Which human rights, at what cost?

We need to reconsider the place of human rights in American foreign policy. What started in the 1960s as a modest effort, mainly in Latin America, to keep police from mistreating people has grown into a global policy actively promoting more and more rights. And it is producing unintended consequences.

Life is full of trade-offs. We give up one thing in order to get something else. Nowhere does this happen more than in the conduct of foreign policy. Human rights is one of many objectives the US has in the world. Others include national security, foreign trade, the protection of American business and other interests abroad, and access to raw materials.

For any country, these have to be arranged in an order of priority. It is rare that all are attainable. Almost always, some have to be sacrificed for others. Increasingly, the human-rights tail is wagging the foreign-policy dog. The question is not whether human rights should be a part of foreign policy. It is, rather, which human rights under what circumstances in what countries. A former assistant secretary of state for human rights once defined the circumstances for US intervention as "when we can make a difference."

But at what price? What would we have to give up in order to make a difference? And how much difference would it make if we did so? Different people have different views about this. Some think that it is worth giving up trade with China in order to promote human rights. Others doubt that Chinese rights would improve even if we gave up trade. Every case and every country are different; but when we act accordingly, we open ourselves to the charge of inconsistency. Sometimes we are open to the charge of hypocrisy as well. The Brazilian labor minister took offense at a remark by President Clinton about ending child labor in the Brazilian shoe industry when, as he put it, America hasn't resolved all its own problems. The US has no children making shoes, but it has plenty of them, as does Brazil, peddling drugs.

Nor has either country solved all its racial problems. There are differences over the relative importance of various human rights. Most Americans think of rights as restraints on government that are judicially enforceable - freedom of speech and religion or the right to be secure in one's home. A good deal of the rest of the world thinks of them as desirable social goals - the right to a job or to education, health care or housing, or any number of such things.

In the course of attempting to develop a human-rights policy over the last generation, we have added a number of rights to the original limited objective of protection from mistreatment. These include not only the child-labor issue, which so riled the Brazilians, but also rights related to democratic political systems, prominently the right to political dissent without imprisonment, freedom of religion, and freedom from sexual harassment or discrimination (including for sexual orientation).

Thus, there is support of the independence of Tibet, protection of Hindus and Muslims from each other in India, and protection of the Falun Gong from the government in China. These are all worthy but unattainable objectives, and constant harping on them makes the United States sound preachy and generally obnoxious.

Finally, the American pursuit of global human rights has had unintended consequences, some good, some questionable. This may be leading where we do not want to go. One of the good results has been a heightened international awareness and action by the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union.

But the emphasis on rights has also produced the case of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet who went to London seeking medical treatment. A Spanish judge asked the British government to extradite a Chilean citizen to be tried in Spain for crimes committed in Chile against Chilean citizens. This shreds the principle of territorial sovereignty, long embedded in international law.

The UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was created to try crimes against humanity committed in the course of local wars attendant on the breakup of Yugoslavia. It is investigating charges that NATO's bombing of that country in an effort to stop such crimes was itself a crime.

In the unlikely event the charges are upheld, this would be the end of international efforts to induce civilized behavior by nations. It might also be the end of the American public's support of the UN.

* Pat M. Holt writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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