The week of February the 16th marked the departure of the newly appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her first mission abroad. Clinton headed to China with an expectation from many Americans that human rights would be a primary topic of conversation. While the Secretary of State had private meetings with women’s organizations on human rights, Clinton explicitly placed the public human rights conversation with the Chinese government aside, focusing instead on the economic relationships between the two nations; this was of course to the dismay of many human rights NGOs.
The events on this trip bring about an opportunity to reflect on the U.S. and its own relationship to human rights; but even more so, its current moral currency in calling on other nations to address these issues. Even putting aside the human rights record of the prior US Presidential Administration, it could be argued that the US faces significant challenges of legitimacy in probing other countries on rights protections. This is due to the unusual sense of ‘exceptionalism’ in the US, reflected, for instance, in the nation’s historic political decisions to avoid the ratification of two key UN conventions: the Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC), and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
In the most positive sense, we applaud Secretary of State Clinton for at least meeting with the women’s groups privately. Clinton has long been a key supporter of human rights and is no stranger to vocally discussing these pressing issues in this area of the world. She has had past conflicts with Chinese officials over human rights, and was not swayed then. In the late summer of 1995, consistent with her lifetime commitment to women's issues, First Lady Clinton spoke at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing, and the truths she spoke angered Chinese authorities so much that they pulled the plug on her live TV coverage.
For a number of reasons, this first meeting with China may not have been the most judicious moment for strong criticism. The exact fragility of the situation was illustrated in a separate set of events. At the time of Clinton’s visit, China happened to be involved with its first report on human rights in the periodic review of the United Nations Human Rights Council. All member states must produce a report every four years. The review contained a combination of praise and criticism of China from fellow nations. China was notably admired in the report for the nation’s progress in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goal of poverty reduction. It was duly criticized for its serious failures in the area of civil and political rights—specifically for the country’s stance on the death penalty and freedom of speech.
Of most interest was China’s reaction. Ignoring the praise and reacting to what it perceived as denigrating comments, the soon-to-be president of China declared: “There are some foreigners who had eaten their fill and had nothing better to do, pointing their fingers at our affairs.” This comment shows that, at the very least, tact is needed when discussing human right violations with China. This is corroborated by the fact that shortly after Clinton returned home, a US State Department report on human rights was released. It of course listed a number of widespread abuses in China. An official report from the Chinese government replied, “The US practice of throwing stones at others while living in a glass house is a testimony to the double standards and hypocrisy of the United States in dealing with its human rights issues.”
Nevertheless, while China may be highly sensitive, the nation has, by ratifying the CRC and CEDAW, at least opened itself up to international review. At least in these areas, China has taken a good faith step, exposing itself to formal critiques from international peers.
The US must similarly open itself up to review on the issues of women’s rights and the rights of children. There are a host of reasons to do so, few more important than the moral legitimacy the US will gain through the ratification process—the ability to more convincingly lend human rights criticisms internationally. Secretary of State Clinton’s enthusiasm for human rights provides exciting potential for the US. Her future trips and initiatives could only have a greater impact if she were to encourage ratification here in the US. While we would never discourage the Secretary of State from voicing her human rights concerns, encouraging ratification on our own soil is a good first step to a more effective rectification of abuses abroad.
--Brad Olson and Julie Kornfeld, Northwestern University, Rights for Our Future
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