Sunday, March 18, 2007

Human Rights in the United States

Another edition of China’s not-so-hotly-anticipated "Human Rights Record of the United States" was released early this month. The release was given its customary and cursory acknowledgment by the Washington Post, among other news papers, websites, and news aggregators. As is mentioned in all of these media sources, the release is based almost totally on U.S.-based media reports, press releases, and Human Rights organizations (many of which have been frequently criticized in Chinese media and censored), and as in the case of earlier such reports, everything is surprisingly and responsibly cited and documented with thorough in text citations.

Is there anything especially revealing inside the report? Nothing in particular. The folks at the Chinese State Department clearly busied themselves with internet search engines for several weeks, mining U.S. and international media sites for negative press about the United States. Since so much of the material came from U.S. media sources, no United States resident would find any of the information here to be fresh or new.

The Iraq War and the War on Terror was a goldmine of information for this year’s report with a year of news on secret prisons and mistreated detainees. It provided a great springboard to jump into some of China’s favorite foreign policy themes: violations of sovereignty, interfering in other country’s affairs, and hegemonism. There was also mention of the increase of U.S. internal surveillance and incursions on peoples’ rights to privacy.

Some reoccurring themes that have appeared in the last few reports such as U.S. high crime rates, racial discrimination, high rates of incarceration, sexual discrimination, police brutality, high rates of poverty, and poor healthcare coverage, return again this year.

In contrast the U.S. report on human rights in China focuses more on issues that Americans associate with human rights, addressing mostly judicial concerns including unfair trials, detainment, torture during police detainment, freedom of speech, religion, and movement, and also on things such as human trafficking. It is a long long dry read in spite of its thoroughness. Things that do not show up include crime, access to healthcare, and poverty statistics.

So what do you think about China’s criticism of the U.S.’s human right’s record? In some regards it reveals an approach to human rights very different one from the west—i.e. a focus on social stability over individual freedoms. Or is it just poor spirited tit-for-tat where they just wrote down everything they could find in the newspaper?


hcduvall said...

I'm not sure that comparing State departments' reports is the best avenue to interpret cultural differences, by their nature as the product of diplomatic organs of the government, they're going to be more pr. Any of them could easily spun to regard the credibility or strenght of said national system, and therefore its social stability. And I don't know. This may be my Americanized sensibility, but given that freedom of information isn't one of the Chinese tenets, sourcing is suspect out of the bat in their reports (American news sources or not). And arguably, the US report is a long, dry reads because of its thoroughness. Alternatively, you could go by the generally accept UN Declaration of Human Rights if you want a yardstick.

It'd be more interesting to track reports for national internal distribution. A report that tracks the manpower hours or number of citizens processed through the court system tells you one thing about emphasis on the "good" of due process, for example. Whereas a report that regards stability more will emphasize a conviction rate and/or penalties levied.

Chengora said...

It's mostly a tit-for-tat, although it obviously latches onto the "Asian values" debate a bit. Or perhaps more pointedly, the "second generation" human rights thing, which I don't necessarily believe to be human rights. The questions of prisons, police brutality, and poverty are important to look into, but they don't actually tackle the issue of state responsibility in securing basic freedoms. For example, in an economy as privately based and decentralized as the U.S., it's not really reasonable to hold the government to account for poverty. This misses the point of human rights, which is to provide legal and moral cover to individuals against the direct action of political power centers.

I think the key issue here is that China uses the idea of collective benefit to justify its suppression of minorities and give cover to its inhumane practices. But that was always the issue with human rights. It is not right to allow the collective to outweigh the individual, as that allows governments to essentially do whatever they want in the name of the "greater good." The U.S. under Bush is certainly guilty of going down this road, but they are nowhere near where China is (fortunately). What is needed is individual protection within the scope of general benefit, which is a balance that China has always met poorly.

And after all, the measures that China are taking aren't exactly useful. Crime, for example. At what point does crime become a human right issue? Does it depend on the actor, in which case how can the U.S. government be responsible for petty crime committed by individuals? You tend to get to a logical absurdity here, with the idea ending in everyone being responsible for everyone else's mistakes. Take the economy for example, or poverty more specifically. Should, say, the government of France be considered in violation of human rights if unemployment rises above a certain level? How about those in sub-Saharan Africa? And how about the multiplicity of factors that impact the economy? Should China's manufacturing capacity be considered a factor in spurring loss of U.S. jobs and hence poverty? That seems far too much a stretch for me, and it's a principal reason why I think proponents of this kind of human right - well-meaning or no - are not thinking clearly enough about the issues involved. They defend political positions more than moral ones.