Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How to Promote Human Rights in China?

The Center for American Progress, one of the Washington think tanks I respect the most, has issued a new report on the promotion of human rights in China, entitled Strategic Persistence: How the United States Can Help Improve Human Rights in China. The report was written by William Schulz, a senior fellow at CAP who was formerly executive director of Amnesty International.

The report contains an overall assessment of the human rights situation in China, and offers some detailed recommendations about how the U.S. government, business, and non-governmental organizations can promote human rights there. But to me, the most important and persuasive part of the report is the overall strategy that Schulz believes should underpin American policy on the subject.

Schulz begins by underscoring two key assumptions:

  • First, our leverage to force China to advance human rights and democracy is limited. Our “sticks” are relatively weak and counterproductive. This was already demonstrated after the Tiananmen Crisis of 1989, when we tried but failed to use trade policy to force improvements in China’s human rights record, but then backed down when in essence Beijing called our bluff. The lack of leverage, and the cost of trying to exercise it, would be even greater today.
  • And second, the growth in the various elements of China’s national power, and the emergence of a wide range of transnational issues in a globalized world, means that the agenda between the two countries is far longer than ever before. No longer can we focus entirely on the traditional trinity of trade, Taiwan, and human rights. We now must address a far greater range of bilateral, regional, and international issues now than we did twenty years ago, and we need China’s cooperation if we are to manage those issues successfully.

Still, as Schulz points out, the promotion of human rights remains an important American objective, for both moral reasons and practical ones. We want Chinese, like all people, to enjoy rights that we regard as inherent and inalienable, and that are now enshrined in several international legal conventions that China has signed and ratified. Violations of human rights undermine the Chinese business climate: they are a potential source of political instability, can reduce the government’s responsiveness to economic and social problems, and can produce reputational risks for firms operating there. As Schulz points out, China’s domestic policy on human rights is correlated with Beijing’s reluctance to criticize human rights violations by repressive regimes in the Third World, let alone to accept the principle of humanitarian intervention.

Of course, democratization will not solve all America’s international problems. I don’t agree with the former Clinton administration’s position that democracies inevitably make better trading partners and agree with the United States on key international issues. That’s an exaggeration, as our trade disputes with Japan and the disagreements with our European allies over Iraq have so amply demonstrated. But while all good things do not necessarily go together in the real world, promoting human rights will remain, and should remain, an American foreign policy objective.

How then to promote human rights in the new context, in which America needs Beijing’s cooperation on a variety of international issues and America has limited leverage over the human rights situation in China? Here again I agree with the principal conclusions of the CAP report. Putting them in my own words, and occasionally adding my own gloss, I would summarize them as follows:

  • We should focus on supporting positive developments, working with both Chinese government agencies and with civil society where it is possible to move forward. But I don’t see this as a choice of “carrots” over “sticks,” as the CAP report does. Describing this policy as offering China “carrots” might imply paying the Chinese government to do something they would not otherwise do. Rather, we would be providing funds and technical assistance to enable the Chinese government and China’s emerging civil society to conduct reforms that they already want to undertake, and encourage them to take those reforms one step further.
  • We should continue to make candid assessments of China’s human rights situation, through such mechanisms as the annual State Department human rights report. But in so doing we need a broad definition of that subject. Civil and political rights, as Schulz points out, are not conterminous with democracy. Indeed, the attainment of these two objectives will almost certainly occur on quite different time scales, the first sooner than the second. Furthermore, internationally protected human rights include economic and social rights as well as civil and political rights. Poverty alleviation is as worthy an objective – and as admirable an achievement -- as democracy promotion. Relatedly, those assessments should also be well-informed and well-balanced, acknowledging positive developments as well criticizing as negative ones. One-sided critiques of China’s human rights violations will have little credibility, either in China or in third countries.
  • Our approach to promoting human rights in China should be as multilateral as possible. This means working with our allies to present a common front on the issue, and pressing the UN Human Rights Council to look objectively at China’s human rights record. Working through multilateral channels will be frustrating at some times, as in the recent Universal Periodic Review of China conducted by the UN Human Rights Council, where China rejected a large number of the recommendations submitted by democratic states. Multilateral mechanisms are unlikely to be any more effective at forcing change in China than are measures taken unilaterally by the United States. But sometimes they will have an impact, as when dockworkers in several African countries refused to offload Chinese weapons destined for Zimbabwe. And working multilaterally demonstrates that concern with human rights is not simply a unique American preoccupation, and that America’s assessments of China’s human rights record reflect not just American preferences, but widely shared norms.
  • Businesses should also promote human rights, in part by raising questions about the operational and reputational risks associated with working business in countries that violate them, and above all by doing no harm when conducting business there – with regard both to how they treat their own workers, and to whether they sell the Chinese government equipment (such as police surveillance equipment) that can be used to violate human rights of Chinese citizens.
  • Perhaps most important, as the emphasis changes from threats of sanction to offers of assistance, the focus will also shift from the role of government to the role of NGOs. NGOs can better perform both the critical and cooperative functions outlined above. Compared with governments, they are under fewer obligations to weigh other factors in their approach to China. While they should also be objective and well-balanced, as advocacy organizations they can also be blunt and outspoken. And, also compared with governments, NGOs that operate in China are in a better position to promote positive developments inside that country, albeit perhaps with financial assistance from governments and international organizations.

CAP’s call for “strategic persistence” on human rights is a modest prescription that carries no guarantee of short-term success. But it is a realistic one, based on the acknowledgement that the more can be achieved by encouraging positive developments and by offering candid but objective criticisms of negative ones than by threatening sanctions that will be costly, ineffective, and possibly counterproductive.

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