SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 24 of 79 « Previous | Next »

Human Rights, Asia and the New Administration: Can Multilateralism Work This Time?

International Human Rights Day on December 10 commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly. 2008 is a banner year because it marks the 60th anniversary of the document. Although the Universal Declaration does not have the force of an international treaty, it was drafted to elaborate on the mention of human rights in the UN Charter and so is considered to be an extension of the Charter. It is sweeping in scope and covers civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. In subsequent decades after its adoption, the United Nations promulgated a series of international covenants to codify the values espoused in the Universal Declaration. The United States has ratified some of these treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and has left others, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in permanent limbo.

International Human Rights Day on December 10 commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly. 2008 is a banner year because it marks the 60th anniversary of the document. Although the Universal Declaration does not have the force of an international treaty, it was drafted to elaborate on the mention of human rights in the UN Charter and so is considered to be an extension of the Charter. It is sweeping in scope and covers civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. In subsequent decades after its adoption, the United Nations promulgated a series of international covenants to codify the values espoused in the

Universal Declaration. The United States has ratified some of these treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and has left others, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in permanent limbo.

In 1948 four Asian countries – China, Burma, Thailand and the Philippines – voted to approve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Other Asian countries adopted the Declaration with their admission to the United Nations, since it was an integral part of the Charter. However, even before the United Nations was established, it was obvious that the presumed purpose of an international human rights regime was subject to interpretation. To the West, it was to prevent another episode of gross abuse on the scale of the Holocaust. To much of Asia, however, it was a rallying cry for decolonization. As early as 1944, China attempted to assert the latter interpretation in discussions with other World War II Allies. This marked the beginning of the now-familiar difference in interpretation between Asia and the West.

The Trajectory of U.S. Human Rights Policy

Although the United States was a strong supporter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rights were not given a central role in U.S. foreign policy until the mid-1970s. Since then, each administration has endeavored to place its own mark on human rights policy. With a strong Congressional wind at his back, Jimmy Carter institutionalized human rights in the foreign affairs bureaucracy and tried to dramatize this policy area by raising cases of individual political prisoners and other human rights victims at high-level meetings. Carter reasoned that the United States would have the most leverage on its allies, and so countries such as South Korea received particular scrutiny. Ronald Reagan took the opposite approach and targeted Cold War adversaries – the Soviet bloc in particular – for human rights pressure while easing up on U.S. allies. However, Reagan took a more realpolitik approach to China, and was reluctant to press Beijing on rights in the same manner and to the same degree that he did Moscow. George H.W. Bush followed Reagan’s path on human rights in China, inviting charges from Democrats in the 1992 presidential campaign that his response to the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square was too soft.

Promising a harsher approach to “the butchers of Beijing,” in 1993 Bill Clinton linked renewal of China’s Most Favored Nation trade status to improvements in human rights. Over the next year, Beijing ignored or eluded most of the conditions outlined in Clinton’s executive order while the U.S. business community became increasingly vocal in advocating MFN renewal.

U.S. policy toward China at this time also added fuel to the brewing international debate on “Asian values,” led by Singapore and Malaysia but embraced by China and other authoritarian countries in the region. The debate was zero-sum, steeped in monolithic views of both Asia and the West. Proponents of the Asian values approach maintained that economic development should precede democratization, and that economic and social rights should be given preference over political rights. Opponents, primarily Westerners, held that the concept of universal rights did not allow a sequence and that development and democracy went hand in hand. The debate continued sporadically for several years, kept alive by academics and the media, until it came to a quiet end in 1997 with the Asian economic crisis.

Acknowledging that the MFN linkage had not worked, Clinton redirected China human rights policy to multilateral channels and focused on the annual resolution criticizing China in the UN Commission on Human Rights. This approach never succeeded entirely – progress was measured by the narrowness of the margin of loss – but human rights groups maintained that it had symbolic value. In the second Clinton term, the U.S. human rights approach toward China was broadened to include support for the development of the rule of law and other elements of a gradual liberalization process.

