Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
A New Americanism
Why a Nation Needs a National Story
The Human Rights organs of the United Nations have been-to use a typically American term-great on production but poor in distribution. Since the adoption of the Charter in 1945, making the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms a purpose of the organization, the members have produced a cornucopia of papers proclaiming principles and goals which almost no state dares contradict publicly, but which few observe conscientiously, and which fewer still embrace to the point of allowing their practices to be inspected.
Twenty years after its adoption, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains a declaration universally praised but seldom taken by nations as an across-the-board program for domestic practice. Nations applaud the recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to René Cassin-a drafter of the Declaration and leader of the campaign for its adoption-but much of this recognition is to compensate for the guilt felt by many who do not practice what Cassin preaches.
The year 1968-designated by the United Nations as the International Year for Human Rights-has not been a good year for U.N. activities in that area. The international conference held in Tehran last spring was heralded as a major forum for review and planning, yet, in large measure, it became an exercise in acrimony, focusing on Arab anti-Israel grievances and the problems of Southern Africa. A few weeks earlier, the Human Rights Commission had turned down the idea of examining the condition of human rights in Greece and Haiti-a proposal of its own Sub-Commission on Discrimination. And several months before that, a committee of the General Assembly had amended the text of the Commission's draft Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance, rendering it completely unacceptable to most of the religious communities of the world, as well as to a great many states.
Why have things developed this way? Why has it not been possible for the world organization to make the crucial transition from an agency engaged in defining principles of human rights to an effective instrument for implementing those rights which have been, on paper at least, universally agreed upon?
The U.N. Charter assumes that human rights are a common concern of the international community, that their denial impedes the stability necessary for peaceful relations among nations, and that it is possible to set minimum standards-and implement these-because all people do share basic aspirations and values. These assumptions have been affirmed, expressly or by implication, in many important governmental agreements as well as in statements by influential international non-governmental bodies. Last spring, the Tehran Proclamation asserted that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "states a common understanding of the peoples of the world concerning the inalienable and inviolable rights of all members of the human family. . . ." And from Uppsala, Sweden, in July 1968, the World Council of Churches declared: "Nations should recognize that the protection of fundamental human rights and freedom has now become a common concern of the whole international community, and should therefore not regard international concern for the implementation of these rights as an unwarranted interference."
The assumptions I have noted are complex and give rise to intricate questions. One could debate, for example, the degree to which the world's people actually share common goals and values in the sphere of human rights, or a common concern for the human rights of others. Indeed, it is the wide disparity that still exists between reality and goal, both as to shared standards and shared concern, which is largely responsible for the U.N.'s slow progress in the matter of implementation.
Even among the nations which originally constituted the United Nations- principally white, Christian, European, American and British Commonwealth nations-there were significant differences in values and outlook. They included the communist nations of Eastern Europe and the capitalist nations of Western Europe and America. They were both developed and underdeveloped nations. These differences sharpened when the cold war shattered the big- power anti-Nazi alliance, and they multiplied when a large number of new states in Asia and Africa-nonwhite, non-Christian, culturally different and economically underdeveloped-were admitted to the U.N.
These new nations were concerned with raising their people from the depths of poverty, with holding together diverse racial, tribal and religious elements, with eradicating massive illiteracy, with acquiring an elementary technology. They were preoccupied with issues of colonial domination and white discrimination against colored peoples. The immensity of their problems inclined them to favor a strong role for the state, and- pragmatically if not ideologically-many of them were not interested in the agenda of the dominant Western members, which emphasized the "traditional" liberties. The communist states, which by ideology rejected Western ideas of freedom, found in the Afro-Asian preoccupations and emphases golden opportunities to further their foreign policy objectives, and the Afro- Asian agenda and the communist objectives correspond in many respects in matters of human rights.
Paper agreements notwithstanding, the U.N. members are obviously still a long way from real agreement on common standards of human rights. Their commitments to the concept of international concern for human rights, whether in terms of a concern for conditions in other lands or of willingness to accept scrutiny by others of conditions within their own countries, are also limited and conflicting.
