Ethics & Public Policy Center

Getting It Less-Than-Half Right


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


The Bangkok Declaration was, among other things, a gauntlet thrown down before the Clinton administration. The Vienna Conference would be the first major international human rights meeting in which the new administration participated; how would the new kids on the block react?

The policy process leading up to Vienna left much to be desired. Conflicting ideological claims to the mind and soul of the State Department’s human rights bureau had buffeted the administration from the start, and the new assistant secretary of state for human rights, John Shattuck, was confirmed only a week before the conference began. More than a few Democrats wanted to revive the ‘ Carter approach to human rights issues; this would have led to a policy in which the United States looked benignly on the “right to development,” and might even have resulted in a tacit acceptance of the Bangkok Declaration’s denial of the universality of human rights. Others, notably Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute (author of The Uncertain Crusade, the most telling critique of Carter-administration human rights policy), argued that the Clintonistas should build on the success of the Abrams/Schifter approach and stress the linkage between human rights and democratization, on the one hand, and successful economic and social development, on the other, while avoiding Bushbaker squeamishness about such major-league human rights violators as China.

Because the administration took so long to staff the State Department (and because State itself has little institutional interest in human rights matters leadership on this front comes almost exclusively from political appointees), the United States went to the World Conference on Human Rights in damage-control mode. There were some things we wanted to stop (like a retreat from universality); there were some bones we were willing to throw to our adversaries to get what we wanted; there was some interest in distancing the new administration from its predecessors’ policies; but there were no long-term policy goals to guide U.S. participation at Vienna.

The result was an American performance that, viewed from one angle, hit .500 (no mean average in any league), but viewed from another, barely made it over the Mendoza Line (.200).

Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s speech to the conference—the defining moment for U.S. policy at Vienna—included a strong defense of the universality of basic human rights. Americans, Christopher noted, “respect the religious, social, and cultural characteristics that make each country unique.” But, he immediately continued, “we cannot let cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression.” Thus the United States “reject[s] any attempt by any state to relegate its citizens to a lesser standard of human dignity.”

Christopher also nailed the hypocrisy of the Bangkok Declaration in sharp and uncompromising terms (even if, in doing so, he took something of a leap into the multicultural abyss): “There is no contradiction between the universal principles of the [Universal] Declaration and the cultures that enrich our international community. The real chasm lies between the cynical excuses of oppressive regimes and the sincere aspirations of their people.” Not bad, that. (But do all cultures “enrich our international community”? What about the cultures that treat women, including young girls, as sex slaves? What about cultures in which torture is a routine practice?)

Moreover, the Administration backed off from its previous commitment to seek Senate ratification of the “International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights”—a step that would have further damaged the idea of “human rights” by dulling the edge of the claims embedded in civil rights and political freedoms. Christopher also emphasized the linkage between human rights protections and democracy, and if his rhetoric was less compelling than Ronald Reagan’s, the point was nevertheless made.

So why not award Christopher and the U.S. delegation full marks?

Because what the United States asserted in Christopher’s speech it then significantly undercut by accepting a conference Final Document that contradicts the secretary’s key points in several crucial respects.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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