The End of the Conversation?

Published March 1, 1995

Meanwhile, as this truly striking example of “cultural imperialism” unfolds throughout the U.N. system, the idea of “universal and inalienable human rights” is under new attack, and precisely on grounds of “cultural imperialism,” from activist Muslims, East Asian neo-Confucians and despots, and the remaining Communist states (among which is, of course, the world’s largest country, the People’s Republic of China).

This attack was assertively mounted at a Bangkok meeting held in preparation for the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights. In Bangkok, in April 1994, a curious alliance of Communists (China and Vietnam), anti-Communists (Indonesia), Middle Eastern despotisms (Syria and Iran), old-fashioned military thugs (Burma), and the gung-ho capitalist microstate of Singapore engineered a “Bangkok Declaration” that revealed what this motley array of states had in common: a profound contempt for the classic notion of “human rights” as civil rights and political freedoms.

The Bangkok Declaration flatly denied the universality of human rights, no matter how narrowly or broadly conceived; 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, such an assertion might not sound unreasonable. The cause of human rights surely requires a careful consideration of how differing religious and philosophical systems provide moral ground for human rights claims. And effective protection of such rights requires the exercise of common sense when the fragile institutions of a nascent civil society are threatened by fanaticisms of one sort or another. But the Bangkok conspirators gave the game away when their 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 rights,” even while the cabal’s leaders concurrently insisted, as the Chinese representative blandly put it, that “only when state sovereignty is fully respected can the implementation of human rights really be assured.”

Translation: We will define what we mean by “human rights.” We will implement that decision however we see fit. Nobody else has any standing to object.

Or, sans soothing euphemisms, “Farewell, universal human rights.” For if it is an act of moral and cultural imperialism, to which other cultures cannot be expected to kowtow, for the West to insist that basic legal proprieties such as habeas corpus and fundamental civil liberties such as religious freedom are inalienable human rights, then we really are back in the jungle, and no amount of paper generated by the U.N. human rights bureaucracy can change that one iota.

But if that is the case, then an even graver issue comes sharply into focus. The gravamen of the new anti-universalism (especially in its potent East Asian form) is that there are no universal human rights because there is no universal human nature, and thus no universal moral law to which appeals across cultures can be made. Which, in turn, means that there can be no serious international discussion about the shape of the world’s future: for if there are no trans-cultural moral norms to guide the creation of whatever institutions of world order might be possible at this stage of human political evolution, then we really are living in a Hobbesian environment where all are at war with all. And if we would like to see what such an environment looks like, even among putatively civilized people, we need only glance at Sarajevo.

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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