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West flawed on human rights(China Daily,29 October,2010)
2010-10-30

Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, wrote an article in The New York Times recently, defending Liu Xiaobo by replaying the obsolete Western tune that "human rights stand superior to state sovereignty".

At least three factors prove that Jagland's contention is a fallacy.

First, human rights standards vary from one country to another. For instance, Sweden's well-developed welfare system is built on high taxation, which in the United States is regarded as compromising private assets. Protestantism has been retained in the United Kingdom and religion is a compulsory subject in schools, but this practice is unimaginable in France, thanks to the French Revolution.

People in the US, however, found it unbelievable that the French government monopolized TV broadcasting until 1982. Besides, a ban imposed by the French government on Muslim female students wearing scarves is something Chinese people cannot imagine.

Economic, social and cultural rights were universally recognized human rights until sometime ago, but the US' failure to recognize this was unbelievable for people in the majority of countries.

The international community has agreed on the definition of some human rights. For example, trumpeting colonialism and racism is widely considered to be an infringement upon human rights. What does the Norwegian Nobel Committee really want to do by conferring the Nobel Peace Prize on Liu Xiaobo, who publicly advocates the West's 300-year colonization over China? Does it want to revive the long-reviled colonialism and racism? Or is it completely ignorant of the proposals long advocated by Liu? The Norwegian Nobel Committee owes the Chinese people an explanation and an apology.

Second, who on earth is authoritative enough to judge what human right infringements are? The Norwegian Nobel Committee obviously is not such an authority. The international community has never given the committee such a privilege. Thus, the committee's decision-making procedures are completely irrelevant to democratic concepts.

In fact, the influence of the Norwegian Nobel Committee alone is not the only one on the decline. The West-advocated "human rights diplomacy" faces a similar fate.

According to studies conducted by Richard Gowan and Franziska Brantner, scholars at the European Council on Foreign Relations, 127 of the 192 members at this year's United Nations General Assembly voted against the European Union's (EU) stance on human rights. They said that until the 1990s, the EU could get 70 percent "yes" votes from UN members on the issue, but now it has declined to 42 percent, almost equivalent to the percentage of votes the US could win.

In contrast, China and Russia can get as much as 69 percent approval ratings on human rights issues in the UN General Assembly. This should make it clear whether the international community stands with the US and the UK or China and Russia on human rights.

In other words, whether a country has infringed upon human rights should not be determined by a handful of people or countries. Instead, people of that country and the international community as a whole should decide it.

Gone are days of the West's hegemony over human rights issues. A typical example of that is the failure of the West on 10 occasions to get its anti-China motion passed in the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Third, are human rights superior to state sovereignty? The Charter of the United Nations lists equality of sovereign states as its first principle, on which the modern international legal system is built. The charter includes non-interference in other countries' internal affairs and peaceful resolution of international disputes, too.

From the perspective of the evolution of international law, only when the international community confirms that there have been "mass violations of human rights", such as invasion, war, anti-human activities, genocide or racial segregation, can it authorize the UN to intervene. Also, such interventions must be under the strict procedures of international law and conducted through legal means.

But there are always some forces in the West that assume the role of international police and judge. They always want to interfere in other countries' internal affairs in the name of "human rights stand superior to state sovereignty", and do not hesitate to even wage a war for this purpose. Such acts have seriously violated the human rights of many people across the world. In the Iraq War alone, tens of thousands of people have lost their lives and tens of thousands of others have been injured or rendered homeless.

One of the important reasons why a majority of countries oppose the West-advocated "human rights diplomacy" is that most of them, like China, once suffered invasions by Western colonialists and imperialists, which brought untold sufferings and misery to their peoples.

If the West really wants to popularize its skewed hypothesis that "human rights come before sovereignty", it should implement the principle in the Western world first. For example, the EU should impose sanctions on the US, whose war in Iraq has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and is obviously a violation of human rights.

The West can also prompt the UN to pass a resolution condemning the countries, including Norway, where men and women do not get the same salary for doing the same work. After all, the principle of "equal pay for equal work" has for long been part of universally recognized human rights. Western countries will be seen as practicing "double standards" on human rights if they do not dare to move such a resolution in the UN.

We are now in an era of great changes and the long-established Western hegemony is waning. The rapid rise of China and other emerging countries is accelerating this process. What we need to do today is to establish a new international human rights political culture to replace the rigid West-advocated human rights view and the Cold War mentality. Only by doing so can we carry out free exchanges on human rights issues and join hands to bring real equality, justice and peace to the world.

The author is a professor of Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations. The article first appeared in the Global Times

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