Who Gets to Define Human Rights?


June 11, 1993|By CHEN MINGJIE

Only 300 miles from Sarajevo, another battle front is openingup in Vienna that will further test America's global leadership. This time the confrontation won't be military but ideological: who gets to define the meaning and content of human rights.

At the World Conference on Human Rights, the U.S. will find itself under attack for the first time over its human-rights policies from a coalition of developing countries spearheaded by China.

Zhang Yishan, deputy leader of China's delegation, has already signaled the coming confrontation by demanding that the U.N. ''consider the rights of poorer countries to survival and development and stop using human rights as an excuse for interfering in the internal affairs of nations.''

The concept that the first and foremost human right should be the right of a nation or people to survival was first sounded by China in an official white book entitled ''The Human Rights Situation in China,'' published in November 1991. ''Without the right of collective survival,'' the book argued, ''there is no point to speaking about any other human rights.''

Stung by two years of world criticism for the Tiananmen Square massacre, Beijing published the book as a signal that it was now prepared to counter-attack on the issue of human rights.

Bolstering the Chinese position is the fact that, after a century in which its very national existence was in jeopardy, China today guarantees the survival of its people by feeding and housing a population of 1.2 billion. Even more impressive, China has increased the median life-span of its citizens from 35 years in 1949 to over 70 today.

At a recent preparatory conference of 49 Asian nations in Bangkok, China's emphasis on collective survival over individual rights found remarkable resonance. Pointing out that every country has its particular culture and history, delegates rejected the Western notion of judging countries by allegedly universal human-rights standards. ''Food is more important than human rights,'' they argued, and ''To be poor is to have no human rights.'' They particularly opposed linking economic aid with human rights.

Theirs is a voice that provokes deep skepticism in the West. The West now ranks Asian nations like India, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq and China as having the worst human-rights conditions in the world and decries their lack of democracy.

But given the size of their populations, these developing nations represent a new and growing voice on the international scene -- one that did not exist when the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration ** of Human Rights, written mainly by Western nations, was adopted.

A century of starvation, extreme poverty, terrible natural disasters and the barbaric incursions of colonists helps explain why these nations in particular are so vehement in their support of collective survival rights. When they hear the words ''human ,, rights,'' the Chinese, for example, recall the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 when foreign armies invaded China, pillaging Beijing in the name of protecting the human rights of foreign residents. Without national sovereignty, they argue, there can be no human rights.

But these nations are also aware that only as the Western colonial powers have finally pulled out of Asia has order and prosperity begun to reappear. One after another ''little tigers'' and ''big tigers'' are rising up, to the world's astonishment. Furthermore, from communist China to anti-communist Singapore, from Muslim Indonesia to Buddhist Thailand, economic take-off has been realized not under democracy but under the rule of political strongmen.

On the other hand, India, under the rule of Oxford-educated Congress Party politicians, and the Philippines, deeply influenced by American culture, are limping in their economic development. Nor has the Western credo of individual human rights succeeded in rescuing Bosnians from the ravages of Serbian aggression, Africans from starvation, or Turkish immigrants from massacres in Germany.

The problem with the Philippines is that ''there is too much

democracy and too little discipline,'' Singapore's former president Lee Kuan Yew remarked on a visit there. This makes it difficult for the entire country to pull together and build up the economy, he argued.

George Yeo, Singapore's 38-year-old communications minister, predicts that not only is a new world economic center unfolding in East Asia, so too is ''an East Asian cultural renaissance that will challenge and transform all cultures in the world and change the way man looks at himself.''

Expect something of this challenge to the West to surface in Vienna in the coming weeks.

Chen Mingjie is a former fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing and has been studying in the United States since 1990. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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