Who Owns Human Rights?

How serious is our disagreement with China over Liu Xiaobo, currently languishing in a Chinese prison? A pro-democracy activist, the Chinese locked him up, the Nobel people decided to give him an award, and the Chinese wouldn’t let him out to receive it. Now the West is indignant and the Chinese are protesting that the Western idea of universal human rights is anything but universal, rather it is a part of the imperialist effort to impose western values on the rest of the world.[1]

This raises the issue, who has the right to define human rights? The prevailing view here in the USA is that the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, with its emphasis on individual freedom, is the last word, the gold standard as it were. But others. like the Chinese, disagree, and how do we deal with the charge that the values expressed in the UN declaration are culturally biased and don’t represent the values of humanity as a whole. What is the proper stance from a humanist perspective?

As humanists, we start with respect for the value of each individual member of our species. Parse this out and you eventually get to a set of values like the UN Declaration. That statement is undoubtedly thoroughly consistent with what we humanists believe. But is this enough? As a humanist, I also tend to be dubious about anyone’s claim that values as defined in any document are absolute. This sounds too much like religious faith. Let me see if I can reconcile my strong support for the UN Declaration with my discomfort at being asked to accept the validity of any document or doctrine on faith and faith alone.

Part of my reluctance to genuflect before the UN Declaration is my sense that humanity is still very much a work in progress, and we have a long road to travel before we arrive at a state where the kinds of human rights we believe in are accepted by the great majority of humankind. If we are ever to achieve global cooperation and the world at peace we aspire to, we shall need to have a common sense consensus on human rights that will provide a foundation for the shared values that such a world will require. How are we going to get that consensus, by persuasion, or by letting the powerful impose it on the weak?

I’ve had a certain amount of experience dealing with values in societies where they differ from ours. I have found that while the other society quickly adopts technology that lets them make more money, they resist any overt effort to push our values on them. You cannot just go in and tell them they’re wrong and expect them to change. You have show them what our values are and how they work in practice. Eventually they will work out the ways in which the material successes of our culture that they admire are contingent on many of the values they are resisting—and then they will change. But it takes time, and patience.

Another part of my reluctance to go the whole hog with the UN Declaration is my sense that it isn’t necessary to get into a messianic froth over it in order to get the whole world to agree to it. I’m old enough to remember when we were seriously debating whether we could only defeat communism if we fought the Soviet Union and defeated it on the battlefield, or whether there was some other way out. Back in 1969 I predicted that our very different ideologies would converge over time, and that since our system worked better in the long run, the USSR would have to do most if not all of the converging. Fortunately for everyone, my prediction (which was contrary to conventional wisdom at the time) was essentially correct.

This brings me back to China, and the Liu Xiaobo affair. Chinese values emphasize the importance of maintaining harmony where Westerners stress individual freedom. When some incident arises that focuses attention on these differences, we express outrage and they fire back at us. Mutual irritation follows which will probably die down fairly soon, inasmuch as neither side has important interests (as opposed to values) tied up in the dispute. You can chalk the whole incident up as another small step in a learning process where each side gets to understand the other side’s feelings a little better, and hope that the end result will be a beneficial convergence.

Whoa! I hear you saying, do you really believe that values are not important? Well, the point I want to make is that while values are supremely important in the long run, differences in values should not be important factors in the management of daily relations between states. If we manage those affairs sensibly, looking for win-win solutions to problems, and finding them frequently, we can expect that over time there will be a convergence that narrows the gap between our different values, and hopefully eventually eliminates it. If our own values are as robust as we think they are, then the other party will be doing most of the converging, as was the case with the USSR. The world will end up with the kind of respect for individual rights that will lead to the world at peace we all aspire to–a world congenial to our values.

/1/ Boston Globe, December 18, 2010, “Human Rights are Absolute” by Rene Loth

/2/ My thesis when a student at the National War College, class of ’69.

/3/ Article by Dai Bingguo: “Persisting with Taking the Path of Peaceful Development” 12/6/10

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3 Responses to Who Owns Human Rights?

