The Necessity of Hardball

Published August 1, 1993

Although the Clinton administration has claimed great success at the Vienna conference, its more candid members are likely to argue, privately, that given the consensus procedure, the United States made the best it could out of a bad set of circumstances. But why did we agree to a consensus-driven conference?

The U.S. delegation believed it could “solve” the problem of the Bangkok Declaration in Vienna by the discreet application of some muscle and a wide range of concessions behind the scenes: this would avoid a public quarrel (which a vote on issues like “universality” would surely have provoked) and preserve the image of unanimity that now surrounds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But why is this a priority? Why should we want to maintain a fiction of unanimity with despots—unless the West in general, and the United States in particular, is leery of being seen as pushing its weight around? As the conference opened in mid-June, Joshua Muravchik proposed a tougher strategy, based on a more assertive understanding of the position of the United States and its democratic friends in world politics today:



The end of the Cold War has brought down many barriers, including, it seems, the barrier that used to divide communist and anti-communist tyrants. On the other side of the coin, advocates of human rights and democracy are united across the political spectrum as never before. Why shouldn’t the democracies accept the challenge thrown down by the dictators? Who needs false unanimity? Why not declare that the new dividing line in global politics is between those who honor and practice human rights and democracy and those who do not? Why not have a vote?


Why not, indeed?

But such assertiveness requires leadership. That means the United States would have to accept responsibility for spearheading a reconception of human rights work in international political and legal institutions today; the Europeans will do nothing unless the United States takes the point, and much of the heat. And one has to wonder, sadly, whether the United States could gather itself to such a task, just now. Our people are in a profoundly isolationist mood (which in no small part reflects a failure of political leadership). The Clinton administration really seems to believe that its Republican predecessors “dismantled” America’s human rights policy, showed gross insensitivity to the Third World, and paid too little attention to the agenda that flies under the flag of “economic, social, and cultural rights.” (The first two judgments are profoundly mistaken, and the third ought to be celebrated, not deplored.)

But the United States does the cause of human rights no favor when it takes the advice of former President Carter, who argued in Vienna that the democracies should be “understanding” about the “frustrations” of the countries that signed the Bangkok Declaration.1 The United States has no shortage of problems; but it is ludicrous to suggest that we enter a discussion of human rights on an equal moral footing with the signatories of the Bangkok Declaration. What the cause of human rights needs is an assertive United States, unashamed of its own human rights traditions, committed to the notion that civil rights and political freedoms are the basic building blocks of decent societies, and willing to challenge the shibboleths that have fouled international human rights discourse for two generations now. That is not, unfortunately, the United States that showed up at the World Conference on Human Rights. And the real losers were the victims of human rights abuse throughout the world.

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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