The Economist published a decent article on US-China relations recently highlighting the lack of official US attention to the human rights situation in China. This has always been a contentious issue in diplomacy for fears too much criticism will derail economic negotiations which take precedent. US foreign policy is almost exclusively about economics, further its economic logic to aid it own economy. Human rights law obviously becomes a tool when convenient for the greater powers. Beyond that, its pushed only by NGOs, again sorrily for their own normative interests but at least there are less consequences for their hypocrisy.
China follows a similar logic. Its regime’s legitimacy is based firstly on its ability to deliver economically. Coercion follows when economics fail so Chinese foreign policy involving aid in Africa is merely about economics. China takes issue with US preaching on human rights for the very normative, media based nature. After all, US treatment of minorities, invasive nature of its economic policies, forcing countries to conform to US interests through IMF, World Bank and domestic legislation with ‘persuasive’ measures attached.
The Economist states the US is aware of this and needs to get its rights house but it nostalgises as if there was a golden era of US human rights. Presumably the house was in order in the 1980s with the financing of wars in Central America, or in the 1970s with the sponsored assassinations in South America and SAPs, or in the 1960s with the Vietnam War or the 1950s with the McCarthism and Iran overthrow. I haven’t even mentioned Guatanamo Bay, the renditions of the Bush-era, the use of internment cams for the Japanese or the wiping out of the Indians! When was this house in order in recent times? Europe’s politicians are also now politically moving away from the its proclamation of values as a package with economic engagement internationally while becoming increasingly discriminatory (racist) with Europe.
However apart from North Koreans, no one is fleeing to the Chinese embassy for political asylum. The real danger to human rights right now is the old dangers. Firstly political interest is only peaked by economic interest for the major powers. Sovereignty is still an upheld value by the Chinese for the simple reason, if they also foreign mediation and/or intervention in other states, then its role in Tibet, North-West China and North Korea would be questioned.
The second danger is the world’s dumped boyfriend Russia. Its record on human rights is poor and always has been. The control of media, persecutions of non-state actors, control of national resources by the state, lack of judicial independence and contentious elections has created a near one-party state. Russia’s wish to punch at the weight of its size and nuclear forces will be keenly felt in the Arctic as the battle for resources and energy hots up. Despite the Arctic being an international legal territory but like most international law, it’s convenient until it becomes inconvenient.
It is the only state backing the Assad regime in Syria. This week after the shelling killing over 80 people including many children, Russia’s foreign minister implied that while some died in the shelling, some were also killed by gunfire or had their throats cut and therefore murdered by the rebels presumably as a sacrifice to a greater goal. This allegation (and only allegations really matter) has the powerful effect of firstly implicating the rebels as war criminals and secondly highlighted the policy line of Russia. For unfortunately Russia matters here until the time the atrocities become too much. All this reminds me of the siege of Sarajevo and Russia’s backing of the Serbs.
The waters of international law and human rights are very murky once faced by political realities. The human rights we hear are of course our Western human rights, an attempt to enstill what we consider natural onto the greater world. The real hypocrisy is sadly we don’t even enforce them ourselves.