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Global Aspirations, Local Gospels

Most of the human-rights standards which now exist in international law ultimately derive from the international teachings of the world's major religions/philosophies. The presumption of innocence comes from ancient Islamic law; Confucius devoted great attention to the obligations of a sovereign toward his people; and the Judeo-Christian "golden rule"—the idea of reciprocal obligations, responsibilities, and respect—has shaped the fundamental standards of behavior of most cultures.

The standards we now call "rights" were formalized over centuries in various national legal systems. In the twentieth century these understandings have been codified in several major international conventions agreed to by a majority of the world's nations, starting with the Slavery Convention of 1926. The most important of these is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), proclaimed in 1948 by the founding members of the United Nations. The preamble to the UDHR calls for its provisions to be promoted and supported by "every organ of society," which presumably includes business.

The UDHR, while inescapably a political document in the sense that it was the product of the concerns and agendas of particular nations at a particular time, has, since 1948, defined the frontiers and terms of the various debates over human rights. It contains thirty principles, which include not only civil and political rights, but economic, social, and cultural rights as well.

Civil and political rights include the rights to freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom from torture and slavery, freedom from discrimination, and the right to participate in government through the electoral process. Economic, cultural, and social rights include the right to education, the right to just and favorable conditions of work, and the right to participate in cultural life.

Most of the rights and freedoms in the convenants may be limited by national governments—for example, in times of national emergency. However, there are certain rights that are "non-derogable"—in other words, under international law, no state can limit or deny them under any circumstances. These include:

Right to life

Right to recognition as a person before the law

Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion

Freedom from torture

Freedom from slavery

Freedom from imprisonment for debt or from

retroactive penal legislation.

Most of these international agreements have the tone of statements of aspiration rather than reality—the way we would like the world to be, rather than the way it usually is. But collective aspirations are important statements and have played a powerful role in human history. Without them, there would still be millions of human beings sold into slavery, burned or hanged as witches, and victimized by other practices that the vast majority of us now rightly reject.

Universal? Says Who?

Lurking behind the definitional issue of human rights is the complex and controversial problem of whether human rights are "universal" or just "Western" values. The UDHR, of course, states that the freedoms and rights it contains are universal and apply to all human beings by virtue of their common humanity. Dr. Morton Winston describes an Asian "challenge" to the UDHR which emerged in the Bangkok Declaration, adopted at the World Human Rights Conference Regional Preparatory meeting in 1993. Several Asian states, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China, refuted the notion—intrinsic to the UDHR—that human-rights standards can be "universal." The Asian countries maintained that recognition of "cultural particularities" was prerequisite to interpreting human-rights standards for international application; that their societies have different priorities and that economic development, social cohesion, and other goals are more important to them than individual freedoms. The principal objections were to what these countries considered inappropriately absolute language regarding civil and political rights, such as freedom of speech and, especially, freedom to criticize the government. Article 19, for instance, says that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." China's tight control of its citizens' access to the Internet, for example, would be a violation of human rights under this article.

As Morton Winston says, some human-rights advocates fear that consideration of "cultural particularity" might introduce a means for individual governments to pick and choose which standards apply to them. The Asian demurrals were quashed at the Vienna World Conference later that year with this insertion into the Vienna Declaration: "The universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question." Nonetheless, the marker has been put down, and the ongoing shift of economic power to the East guarantees, at the very least, that the debate will continue. It has challenged the primacy of the US Model as the model of freedom.

Individualism versus Cohesion

The US model is the most individualistic and socially least cohesive of comparative cultures, leading to a freewheeling, heterogeneous society full of contentious pluralism, social Darwinist economic practices, and self-destructive behavior. I recently heard on the radio that the board of supervisors in my parents' rural county had voted down several minor recommendations for environmental regulation of oceanfront construction, having concluded that, "while the recommendations were worthwhile, they would interfere with the individual's right to do as he pleases." This may be an extreme example, but to large parts of the world, this is the American Way—unconcerned with the needs of a larger society at home, but quick to lecture other countries about their own behavior.

In the US model, much more than in other countries, society exists to serve the individual and allow the fullest possible self-expression. Extremes of wealth and poverty, profligacy with natural resources, high crime levels, and other features of society that would be considered unacceptable elsewhere are tolerated in the US in the name of individual freedom. The creativity and economic power this tolerance has created may be a source of envy and admiration, but for many outside the US, the social price paid for these benefits simply looks too high.

In many other societies, the individual exists to serve a greater good—his or her family, clan, faith, or country. Problem solving is done not by individual heroes but by negotiation, consensus, group agreement; individuals are willing to give up a certain amount of "freedom" in return for security and relative lack of conflict. Egyptian law professor Kamal Abu al-Magd has observed, "The chances for the effective protection of human rights should be greater if you have a community of individuals competing to fulfill obligations rather than having a community of individuals fighting selfishly for their rights."

Singapore's economic growth and social cohesion are greatly admired by many developing countries. How much significance Singapore places on the obligations of the individual to the larger community was brought home to the world in 1994, when Michael Fay, a young American convicted of vandalism (spray painting graffiti on cars), was sentenced to flogging. Like many Americans who visit the Port of Singapore's headquarters building, I am struck by the rolling digital display in the elevators showing the repeated phrase, "Good character will be rewarded." Such slogans would probably be considered unbearably coercive (or worse, laughably uncynical) in a New York office building.

While the industrialized democracies consider the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a legitimate and timeless statement of "universal" values, much of the developing world views the agreement as a more limited product of negotiation and compromise among superpowers, not necessarily applicable to their own communities. Within this difference of opinion lies the seed of one of the major challenges of the future: enforcement of these rights in a genuinely multicultural context. In my experience, Europeans, without pretending to be moral exemplars but with their own memories of twentieth-century horror still alive, are more sensitive than Americans, with their notorious short memories and resulting ability to forget their own past complicities (e.g., installing and supporting repressive regimes abroad, or the extermination of indigenous Native American peoples).

Whatever de jure standards develop in the human rights area, it is de facto standards that matter in the crunch. Whether or not the international community, or segments of it, can develop genuine methods to enforce human-rights values and protect real lives will be the defining issue for the next century.