Unfinished Revolution

THE world has changed remarkably between the era of Jimmy Carter's campaign for human rights and Hillary Clinton's vigorous speech in Beijing equating women's rights and human rights. The old rationale that the pursuit of human rights goals must be subordinate to winning the cold war has disappeared. Regional human rights watch groups have sprung up to monitor governments' actions against individual citizens or minority groups. Ancient traditions that establish a caste system by ethnic origin, sex, religion, skin shade, or class accent are being challenged in many societies. Despite the progress this ferment is bringing to millions of individuals, some cautions need to be raised. Mouthing slogans is no substitute for clearsighted analytical thinking. Mrs. Clinton zeroed in on women's rights. No serious thinker can doubt that ending wife-battering, child labor, forced abortion, female infanticide, and selling of girls into prostitution or unwanted marriage should be major priorities. So should such constructive goals as equal educational opportunity, more family planning information, and more easily accessible loans to start small businesses. But it's hardly helpful for Western reformers to call for global population control and simultaneously criticize China's one-child family policy and huge carbon-dioxide emissions. The most likely route to taming China's population growth (and consequent global pollution growth) is rising prosperity. That's the lesson from most of the nations that surround China's Pacific rim. Prosperity has brought an increase in education, women's freedom, family well-being, and a decrease in population growth rates. Already China's traditional preference for boy babies is changing. A majority of urban women now show no gender preference, and choose small families - although not the single child programmed by the state. The great human rights revolution of modern history started with the declaration that society should be organized to permit its citizens life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That revolution continued with the freeing of slaves and serfs, decolonization, and overthrow of dictators. Beijing speeches can help speed the process. But its main agent must be the flow of information and prosperity into each society. Caste systems by ethnic origin, sex, religion, or skin shade, are widely challenged.

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