Thursday, December 17, 2009

Eleven Lessons for a Realistic Human Rights Policy

Dr. Friedbert Pflueger, who is a Member of the International Advisory Board of the World Security Network Foundation, in the course of his eminently sane analysis of US policy since Carter to Obama, during his recent inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King's College, London, enunciated the following 11 principles of a realistic human rights policy:

"Human Rights should be one cornerstone of a democracy's foreign policy. The spread of individual freedom, democracy and justice enhances also the security of free nations. Human rights can only be protected and saveguarded at home, if they are also a serious issue abroad. A democracy, which enjoys rights at home, but does not care about rights abroad, will loose the support of its own people.

Different cultures, historical backgrounds or religious traditions do not allow to apply the concept of a Westminster democracy everywhere at any time. Therefore human rights policies should concentrate on gross violations of rights such as torture. Its aim should be to fight the hell, not to create heaven.

Accordingly not preaching, a „we-know-better"attitude, arrogance or self-righteousness should be avoided. Human rights policy may not come about as moral imperialism.

While free elections in a specific country should be an aim, they are by far not the most important indicator for a free society. More emphasis should be given to the rule of law, the Habeas Corpus principle and of accountability and reliability of the government.

While the concept of human rights is a concept of individual rights vis a vis the government, those rights need social conditions to flourish such as basic standards concerning food, housing, education the rights of women etc.

Human rights can not the only aim of a countries foreign policy, often not even the most important one. It has to be balanced with other aims. So hard compromises are inevitable. You would like to criticise the Chinese human rights record, but on the other hand you need the Chinese as a partner of nuclear non-proliferation policy against Iran. Or: You would like to criticise Russia for closing down a free TV-station, but you want to achieve an important disarmament or climate agreement at the same time. So you have to develop skills and ideas to pursue the one cause without entirely give up the other. There are no clear formulas for a decision; it has to be case-by-case. The criticism of double standards is to a certain extend inevitable.

Sometimes you serve your cause better by quiet diplomacy. There are cases, when a statesman visiting a foreign country has the chance to free imprisoned dissidents or improve their living conditions. Sometimes he/she would harm his cause by speaking out and reaches results by interfering in a way, where the country in question can save its face. But quiet diplomacy should never become an alibi for doing nothing.
Use, wherever possible, multilateral institutions to foster human rights. Strengthen the International Court of Justice, reform the UN-human rights commission, use summits and every possible international forum to work for progress in the field of human rights.

If there is a real humanitarian catastrophy or genocide, do not rule out the use of force - a humanitarian intervention might be necessary. Without the willingness to fight for the idea of freedom, nobody would have stopped Adolf Hitler and Srebrenica would have been repeated. The threshold for such an intervention should be very high and in accordance with international law.

Be on the other hand aware of the limits of your countries power. Henry Kissinger explained his reluctance with aggressive human rights policy not with moral ambiguity or a lack of interest, but: "Imperatives impose limits in our ability to produce internal changes in foreign countries. Consciousness of our limits is recognition of the necessity of peace". (Statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 19. 9. 1974)

The best way to serve the cause of human rights is the example a country gives with the practise at home. That has made the United States a beacon of freedom to the world Therefore Guantanamo was a grave mistake and should become history soon. John Quincy Adams stated in his famous address on the tasks of the American nation on July 4th 1821: "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the contenance of her voice and the benignant sympathy of her example".

It seems to me that the trouble with Professor Pflueger's entirely sensible suggestions is that they assume, on the one hand, genuine commitment to human rights on the part of leaders, and, on the other hand, the acceptance by the public that leaders are acting in good faith. Is either of these true today? Sphere: Related Content

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