Who Owns Human Rights?

How serious is our disagreement with China over Liu Xiaobo, currently languishing in a Chinese prison? A pro-democracy activist, the Chinese locked him up, the Nobel people decided to give him an award, and the Chinese wouldn’t let him out to receive it. Now the West is indignant and the Chinese are protesting that the Western idea of universal human rights is anything but universal, rather it is a part of the imperialist effort to impose western values on the rest of the world.

This raises the issue, who has the right to define human rights? The prevailing view here in the US.. is that the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, with its emphasis on individual freedom, is the last word, the gold standard. But others, like the Chinese, disagree. How do we deal with the charge that the values expressed in the UN Declaration are culturally biased and don’t represent the values of humanity as a whole? What is the proper stance from a humanist perspective?

As humanists, we start with respect for the value of each individual member of our species. Parse this out and you eventually get to a set of values like the UN Declaration. That statement is undoubtedly thoroughly consistent with what we humanists believe. But is this enough? As a humanist, I also tend to be dubious about anyone’s claim that values as defined in any document are absolute. This sounds too much like religious faith. Let me see if I can reconcile my strong support for the UN Declaration with my discomfort at being asked to accept the validity of any document or doctrine on faith and faith alone.

Part of my reluctance to genuflect before the UN Declaration is my sense that humanity is still very much a work in progress. We have a long road to travel before we arrive at a state where the kinds of human rights we believe in are accepted by the great majority of humankind. If we are ever to achieve global cooperation and the world at peace we aspire to, we shall need to have a common sense consensus on human rights that will provide a foundation for the shared values that such a world will require. How are we going to get that consensus? By persuasion or by letting the powerful impose it on the weak?

I’ve had a certain amount of experience dealing with values in societies where they differ from ours. I have found that while the other society quickly adopts technology that lets them make more money, they resist any overt effort to push our values on them. You cannot just go in and tell them they’re wrong and expect them to change. You have show them what our values are and how they work in practice. Eventually they will work out the ways in which the material successes of our culture that they admire are contingent on many of the values they are resisting—and then they will change. But it takes time and patience.

Another part of my reluctance to go the whole hog with the UN Declaration is my sense that it isn’t necessary to get into a messianic froth over it in order to get the whole world to agree to it. I’m old enough to remember when we were seriously debating whether we could only defeat communism if we fought the Soviet Union and defeated it on the battlefield or whether there was some other way out. Back in 1969 I predicted that our very different ideologies would converge over time, and that since our system worked better in the long run, the USSR would have to do most if not all of the converging. Fortunately for everyone, my prediction (which was contrary to conventional wisdom at the time) was essentially correct.

This brings me back to China, and the Liu Xiaobo affair. Chinese values emphasize the importance of maintaining harmony where Westerners stress individual freedom. When some incident arises that focuses attention on these differences, we express outrage and they fire back at us. Mutual irritation follows which will probably die down fairly soon, inasmuch as neither side has important interests (as opposed to values) tied up in the dispute. You can chalk the whole incident up as another small step in a learning process where each side gets to understand the other side’s feelings a little better, and hope that the end result will be a beneficial convergence.

“Whoa!” I hear you saying. “Do you really believe that values are not important?” Well, the point I want to make is that while values are supremely important in the long run, differences in values should not be important factors in the management of daily relations between states. If we manage those affairs sensibly, looking for win-win solutions to problems and finding them frequently, we can expect that over time there will be a convergence that narrows the gap between our different values, and hopefully eventually eliminates it. If our own values are as robust as we think they are, then the other party will be doing most of the converging, as was the case with the USSR. The world will end up with the kind of respect for individual rights that will lead to the world at peace we all aspire to—a world congenial to our values.