Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Indictment


George Weigel

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


Some examples will help establish this point.

  • Paragraph 3 of the Vienna Declaration’s statement of principles reads: “All human rights are universal, indivisible, and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.”

This is simply the Bangkok Declaration tarted up for public display. What is conceded by the statement of “universality” is immediately denied on the basis of “indivisibility, interdependence, and inter-relatedness.” These three words may sound unobjectionable; but do not think that they are “neutral” terms. In the current U.N. context, they have very explicit meanings. To get down to specific cases: according to this formulation, the putative right to “periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays” is as basic a “human right” as freedom of religious belief.

This pernicious and demeaning approach reduces human life to a (slightly) higher form of animal life. It denies a basic anthropological truth: that certain innate human aspirations reflect a quality of transcendent nobility that radically distinguishes man from his pet dog and other sentient creatures. Moreover, we have had a long, hard experience of what happens in societies that blather on about their commitment to “economic, social, and cultural rights”: they tend to be poor countries, absolutely or relatively, and to be ruled by dictators. For the United States to agree to a human rights declaration in which the alleged “indivisibility, interdependence, and inter-relatedness” of human rights were given equal footing, morally and legally, with the universality of basic human rights was a serious error.

  • Paragraph 6 reaffirms the “right to development” as a “universal and inalienable right and an integral part of fundamental human rights.”

In the days when he was representing the United States at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Michael Novak used to ask whether, if there was a “right to development,” there was not a corresponding “responsibility to develop.” And if there was such a responsibility (as the notion of such a “right” would seem to imply), then what should we say about governments whose corruption, malfeasance, and economic wrongheadedness were the primary causes of their nations’ underdevelopment? Would there not be, in these instances, something like a “right to get government out of the way of development”?

These would have been useful questions to pose during the Vienna debate. For, however much confusion there may have been about various schemes of economic development at the time when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted, the world has had forty-five years of experience since then, and the verdict is in. There is no general positive correlation between levels of “development assistance” and real economic development; therefore demands for “development assistance” on the basis of a rights claim take on the ever more ugly character of international extortion. Moreover, countries that want to create wealth and to distribute its benefits equitably will opt, not for state-sponsored and state-directed development assistance (which is what the “right to development” implies), but for market-based economic modernization (which can, to be sure, be furthered at key moments by external assistance—primarily investment). The choice is not between “concern for the Third World” and economic realism. To be concerned—seriously concerned—about the gross poverty and deprivation of the Third World is to advocate those policies of market-oriented economic (and democratic political) reform that are most likely to empower the poor and to lead to real economic growth. We know, now, what those policies are, at least in general orientation. And it is long past time for the United States to do some essential economic truth-telling in international forums, and to respond, sharply and with facts and figures, to the charge that such truth-telling constitutes hegemonism or “insensitivity.”

But that would require a U.S. government willing to say, publicly, that the “right to development,” as it has come to be understood by the majority of states in the United Nations, is dangerous nonsense.

  • Paragraph 19-2 of the Vienna Declaration is a Castroite plea for an end to the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba. But it is Paragraph 19-3 that brings us back to the agenda of the Bangkok Declaration.

Again, the U.N.-ese may seem, at first blush, unobjectionable: “The World Conference reaffirms the importance of ensuring the universality, objectivity, and non-selectivity of the consideration of human rights issues.” But what do the terms “objectivity” and “non-selectivity” mean in the linguistic fantasy-land that is the current U.N.? Well, “non-selectivity” means that there can be no special human rights rapporteurs (investigators, really) appointed for specific countries; there can only be special rapporteurs for issues (like religious freedom). Thus despotic governments (Cuba, for instance) can further seal themselves off from international scrutiny. And “objectivity” means that, for example, in the case of a special rapporteur’s criticism of the state of religious freedom in, say, Sudan, the Sudanese government can reject the report as being “non-objective,” insensitive to cultural differences, biased, and so forth. Orwell lives, indeed.

  • Paragraph 26 of the Vienna Declaration was another victory for the Bangkok Declaration sensibility. The preceding paragraph, on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), had stated that human rights monitors and other NGOs should “be free to carry out their human rights activities, without interference, within the framework of national law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Fine. But Paragraph 26, on the media, merely states that the press should be guaranteed “freedom and protection . . . within the framework of national law”—there is no mention of the Universal Declaration and its principled affirmation of freedom of the press. This has serious implications, not only for press access to countries run by despotic regimes, but for international broadcasting services like the Voice of America, Radio Marti, and Vatican Radio. Jamming these sources of information does not, according to the Vienna Declaration, constitute a serious breach of human rights. Indeed, a clever lawyer (Ramsey Clark? William Kunstler?) could probably turn Paragraph 26 into an argument for the international illegality of Radio Marti (the U.S.-sponsored, Radio Free Europe-style “surrogate radio” for Cuba).

Thus it appears that the U.S. damage-control effort was, at best, only minimally successful. “Universality” was reaffirmed: but at the price of allowing in a host of silly, mendacious, or downright dangerous affirmations that may well subject the claim of universality (and the protections it has afforded dissidents) to the death of a thousand cuts.

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.

Comments are closed.