It is unfortunately true that most people are not strongly moved by deprivations of human rights in other lands, unless they identify with the victims for reasons of family, race, religion or national origin; their concern is also limited by the feeling that "we have troubles enough of our own." For governments, too, a concern for the human rights of other people is secondary to their own national interests. Governments avoid criticizing other governments for fear of alienating them or for fear of retaliation. Criticism is usually voiced as an adjunct to a military or political conflict.
The reluctance of states to accept criticism from other states need not be belabored. In our own country, Southerners resent Northern meddling as intensely as the Soviet Union rejects critical foreign comment regarding its internal policies. When issues involving human rights within national borders come up in the U.N., few states hesitate to invoke Article 2 (7) of the Charter, which prohibits the organization from intervening "in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state."
Undoubtedly, if international conflicts and tensions subsided, member nations would be willing to pay more than lip service to the principle of international concern, and prospects for implementation-for applying general standards to concrete situations-would be immeasurably improved. But, even then, many practical difficulties would remain.
For example, since the United Nations cannot consider all alleged violations of human rights, what criteria should be used to determine which are most important? Should the U.N. deal only with those violations for which governments are responsible, or also with those which persist in the face of governmental disapproval and good-faith efforts to alleviate them? Should it concern itself only with sins of commission or also with sins of omission? Should it consider only violations existing in small and weak nations, or also in large and powerful ones? In today's world, to get down to concrete facts, which issues beside the violations in Southern Africa ought the U.N. to take up?
Again, if there were a greater degree of international trust, one could be more optimistic about the U.N.'s capacity to deal impartially and objectively with allegations of violations. But, in the present climate, can the member states be relied on to form their judgments independently of ideological or political selfish interests? At the last session of the Human Rights Commission, one representative of a "nonaligned nation" told me candidly: "We'd like to condemn the Soviet Union for its repression of intellectuals; we'd like to condemn the United States because of Viet Nam. We cannot afford to do either, so we'll support a condemnation of Israel for reprisals against Arab sabotage."
Yet the U.N.'s record of accomplishments has been in many ways remarkable. During the past two decades standards have been set. Taken together, the various international agreements-the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the declaration against colonialism, other specific declarations and proclamations, the omnibus covenants on human rights, and a variety of specific conventions-constitute, in effect, a worldwide code of human- rights morality and law. Goaded by U.N. programs of education and promotion, the conscience of the world has been awakened. And any balance sheet of the U.N.'s human-rights contributions should also contain the impressive work of specialized agencies, including WHO, UNICEF, FAO, UNESCO, ILO and the High Commissioner for Refugees.
But the United Nations simply has not yet accomplished much in regard to providing the necessary mechanisms for dealing with violations of human rights in particular countries. Indeed, no state has yet ratified the legally binding Covenants, the most important of the conventions. The United States has not even ratified the Conventions on Forced Labor and on the Political Rights of Women, let alone the Covenants. Neither the United States nor South Africa is rushing to ratify the Convention on Racial Discrimination. Some of the very states whose people are most in need of international safeguards are least likely to ratify the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And many states, in ratifying particular conventions, will do so with reservations vitiating significant substantive and implementing provisions.
Ratification apart, the implementation measures in most of the conventions (other than those of the ILO) are of limited significance. Some provide none; others, only governmental reporting. None provides a mandatory right of an individual to make a complaint. And in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, even the right of a state to file a complaint is optional.
What about the efforts to develop implementation on the basis of the Charter's express or implied powers? The record in this respect is mixed: relatively good in the field of colonialism and racial discrimination, especially in Southern Africa; poor with regard to most other issues.
The U.N. Charter gave the Trusteeship Council express authority to supervise human rights in trust territories, and after 1960 the General Assembly established a Special Committee on Colonialism. These bodies considered-often and in great detail-questions of human rights in specific trust and other dependent territories. The Assembly also established a Special Committee on Apartheid which focused energetically on the Union of South Africa. But with few, mainly early, exceptions (such as forced labor in Eastern Europe), the U.N. bodies have failed to give detailed attention to other charges involving denial of human rights in specific countries.