  1. Erasmus says:

    How facile and terrible of you. watch someone real – Jody Williams @ TED. Watch ALL of it. Human Rights are HARD WORK – on the GROUND. Usually by WOMEN.
    The point of humanism is to create a HUMANE world. People have DIED for this goal. Just as universal education is a rising graph, personal freedom from repressive regimes is a rising graph – and the rights in the UDHR are UNIVERSAL for a civilized world (pace Gandhi). The US does not adhere to them – viz habeas corpus and the death penalty. The US is a barbarian nation. The speech at the UN by the Nuremberg prosecutor at the ratification of the ICC was the refutation to your racist argument. This is the FIRST TIME IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, he said, that RIGHTS are agreed to be UNIVERSAL, including the right to be free from genocide, and countries will be held to ACCOUNT. It may take another 100 years, but we are stating you cannot be free from impugnity. You are disingenuous, and you do NOT speak for Progressive Humanists. Shame on you. Go and visit Project2048.com and learn something. The 2048 Project’s mission is to educate students and the public about the evolution of human rights, and to provide a process to draft an International Bill of Rights that will be enforceable in the courts of all countries by the year 2048, the 100th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The project leader is the former negotiator of the treaties for the Russian Federation, and seems to know a thing or two – certainly more than you.

  2. Carl Coon says:

    You respond with all the conviction and fervor of the true believer, in reply to my reasoned and nuanced exploration. I ask you, which of us is behaving more like a humanist?

  3. Tauth says:


    The way you wrote really gives your neurologically informed reader a clear picture of where the blood and oxygen was flowing in your brain while you wrote and where it was not. When you lash out with personal attacks such as “How…terrible of you,” “You are disingenuous,” and “Shame on you,” followed by sweeping generalizations such as “Human Rights are…usually by WOMEN” and “The US is a barbarian nation,” you really paint a graphic picture of what the electroencephalogram of your thoughts looked like as you transcribed those thoughts. There is a reason why serious intellectual discourse (as apposed to political sensationalism, demagoguery, and old fashion priest craft) requires civility, politeness and etiquette. When you make a debate personal and emotional the way you have, you redirect the flow of blood and oxygen in your brain away from the higher neomammalian cerebral cortex and down to the lower paleomammalian and reptilian parts of the central nervous system that are responsible for activating the fight or flight responses in a person (see triune brain theory). These centers however are not responsible for higher level abstract thinking, categorization, and compartmentalization. The “knife” of the lower more primitive parts of the brain that your are using in your writing are really a very blunt and dull instrument with which to dissect ideas and decipher their value. In fact, with those lower parts of the brain the tendency is to set up knee jerk prejudices and a black and white sense of who is a like minded part of you “in-group,” i.e. looks like you and reminds you of yourself making you feel safe, and who is the terrifying “other” or “out-group” that you don’t identify with you and whom you wish blindly to either destroy or assimilate into a clone of your own image by force.

    And that precisely, is the definition of pre-humanism. You don’t identify with all humans as part of your group. You have hard and fast rules and dogmas about who is part of your “in-group” and who is in the “out-group,” and the thought of merging those two groups makes you froth at the mouth, rage, and hurl personal insults. That sounds like a classic example of primitive homogeneous in-group-ism. I’m afraid your style alone (or rather lack thereof) makes it pretty clear to everyone that your not a humanist nor a progressive. If you want to join something better and bigger than yourself and become part of a conversation rather than a war, you might want to start with some breathing exercises–yoga perhaps–before you try to join in a discourse so that you can redirect the flow of blood in your brain back up to the higher levels of neomammalian evolution, so we can see if you actually have the capacity to share any intelligent perspectives.

    In the mean time, you’ll just make good fodder for the butt of funny jokes like this one I recently came across: “Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data, ability to repeat discredited memes, and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Also, be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor even implied. Any irrelevancies you can mention will also be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.” And we might add…irrelevant.

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