George W. Bush maintained rhetorical fidelity to human rights in China relations but did not give them the centrality of the first Clinton term. Instead, in its global human rights policy the Bush administration placed particular emphasis on religious freedom and human trafficking issues, both of which had been championed by conservatives since the 1990s. China was criticized in both respects, but it appears to have had little impact on the overall relationship. The administration has consistently categorized China as a “Country of Particular Concern” on religious freedom, but has not imposed sanctions as the enabling legislation allows. China is listed as a Tier 2 country on human trafficking, signifying moderate challenges in controlling trafficking.

The above sketch is not an exhaustive account, but it identifies shifts in U.S. human rights policy over the past three decades. Asian leaders who receive unfavorable attention in this issue area often hope that a new administration in Washington will dramatically alter the U.S. approach to human rights. They are almost invariably disappointed. Some key elements of the human rights policy apparatus, such as the annual human rights report, are mandated by Congress. Many stylistic features, such as the “list” of high-profile dissidents and human rights victims that high-ranking diplomats carry in their briefcases, are deeply embedded, although the policy toolbox has expanded beyond this to include measures to help strengthen institutions that could ensure the long-term protection of rights.

Above all, despite occasional differences over priorities, target countries and implementation, human rights policy continues to enjoy bipartisan support in both Congress and the executive branch. Nowhere is this more evident than in U.S. policy toward Burma. Over the past twenty years, the United States has made the promotion of political freedoms in that country a major, almost exclusive, policy priority, regardless of the political administration in the White House. The U.S. (and EU) approach has been based primarily in sanctions, which successive administrations have attempted to tighten, focusing on individual leaders within the military regime and their families. Despite this intention, some analysts and NGO workers believe that the sanctions have a negative impact on humanitarian efforts in Burma. This has sparked a debate on the need for a more two-pronged policy, one that punishes a repressive regime while strengthening Burmese society. Others point out that the changing power dynamic in Asia, which has led to China’s becoming Burma’s strongest foreign partner and India its newest, could create geo-strategic disadvantages for the United States. The central debate, however, is in how to craft a policy that is more successful in promoting political openness in Burma. It is unlikely that the West will abandon a sanctions approach, but the new administration will likely be called upon to consider a more nuanced strategy.

Challenges for the Obama Administration

Despite this continuity, the incoming administration will face unprecedented challenges in the promotion of human rights in Asia. However, it will also find new opportunities and even the potential for a fresh approach to this issue area.

The ongoing economic crisis will affect several, if not all, areas of U.S. relations with Asia, particularly with China. The global economic powers, which now obviously include China, will need to work closely to avert further downturns. Beijing’s status as the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasuries, combined with the world’s increasing dependence on Chinese economic growth, ensure that economics will play a central, if not totally dominant, role in bilateral relations early in the new administration. Raising the profile of human rights problems with Beijing at this time could make coordination in other policy areas more difficult.

Moreover, if Asia is able to weather the economic storm better than the West, a second round of the “Asian values” debate could easily commence if the U.S. takes too strident a position on rights. Given the perception of the United States as the epicenter of the crisis, combined with current large-scale government intervention in the U.S. economy, the free market ideology and the linkages between political and economic freedoms that the West trumpeted in the 1990s will strike many Asians as suspect, if not laughable. In addition, the like-minded countries that had been willing to join the United States in human rights demarches and other policy initiatives – many of them European Union countries – face a similar dilemma in their relations with the Asian economic powers, especially China.

In human rights policy, the new administration could offset some of this negativity by moving quickly to address the abuses that have resulted from the war against terrorism and the Iraq war. Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, rendition and the debate over torture have taken a serious toll on the image of the United States as a defender of rights in the past seven years. Doing so will improve the U.S. image worldwide and may increase Washington’s influence on human rights issues. In Asia, it will have even greater impact countries with significant Muslim populations, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand

President-Elect Obama’s commitment to multilateralism could also be a major asset, in broader U.S. relations with Asia and in the more specific area of rights. However, the structure and content of this new multilateralism will be important determinants. Attempts to organize multinational coalitions to criticize China, as with the mid-1990s efforts with the UN Human Rights Commission, are not likely to succeed. Asian countries have long resisted efforts to circle the wagons around China on rights issues and could be even less inclined toward this approach in the current economic environment. Repeated proposals for a “Helsinki Process” in Asia over the past two decades have foundered because of resistance from Asian governments.