The fact is that, ever since 1947, the Human Rights Commission has been expressly prohibited, by a rule which is still in effect, from considering specific human-rights complaints. All it could do with "communications" regarding such complaints was to file them after referring them to the governments involved for whatever comment they might wish to make. During the past twenty years, periodic efforts to repeal this self-denying rule, or to circumvent it, have all failed. The most recent attempt was made about two years ago, when the Economic and Social Council gave the Commission authority to consider serious situations revealing "consistent patterns" of human-rights violations, including racial discrimination and segregation "in all countries," especially dependent territories. But last spring, as pointed out above, an effort to use this new authority to deal with situations beyond Southern Africa was quickly stalemated. The dispute in the Commission, which focused on the ambiguous terms in the governing resolution, actually involved the larger question of whether the Commission can make the critical transition from a study and drafting role to become an instrument of implementation. It is a dispute which will not be easily resolved.
In the face of the West's disillusionment over the one-sidedness of the U.N.'s actions and African bitterness over Western reluctance to coöperate more fully with their goals and programs for Southern Africa, can there be any progress toward U.N. implementation of its human-rights standards? Much depends on the general political atmosphere among the member nations.
As Secretary-General U Thant pointed out, in his opening address at Tehran:
. . . in the absence of international or internal peace, chances of genuine respect for human rights are slight. . . . The pattern of history before the establishment of the United Nations, and unfortunately also since . . . has shown the extent to which preoccupations for the life and well-being of the individual give way to requirements of military imperatives. Violence breeds violence. Fear breeds fear. Restraints of those who possess force disappear in situations where the use of force is openly encouraged.
But beyond the truly crucial requirement of peace, the member nations must come closer to one another in terms of their human-rights values, and must take more seriously than they have their paper commitments, including those made in the Tehran Proclamation.[i]
This means, for the West, more conscientious coöperation in solving the economic problems of the poorer nations, and in helping them develop their economies and raise their living standards. It means more committed Western coöperation with efforts to end the vestigial colonialism in Southern Africa, even at the risk of embarrassing certain Western business interests. And it means energetic participation in efforts to eliminate white racism, not only in South Africa and the territories it controls, but within the Western countries themselves. For the communist and many Afro- Asian nations, it means greater acceptance of the civil, and political freedoms of traditional concern to the West.
Although Americans have long cherished the concept of free speech, press, religion and assembly, they were unaccustomed to, and seriously questioned, the notion that individuals also had the "right" to a job, to leisure, education, medical care, housing and social security. Despite the "Four Freedoms," which included "freedom from want," some Americans still do not understand that the Universal Declaration's economic and social rights, like our own Constitution's political safeguards, are not luxuries, but necessities for a free and viable society.
The communist and certain Afro-Asian countries, on the other hand, in looking on economic well-being as the key to all human problems, have shown little care for the civil and political freedoms. They will have to be persuaded that economic achievement is not enough, and that even the well- fed and well-housed need freedom of speech and press, freedom from invasion of privacy and various political safeguards.
The contemporary race struggle, in our own country and elsewhere, parallels in its dangers those posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the growing disparity between rich and poor within and among nations. The world's colored races have become increasingly aware of their numerical majority and increasingly bitter at their continued status of social, economic and political inferiority. If catastrophe is to be averted, the domestic and foreign policies of all the Western nations must give top priority to the elimination of white racism, both inside and outside their borders. This goal must be pursued on a continuing, long-range basis, and not merely as a reaction to individual crises. As the overriding issue of our time, the struggle for racial equality provides us with our greatest responsibility and our greatest opportunity.
At the same time, the nonwhite nations must recognize that decolonization and the eradication of apartheid in Africa are not the only human-rights issues meriting world attention. They must be prepared to give ear to other problems in other lands which concern deprivations of human rights. And they must also be prepared to broaden their concept of discrimination to encompass more than racial issues alone.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proscribes distinctions "of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." Few would question that race is the most critical human-rights concern of our time and that it warrants priority attention by the U.N. But there are other manifestations of "discrimination" based on ethnic or national origin, or on religious and political opinion, and these must not be ignored.
