The Human Rights Issue Grows in Importance

March 20, 1994|By RICHARD O'MARA

Trying to determine how the diplomatic grappling between the United States and China over human rights will go is like predicting the outcome of the encounter between the irresistible force and the immovable object.

What you can say for sure is that in the end something's got to give.

One might also say that the struggle is not simply one between two countries, but between China and an idea that over the duration of its existence has done nothing but grow.

Human rights have never been much of a consideration to those who run things in Beijing. Entreaties from abroad that China stop jailing and torturing political dissidents, or cease using prison labor to make products for export, were usually met with a kind of haughty scorn natural enough to a government pridefully aware that it rules a quarter of the Earth's people.

Even today, China's leaders know that should they yield to U.S. demands that they improve their human rights performance to hold on to favorable trade terms with this country, China would be conceding that its freedom of action can be circumscribed by what people outside of China think.

It is a hard admission of a hard truth, but human rights is a force impinging on China's sovereign independence. Today the United States is the instrument of this force. Other countries have been in the past.

In the 19th century the champion of rights was England, which fought to end the triangular trade in slaves, sugar, cotton and gold between Europe, Africa and North America. Long before that it was manifest in the "New Laws of the Indies" promulgated by the Spanish Crown in 1542 specifically to

protect indigenous peoples in its New World colonies from abuse and exploitation.

There is still slavery in the world, and Indians continue to be exploited. But this only indicates the intractable nature of the problem; it doesn't invalidate efforts to bring amelioration, either by national governments or private agencies.

Thus the human rights movement, as it has come to be called in its modern expression, has been around a long time. It has gained particularly in political influence in the past 50 years. Today it is represented by a vast and largely uncoordinated network of public and private agencies, most of them based in Europe and the United States. They range from Amnesty International and Africa Watch through the alphabet to the Romany Peoples Group to the United Nations.

There are hundreds of these agencies in the cities and capitals of the West -- New York and Washington, London, Paris, Geneva and so on. Together they deploy tens of thousands of people who work on behalf of individuals afflicted by governments that cling to the belief that their national sovereignty licenses them to treat their people any way they choose.

This principle -- the inviolability of the nation state -- has been called into question as more and more governments, especially in the West, lobbied by this vast army of advocates, have added human rights dimensions to their own foreign policies.

Said British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd last year:

"The inhibition in . . . the U.N. Charter against interfering in the internal affairs of a member state was breached long ago in the case of South Africa and is now increasingly eroded as humanitarian concerns prevail over respect for each nation's right to manage or mismanage its own subjects."

It should be remembered that the Afrikaner government of the Republic of South Africa only a few years back was as defiant in defense of its domestic policies as the Communist government of China is today. The dramatic changes there show that even the hardest line can be breached.

President Clinton's approach toward China is a departure from the gentler embrace of the People's Republic by his immediate predecessors. That may not be because Mr. Clinton is personally more concerned with human rights but simply that he is more vulnerable to pressures from human rights organizations. Which is to say, all the pressure is not on China.

Many of these agencies are staffed by people more likely to be in the Democrats' political constituency than in the Republicans'. Recall that the last time human rights played a significant part in U.S. foreign policy was under President Jimmy Carter.

Whether a policy driven in part by humanitarian concerns will better serve the United States' interests than one based in pure Realpolitik is not a settled question. People who call themselves realists think not; they regard policies driven by moral influences as naive and ineffectual. But that doesn't necessarily reflect a clearer vision on their part as much as a lack of understanding how such policies work.

Many heads of major American corporations oppose the Clinton policy for fear their operations will be eased out of the Chinese market and replaced by companies from Europe or Japan.

These are not entirely selfish impulses but reflect a belief that the best way to modify China's behavior is through increasing economic engagement.

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