crime is a matter of national consequence. In many instances only moral qualms can provide the motivation to stop abuses. Nor am I pretending that human rights are always the most important policy consideration or that morality and national interest are joined at the hip. But neither are they the strange bedfellows the "realists" would make out. By emphasizing morality to the exclusion of pragmatism, we human rights advocates have allowed ourselves to be dismissed as idealists or ideologues, as either too mushy-headed in our thinking to be taken seriously or too rigid in our priorities to be trusted with power.
At least for the foreseeable future, respect for human rights will remain largely a matter of voluntary compliance by governments or armed opposition groups. It will remain largely a matter of raison d'etat, of perceived self-interest. If we are unwilling to make our case at least in part in those terms, we concede the argument before it is even joined. More important, however, by failing to engage realists on at least a portion of their own ground, the human rights community has too often for the past 20 years ceded U.S. foreign policy to those in government and business who care the least about human rights. The problem with that is both stark and simple: It has allowed the tyrants of the world to get away with murder.
ver since the philosopher Immanuel Kant advanced the claim in 1795 in perpetual peace that what we would call constitutional democracies are less inclined to make war (at least on each other) than authoritarian states, scholars and theoreticians have been arguing the case. But with the end of the Cold War, the argument has become particularly intense, with more than a hundred books and articles on the topic appearing in the 1990s alone. What has made the debate especially potent is that with the disappearance of Communism as a global Beelzebub around whose eradication our foreign policy might be organized, the promotion of democracy has been seen by some as an appealing principle in which to anchor U.S. international relations. If it could be shown that the advance of democracy simultaneously increased the odds of a world at peace, how could anyone doubt the wisdom of its pursuit?
Critics certainly have doubted this wisdom, however, or at least they have doubted that promoting democracy should stand at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Those doubts have tended to take one of three sometimes overlapping forms: (1) a dispute largely among academics about whether democracies do indeed tend to be more pacific and if so, under what circumstances and why; (2) a contention primarily by foreign policy "realists" that democracy really doesn't buy us all that its enthusiasts think it does, and hence that making it the centerpiece of foreign policy may jeopardize other critical national interests; and (3) a "commercialist" argument that democracy is a great goal but that the best way to reach it, like a crab approaching a mud bank, is sideways or indirectly through trade and investment.
ow the United States influences other countries' human rights practices is enormously complex. Human rights are but one of many aspects of our international relationships. But rights are far more entangled in our self-interest -- our interest in a peaceful, just, and stable world -- than most realists will acknowledge. When the United States trades arms with human rights violators, as it did with Iraq before the Persian Gulf War or the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, those same arms may end up being used against us, as they were by Saddam Hussein, or in the hands of terrorists, as happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s. When we avert our eyes from the human rights practices of important allies like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, giving them a pass on their contempt for civil society, we facilitate the possible demise of those governments and their replacement, as happened in Iran in 1979, by regimes far less friendly to the United States. When we stay relatively mute about excesses committed by those on whose behalf we have struggled -- about Israel's use of torture or Kuwait's mistreatment of women or the Kosovars' retaliation against the Serbs -- we damage not only our moral standing but our strategic credibility as well.
Foreign policy "realists," I am sure, would at the snap of a finger, if they had the power, spread democratic communities of rights throughout the globe. For the most part, however, they do not believe that the benefit is worth the price. They are convinced that the only safe course for the United States to take is to pursue unilaterally what they call our "national interests" (by which they generally mean our economic and security interests), undistracted by what impact that pursuit has on world opinion or the common interests of the international community.
Tell a young American serving overseas in the military that the United States can remain oblivious to world opinion. Tell an American tourist or traveling businessperson concerned about terrorism that we can afford to ignore the common interests we share with other law-abiding countries. Tell an American homeowner worried about the future availability of fuel that the state of democracy in Caspian Sea countries has nothing to do with the United States.
The "realist" approach betokens, at the very least, an abysmal ignorance of how systems work. For it is impossible, in as globalized a society as we live in today, for any single player to pursue its interests without taking into account the interests of others at the table. "Realists" would hate to be considered mystics, but it really is a form of mysticism (comparable to Adam Smith's notion of the "invisible hand" by which free markets produce public welfare) to believe that if the United States merely follows its own narrowly conceived interests, everything else will take care of itself.