Even the race issue is far from the simple black-white confrontation some would have it appear. There is racial prejudice against the Chinese in most of Southeast Asia, and black men fight black men in the Congo. The blood- drenched civil war in Nigeria is a clash between different black tribes. Indians are excluded from jobs in Kenya, mulattoes are oppressed in Negro Haiti and the black Sudanese of the South are in rebellion against the Arabs of the North.
In addition, ethnic conflict, often with religious overtones, is rampant in many parts of the world. In India and Pakistan, the struggle between Hindus and Moslems shows no sign of abatement. Mountain tribesmen are discriminated against in Viet Nam. Armenians are still bitter and mistrustful of the Turks as the Turks are of the Greek majority in Cyprus. In the Soviet Union, Jewish culture is suppressed and anti-Semitism is periodically revived as an instrument of domestic and foreign policy. All these are human-rights issues which should be of concern to all the U.N. members if they are sincere in their international commitments to human rights.
What, then, should be the U.N.'s goals for the near future? Some nations, the Soviet Union among them, insist that responsibility for implementation must be left with the separate states, but most agree that some form of international implementation is needed, and a few go so far as to call for the establishment of judicial procedures toward this end.
Obviously, the more "coercive" the implementation procedure suggested, the more reluctant individual states will be to accept it. Therefore, though a world court of human rights is a desirable goal, I believe it is unrealistic to press for it in the present climate of international relationships. Institutions or procedures which emphasize fact-finding and quiet negotiation, and, as an ultimate recourse, exposure to the glare of world moral opinion have, I believe, a better chance of acceptance.
Despite the harsh realities of power politics, world opinion is a force to be reckoned with. Governments do devote much time and energy, both in and out of the U.N., to defending and embellishing their own human-rights image and demeaning that of others. At the 1968 session of the Human Rights Commission, the Soviet Union took pains to expunge from the record statements by the American delegate critical of its practices with respect to freedom of information; a year earlier, it secured the withdrawal by the Sub-Commission on Discrimination of a document containing data critical of its practices. Two or three years before that, world opinion obliged the Soviets to withdraw from circulation an anti-religious tract with crude anti-Semitic overtones which I, as U. S. representative, had exposed in the Sub-Commission. In 1966, when Burundi was faced with charges of brutality against labor officials and political opponents, its government responded swiftly to an ILO request for an explanation, to avoid having the issues placed on the agenda of the Human Rights Commission. And the vehemence with which the government of Greece defended itself, at last year's Commission session, against charges of human-rights violations also showed some concern for world opinion.
How, then, can this concern be harnessed? One proposal, which has been endorsed by the Human Rights Commission and is now before the General Assembly, calls for the establishment of an international Ombudsman or High Commissioner for Human Rights. The High Commissioner would have the authority to place human-rights matters on the agenda, so to speak, of the international conscience. He would function as observer and fact-gatherer, as an intermediary away from the public spotlight and, in extreme cases, as the U.N. agent who would expose abuses to the glare of world opinion. He would also highlight positive accomplishments and experiences in individual countries which might serve as a model for others.
Situations vary, and so would the High Commissioner's role and contribution. He might not be able to move the authorities of South Africa or Southern Rhodesia to a more positive stance on racial issues, but he might well be able to influence other governments, with respect to problems of lesser magnitude or of a different nature. Not all human-rights violations are so deeply ingrained that virtual overthrow of a régime or dominant class, or radical change in the legal or social order, is the only solution. Neglect, oversight or inertia, or passions roused by temporary conflicts of interest, are often at the base of many abuses, and in such instances governments and peoples may prove gratifyingly responsive to the High Commissioner's overtures.
The U. S. Government supports the concept of a High Commissioner, not only because of its intrinsic merit, but also, let us be frank to say, because he is unlikely to expose anything unsavory about this country which our own mass media have not already revealed. Furthermore, this country cannot very well ask the U.N. to focus on oppression elsewhere without also being willing to withstand its searchlight on our own practices.
But whether the High Commissioner proposal is adopted or not, it is clear that the present situation in the U.N., with its nearly exclusive focus on the issues of Southern Africa, cannot continue indefinitely. Sooner or later, the procedural precedents developed by the General Assembly in dealing with colonialism and with South Africa, including the right of private petition, hearings, investigations, fact-finding missions, special rapporteurs, expert working groups, and so on, must be extended to the general field of human rights.
