Published August 1, 1993
The bad guys at Vienna were not exactly shy about what they were up to. Two months before the Vienna conference got under way, they blatantly telegraphed their punch.
At an Asian regional meeting held in Bangkok in April, an unholy alliance of Communists (China and Vietnam), anti-Communists (Indonesia), Middle Eastern despots (Iran and Syria), old-fashioned military thugs (Burma), and the gung-ho capitalist micro-state of Singapore decided that they all had something in common, after all: contempt for the classic notion of “human rights” as civil rights and political freedoms. The “Bangkok Declaration” denied the universality of human rights; such rights, it said, “must be considered in the context of … national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds.”
On its face, and to those unschooled in the arcana of U.N.-speak, this assertion might not seem unreasonable. The cause of human rights surely requires a careful consideration of how different religious and philosophical systems provide moral ground for human rights claims. And effective protection of such rights over the long haul requires the exercise of common sense when the fragile institutions of a nascent civil society are threatened by fanaticism of one kind or another.
But the bad guys gave the real game away when the Bangkok Declaration went on to “[reaffirm] the interdependence and indivisibility of economic, social, cultural and civil and political rights and the need to give equal emphasis to all categories of human rights,” while concurrently insisting that, as the Chinese representative baldly put it, “only when state sovereignty is fully respected can the implementation of human rights really be assured.”
Decorous translation: We’ll define what we mean by “human rights”; we’ll implement that definition however we see fit; and nobody else has any standing to object.
Street translation: Get outta my face.
But not so far out that they can’t reach our wallets, for the Bangkok Declaration also made a great to-do about the “right to development,” another bit of U.N. argot. Here is the “economic rights” notion turned into an international shakedown: by “right to development,” Third World despots have ‘ meant the putative “right” to draw Western foreign aid from a virtually unlimited account. Thus the claimants place all the blame for the widespread poverty and suffering of Third World peoples on the greedy hegemons of “the North,” blithely ignoring the political, social, economic, and cultural depredations wrought by the post-colonial kleptocracies that have run these societies into the ground.
The “right to development” is the international equivalent of welfare pimping, and the Bangkok Declaration not only endorsed it but gave it another twist by condemning “any attempt to use human rights as a conditionality for extending development assistance.” Translation: The fact that Sudan is committing genocide against its Christian population in no way affects its claims to vast sums of development aid money. Ditto for Burma and political dissidents, China and its colonized Tibetans, and so on.
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.