More broadly, the bureaucratic process to handle human rights issues in United Nations and other international institutions has changed in recent years. In 2006 the UN Commission on Human Rights was replaced with the UN Human Rights Council, which reports directly to the General Assembly. The United States has maintained an arms-length distance from the new Council, primarily because of its negative focus on Israel and relative neglect of such countries as Burma and Cuba. However, the UN also fields a number of Special Rapporteurs to some countries with problematic rights records, one of which is Burma.

At this juncture, the better prospects for multilateral cooperation on rights may be those that include, rather than target, China and focus on countries where rights abuses are of epic proportions. Building on the view of China as a “global stakeholder,” the new administration should seek to draw China more closely into efforts to address ongoing gross human rights abuse in the Sudan, as well as to seek new approaches – from China and other Asian powers – that might help move the Burmese regime off its longstanding political intransigence. If the Six-Party process on North Korea proves to be effective, a multilateral approach to promoting human rights in North Korea may also be appropriate. This is probably a distant goal: Pyongyang is not likely to realize the same political benefits in a rights framework that it does in a non-proliferation process and could well resist. However, if and when human rights in North Korea becomes a multilateral issue, China will again be a critical player.

Human rights advocacy resists relativism and some will oppose the idea of putting greater effort into gaining Chinese cooperation on problems in other countries than in pointing out human rights abuses within China. However, this should not be confused with more traditional tradeoffs, in which human rights concerns are sometimes downplayed for the sake of security or economic policy. This approach is itself grounded in human rights, with the possible (but not guaranteed) long-term outcome that cooperating with the international community on rights initiatives could have a positive spillover effect on the Chinese domestic environment.

An informal international coalition on Burma policy has developed in recent years. It includes the United States, European Union, Japan, China, ASEAN and India, although New Delhi is uncomfortable with pushing Burma if it undermines India’s new “Look East” policy in Southeast Asia. The new administration will have the opportunity to fill the new position of U.S. Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, which will hold the rank of Ambassador, and it should do so at an early opportunity. However, this new position should be a gate which swings both ways, in which the Special Representative not only pursues U.S. policy interests vigorously but also educates the U.S. policy community on the views of the coalition partners. There is a growing consensus among Asian governments that the West’s policy on Burma is morally correct but outdated and ineffective. If the United States automatically rejects ideas for new avenues to promote greater freedom in Burma from this coalition, it will lose credibility in Asia as an international partner.

Lastly, the new administration should take up new opportunities to encourage Asian regional institutions to develop human rights frameworks and dialogues. The new ASEAN Charter includes a commitment for ASEAN to establish a human rights body, although its responsibilities are not specified. Washington should take care not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this case, and should support any movement toward a credible regional human rights framework, however incremental. The newly-established position of U.S. Ambassador for ASEAN Affairs should make the United States more acceptable as an interlocutor on this issue. Signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation early in the new administration would strengthen U.S. bona fides further. The United States should also consider ways to support the new Bali Democratic Forum, founded by Indonesia in concert with Australia, which seeks to promote political liberalization in the region but does not take the ideological approach of excluding countries that do not meet the criteria of a formal democracy.

A more open-minded and multilateral approach to human rights in Asia early in the new administration will help to counter the negative image of the United States that has arisen in recent years in some Asian quarters – particularly in Muslim Southeast Asia – of a tone-deaf, unilateralist superpower. Beyond the potential gains for U.S. “soft power,” a more multilateral approach may also yield dividends in the promotion of rights, both in Asia and on a more global scale. However, this should be a shift in emphasis rather than a complete renunciation of all other policy approaches. The United States should not abandon human rights in its bilateral relations, nor should it view multilateralism as a panacea.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is aspirational. It sets out a comprehensive list of rights but does not prescribe a path by which to pursue them. On the 60th anniversary of the Declaration, with a new administration in the wings, the United States has a unique opportunity for serious contemplation of its role in that profound effort.

SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 24