Where Economic Woes and Political Repression Meet

The human rights and business communities have lessons to learn from the currency crisis unfolding in Asia. The United States government does, too.

Each time the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum has met, human rights organizations have tried to force onto the agenda such topics as political repression in East Timor, forced labor in Burma (Myanmar), or political prisoners in China. And each time, the US government, encouraged by its business allies, has insisted that APEC talks were not the appropriate venue for dealing with human rights issues.

One example: Robert Barry, as US ambassador to Indonesia at the time of the 1994 APEC meeting in Jakarta, said, "APEC is not the forum to discuss security, nuclear proliferation, and human rights." The Clinton administration seemed convinced that issues of economic growth could neatly be severed from issues of political freedom.

Such a blind faith surely has been shattered by recent developments. Indonesia, where much of the turmoil began, is a perfect example of a country whose economic woes are directly related to its lack of political freedom.

Indonesia's example

It is not just that Indonesia has been crippled by corruption and cronyism - two conditions that a free press and an active political opposition tend to dissipate. It's also that a country in which legitimate forms of social and political dissent are not allowed eventually becomes unstable, ill-equipped to deal with crises of any kind, economic or other.

Political stability is a sine qua non of economic health. But political stability is impossible in the long term without such safety valves as free labor unions, a critical press, confidence in the rule of law, and a widely accepted process of political succession, all designed to channel the complaints and frustrations of a citizenry. Absent such channels - and all have been missing in Indonesia - an economic crisis turns into more than a crisis about currency: It turns into a crisis about confidence in the future.

Capitalism and liberty

Business has to recall the lesson that its own leaders preached throughout the cold war years, namely that only a capitalism that is intimately linked to liberty will succeed in the long run. Economic competition and a free market have their parallels in the political realm and thrive far more readily where a country's tradition calls for openness, the free flow of information, and letting the chips fall where they may, than one in which repression, fear, and rigged elections are the norm.

Similarly, the US government must revise its stubborn devotion to treating economic policy as if it could be divorced from the social and political worlds in which it is enmeshed.

But human rights advocates have a lesson to learn, too, from all this economic consternation. Instead of merely demanding that business and government use their leverage to bring about a set of morally desirable results (an agenda and a lexicon that often seem foreign to both), we in the human rights community should make our case in economic terms as well.

If we want business and government to be allies in the struggle for human rights, we should treat them as allies until they prove they are not. That means talking in language they understand and advocating interests we share. As the recent experience in Asia shows, those interests are remarkably congruent.

* William F. Schulz is executive director of Amnesty International USA in New York.

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