Nowhere is that mysticism harder at work than in the areas of trade, investment, and global economics. "The health of the global economy," political observer David Callahan quite rightly says, is another one of our vital national interests. But in the United States, more than almost anywhere else in the world, the failure to spot the connection with human rights is widespread. It is not only that the commercialist argument (that the best way to ensure democracy and human rights is via economic growth) has caused endless debate; it is that businesses have traditionally seen human rights concerns to be inimical to theirs. The truth is that not only can business be good for human rights, but human rights are good for business. And for labor.
he relationship between political freedom and economic growth is a topic about which human rights advocates and businesspeople too often talk right past each other. Yet ever since Friedrich A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (1944), it has been hard-core conservative doctrine that liberty and economic growth are inseparable. What capitalism requires to thrive, Hayek said, is individual liberty protected by the rule of law, which he defined as "government in all its actions... bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand."
In more recent years, however, as American business has found amenable homes in countries little known for their love of liberty, the principle that capitalism and freedom are inescapably linked has been transmogrified into what I have called the commercialist argument. Now influence flows only one way: capitalism and economic growth, we are assured, will eventually usher in democracy, but a free society is no longer a sine qua non for capitalist success.
And maybe that is so. Hayek and company could well have been wrong. But whether the investment of capital is truly secure in a society plagued by fear, threat, and caprice -- or, more positively, whether a democratic community of rights carries with it real, practical, bottom-line advantages for investors -- is worth some serious reflection.
It is worth that reflection not just for the sake of business, but because the futures of so many Americans are now entangled with international investments. More than $350 billion of our money is now held in mutual funds that invest overseas. At least $160 billion of our retirement funds in the form of IRAs and other such instruments are invested in global stocks and foreign securities; some estimate as much as $530 billion. More than $285 billion in private capital is now invested in developing nations. Our dependence on the economic health of global corporations and foreign countries keeps growing every year.
One observer captured the irony of our newfound circumstances perfectly when he asked, "And who a decade ago could have anticipated... how a small-town American whose closest encounter with Thailand before 1997 had been seeing the film The King and I could find her life roiled by a previously unknown relationship between the health of her pension fund and the inability of Thailand's finance ministry to monitor its banks' lending portfolios?" But the collapse of such economic and psychological boundaries is exactly what globalization is all about.
hell Oil had a tough year in 1995 -- not financially but in terms of its public image. That year the company was accused of polluting the North Sea with its oil and of being implicated in the Nigerian government's decision to execute the environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had led protests against Shell's oil installations in the Niger Delta. I was engaged in a dialogue, first privately then publicly, with Shell in the months leading up to Saro-Wiwa's death about whether the company shared any responsibility for his fate, a disturbing sidelight of which was that the Houston Chronicle, the major newspaper in Shell USA's corporate headquarters of Houston, Texas, would not sell Amnesty International space to address the issue.
In defending its refusal to intervene in the Saro-Wiwa case, Shell International sent me a letter a few weeks before the activist was killed that contained a classic statement of the position corporations often take when it comes to human rights matters: "[A] commercial organisation [sic] such as ours cannot and should not sit in judgment on either political or judicial matters which are the preserve of the state."
What was interesting about this letter was not only that Shell's position contradicted its own behavior a few years before in South Africa, when it and many other corporations, under intense public pressure, finally spoke out against apartheid. By doing so, they helped bring down a morally bankrupt system of government. What was interesting, however, we learned after Saro-Wiwa's death, was that at the very time the letter was written, Shell -- recognizing that an execution would be a public relations nightmare for the company -- was pleading with Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha to grant clemency.
Vociferously as they often claim that they must remain politically neutral on public issues, no corporation refrains from mixing into its host country's politics if it concludes that its own self-interest is at stake. It is unimaginable that if a government proposed to raise corporate taxes or require additional worker benefits, corporate leaders would refuse to "sit in judgment on . . . political . . . matters which are the preserve of the state"; in fact, shareholders could justifiably accuse them of negligence if they did. In the United States corporations are never reluctant to participate in politics quite directly, political action committees and so-called soft money for the two political parties being their stock-in-trade. Public matters become "the preserve of the state" when companies decide they may be too hot to handle.