Above all, the growing tendency to politicize U.N. bodies dealing with human rights must be checked. As the Swedish delegate to the Tehran Conference observed, in commenting on the sustained attack by the Arab delegates against Israel:
Human rights are nothing but politics. But when the work of a certain organ becomes increasingly mixed with the elements of problems that are being, and should be, in the first place, discussed elsewhere . . . then there is . . . the risk that the work of the United Nations as a whole will suffer. . . . The result may be in fact a reduction of the Organization's authority and-in the long run-a deterioration of confidence in the United Nations on the part of public opinion.
This means that U.N. bodies concerned with human rights must make every effort to avoid involvement in the political conflicts that from time to time occupy the organization and that are the primary concern of its political committees. Institutional devices such as the appointment of a High Commissioner for Human Rights, or committees of independent experts, can help to depoliticize the human-rights process. But even more important is the willingness of the member states to subordinate any short-term political advantage they might achieve by deflecting the human-rights machinery to the longer-term common interest of all nations in building an international system to assure human rights.
Attention has been focused here on the role of the United Nations, but there are other agencies of international coöperation. Regional intergovernmental organizations-whose members are closer to one another in terms of geography, racial and ethnic origins, political ideals and cultural values than are the U.N. members-are playing an increasingly important role. The Council of Europe, which has established the most advanced human-rights system to date, including a right of individual petition and a regional court, provided a model for the promising system of the Organization of American States. The Organization of African Unity has also taken beginning steps toward a regional system, and other regions may one day follow suit.
Moreover, the pre-U.N. practice of "humanitarian intervention" by individual states-as voices of conscience and not as military intruders- must retain its relevance, so long as intergovernmental institutions are incapable of performing their human-rights role effectively. The need will continue for non-involved states and non-governmental agencies to raise their voices and exert their influence in behalf of persecuted and disadvantaged groups in other countries. Recent events in connection with relief to Biafra offer a striking example of such initiatives.
As long as the individual states continue to resist any international programs which they consider threatening to their own sovereignty-and this seems likely to be true for a long time-the examples set by the states within their own borders will probably exert more influence on other states than any steps the U.N. is likely to take in the immediate future. This places a grave responsibility on the major powers, and especially on the United States, which has always been the most vocal spokesman for human rights in the international arena. Unless we succeed in solving our own racial and other problems of human rights-and unless we speak the same language in the U. S. Senate that we use in the Human Rights Commission and other international forums-we will find we are forfeiting the leadership and respect we once enjoyed.
No longer can the United States expect to participate in the drafting of conventions without ratifying them. We do not, of course, have to accept every convention drafted by the U.N. or other international agency. But where the provisions of particular conventions are in harmony with America's own principles and consistent with its own laws and practices, it is our responsibility to ratify them and give them the support they deserve.
As for our posture in the U.N. we, too, must resist the temptation to tailor our attitudes toward human rights in other nations to conform with our current foreign policy toward those nations. For if we exempt our allies and satellites, and limit criticism to our foes, we can hardly object when others follow our example. Dare we adopt a policy under which we cease to blink at the transgressions of our friends in the area of human rights? It would entail some risk of offending certain of our "friends"-but it might win us others. And if we really mean the U.N. to protect human rights, there is no alternative.
The U.N. effort in behalf of human rights is part of the centuries-long drive toward an expanding human community endowed with rights and freedoms. We who are still seeking to implement the protections guaranteed to all citizens in the U.S. Constitution can hardly be impatient with the U.N.'s progress. And, as the Australian delegate observed at the Tehran Conference, "If the last twenty years may be called the stage of definition, the next twenty may prove to be the stage of implementation."
Internationally, as at home, the sin is not that it takes so long, but that we don't always do all that can be done to speed things up.
[i] The U.S.S.R., which had abstained from the vote adopting the Universal Declaration, and 28 African and other new states, not U.N. members in 1948, joined in this Proclamation, which states that the Declaration "constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community."