Perhaps because their "strict neutrality" argument is at such odds with common practice, corporations have gravitated toward a more acceptable variation -- the "commercialist" argument that democracy and human rights are indeed noble goals but that the most effective way to bring them about is not through direct intervention but economic investment. Such investment, so the reasoning goes, both opens host countries up to the west's liberalizing influence but also, by spreading prosperity, creates a middle class that, freed of the burden of meeting its basic human needs, will have the energy and inclination to demand its civil and political rights. This argument has many advantages over its strict-neutrality cousin. It allows companies to cavort with the angels while pursuing their entrepreneurial ends. It salves guilt while precluding the need to raise uncomfortable questions with one's hosts that just might get a business thrown out of a country. And it has the added virtue that it may even at least in part be true.
Furthermore, all American presidents since Ronald Reagan have embraced this argument wholeheartedly. At a February 1997 press conference, for example, President Clinton was asked to defend his policy, announced two years before, of "delinking" trade and human rights in light of the fact that the State Department had recently reported that all political dissent had been silenced in China. In his reply the president articulated the determinist philosophy of history that underlies the commercialist stance: "I believe that the impulses of [Chinese] society and the nature of the economic change will work together along with the availability of information from the outside world to increase the spirit of liberty over time. I don't think there is any way that [China] can hold back that, just as inevitably the Berlin wall fell. I just think it's inevitable."
But if the commercialist argument were accurate on its face, Singapore should be a human rights haven. As should Malaysia. Or, in the past, Suharto's Indonesia. Or apartheid-era South Africa, renowned for its hospitality to business, having practically been founded by the Dutch East Indies Trading Company. Or Pinochet's Chile. Or Nazi Germany, given that at least 300 U.S. companies alone continued operations there even after the war had begun.
Investment of capital may well play a role in encouraging democracy and human rights, but it alone is far from sufficient to guarantee freedom, as level-headed observers like U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky has acknowledged: "I am cautious," she said of the link between trade and social change after negotiating China's entry into the World Trade Organization, "in making claims that a market-opening agreement leads to anything other than opening the market."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has often been more outspoken about human rights than its counterparts elsewhere around the world. I was in Hong Kong a few weeks before it reverted to Chinese control in 1997. "Our European and Japanese colleagues always mention human rights when they meet with the Chinese," one American told me. "They have their tea, conduct their business, and then, on their way out the door as they are waving goodbye, shout 'Human rights!' and make a run for it." I was interested to find out why. "The answer," one of the Chamber officials told me, "can be summed up in two names: Xi Jang and Jimmy Peng."
Xi Jang was a Hong Kong journalist who got wind of the fact in 1993 that China was going to raise interest rates. He wrote stories about that and about China's efforts to protect its gold holdings -- standard enough business reporting most places and useful information for foreign investors. Too useful apparently, because the Chinese got hold of Xi and sentenced him to 12 years in prison for disclosing "state secrets." He was released on parole in 1997.
Jimmy Peng was an Australian businessman with textile and property investments in the Chinese city of Shenzhen. When the city tried to take over his business, Peng enlisted the help of Deng Xiaoping's niece, who double-crossed him and arranged for him to be jailed. Peng successfully sued the niece but was unable to get the judgment enforced, and in October 1993 he was kidnapped from the Mandarin Hotel in Macao, delivered across the border to China, held without bail for two years, and convicted (under a law enacted a year after his arrest) of corruption and embezzlement. Peng was sentenced to 18 years. Between 1991 and 1996 the Hong Kong government (under British control) lobbied the Chinese on behalf of Peng and some 17 other businesspeople detained without trial in southern China.
Xi Jang and Jimmy Peng personify two of the reasons why human rights are good for business: business cannot function without a free flow of accurate information and the equitable enforcement of contracts.
But there is an even more fundamental reason: respect for human rights contributes mightily to political stability, and conducting business without stability is like playing Russian roulette... with all barrels loaded. Countries that abuse human rights are notoriously unstable, even when they appear solid as rocks. If anything ought to scare away investors, it is political instability with its attendant unrest. In the face of price hikes, growing unemployment, corruption, abusive government officials, unresponsive courts, and increasing disparities in wealth, there are no avenues in a repressive society -- no advocacy groups, no unions, no free press -- through which citizens may vent their grievances or seek redress.
When it comes to business interests, the "rule of law" encompasses three things: combating corruption, providing transparent regulations for the conduct of business, and guaranteeing the fair enforcement of contracts. All three notions are put in jeopardy if human rights are not respected.
isputes over the impact of increased global trade on jobs and wages are legion and endless. Although a larger percentage of the U.S. population was employed in 2000 than ever before, and some 20 million net new jobs have been created since the beginning of 1993, the Economic Policy Institute claims that NAFTA resulted in a loss of more than 440,000 American jobs between 1994 and 1998.
Many big, Western companies will soon have more employees in poor countries than in rich ones. Over the past two decades at least 6 percent of U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost as corporations move overseas in search of better labor markets. In 1998 and 1999 alone the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the United States lost 483,000 manufacturing jobs, and even where jobs are not lost, wages may well decline. Not all wage depressions or factory closings can be blamed on cheaper labor supplies by any means, but when it comes to low-skilled workforces, it's hard for American companies to resist average hourly wages of 43 cents in Honduras, 23 cents in China, 10 cents in Indonesia, and one cent in Bangladesh.
What everyone can understand, regardless of which side of the Great Globalization Debate they are on, is that if workers are laid off or wages depressed because an industry cannot keep up with changing times or workers' skills become obsolete, that at least is a problem that can be addressed through economic conversions, retraining, and safety nets. At some level that is the story of capitalism, and unless you want to topple the entire system (which the vast majority of Americans do not), it is something we just have to live with. But if some workers are asked to endure economic hardship because children are being put to work at age eight, or workers in developing lands are consistently being denied even the most elementary labor rights, thus undercutting the labor market, that is not "fair trade." The anger such actions generate is entirely justified, whether in the long run the World Trade Organization does more good than harm.
t is understandable why human rights activists, lawyers or otherwise, resist making the case for human rights in terms of national interest -- because we want to say that human rights norms apply at all times under every circumstance, not just when they are convenient or serve our own purposes. We want to say that human rights should be respected because they are both morally and legally justified. And of course they should be. Sometimes, as I have said, enforcing human rights standards may have nothing to do with our political or economic interests, and in some rare cases it may even contradict them. But if we fail to make the case that respecting human rights frequently serves us well and certainly far more often than the so-called "realists" would countenance, we risk never expanding the base of those who will support the cause.
By trusting solely in morality and often unenforceable law to make the grade, we risk relegating human rights, in the eyes of its detractors, to the realm of rhetoric, if not phantasm. We need to recognize that our sanctity will not be tarnished by a little toughness. We need to be unafraid to say to Americans, both to the public and to policy makers, that human rights are not only moral imperatives or legal commitments. We need to be unafraid to say, "Support human rights! They're good for us!"
Because in some cases the risks of ignoring human rights violations are enormous. Advancing human rights is by no means the only consideration policymakers must take into account when setting the course of a country of course. Preventing nuclear war must always take precedence, for one. Economic interests, terrorism, the distribution of resources, the state of the environment -- all of these compete for attention. But all of these issues also turn out to have a human rights dimension in ways far more complex than the "realists" customarily credit. It is time to restore the balance, time for both the human rights community and its critics to adopt a "new realism."
On the wall of a dance studio in Arizona hangs a plaque containing words from the Zuni Indians: "We dance for pleasure... and the good of the city." I do not claim that adding our own interests to the reasons we should support human rights will in and of itself make the human rights cause a more popular one. I simply contend that we who care about our brothers' and sisters' rights should not be hesitant to acknowledge that we do so for many reasons, not the least of which is the good of the city.
The Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz
is the executive director of Amnesty International USA. He was the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1985 to 1993. This piece is excerpted from his new book In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All, published this spring by Beacon Press. Copyright © 2001 by William F. Schulz. Reprinted by permission.
UU World XV:3 (July/August 2001): 28-35.