Turning the Tide
As the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights passes 50 years,
much remains to be done —
but when private citizens work
alongside governments and human rights groups,
there is much that can be done.
by Tal Kapelner and Aron C. Mason
hen a debate between President Bill Clinton and China president Jiang Zemin was broadcast live on Chinese television in June, even skeptical human rights and foreign policy observers hailed the event not only as a step forward for U.S.-China relations, but for human rights.
Shows of force can never replace genuine and self-determined change in a country's collective conscience. Such change requires open communication to nurture the principles of freedom of expression, association, and belief. As President Clinton stated to students at Beijing University, "These are not American rights or European rights or developed world rights. They are birthrights of people everywhere."
Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng wrote in 1978 that "when [the people] call for democracy they are demanding nothing more than that which is inherently theirs." And for the Chinese communist leaders who preached of capitalist exploitation of Chinese work, but who never delivered on their promise of self-determination, Wei wrote, "Whoever refuses to return democracy to [the people] is a shameless thief more despicable than any capitalist who robs the workers of the wealth earned with their own sweat and blood."
Wei's courageous call was, in truth, as much for human rights as it was for democracy. As he explained repeatedly in his letters, it was extremely unlikely for a people without a voice to protect themselves against tyranny and injustice. For his tracts beseeching the Chinese people not to follow dictators, be they reactionary or communist, Wei was imprisoned and tortured for the greater part of 18 years.
Freed in December 1997 at the urgings of the international community, including the Clinton administration — his release all the more timely given the December 10, 1997, commencement of a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights' adoption — Wei was grateful to be out of prison, but not satisfied. The point of any struggle against a nation's oppressive leaders is true and lasting human rights reform — which has yet to emerge in China. As Wei wrote after his release, "Chinese leaders are not so much amenable to reason as they are to pressure."
Unfortunately, in certain respects, Wei's release alleviated pressure on the Chinese government to improve its behavior in respect to human rights. Changes in human rights in any given region demand activity, constant pressure and vigilance. "Diplomatic solutions" have failed when not combined with the active, physical demonstration of a people's and a society's will.
On that score, it is well to remember it is not enough to have and enjoy a reasonably high level of human rights in the United States but care little about what happens in other nations. The Universal Declaration proclaims the "inherent dignity and ... equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." History has shown us time and again that nations which abuse their own peoples are far more likely to resort to violence against their neighbors.
Moreover, considering how rapidly business in all quarters is expanding into foreign markets, and that the health of those markets is inextricably linked to the state of government, it is clear that resolution of such abuses is in the interest of every American — even if the only bottom line he considers is his own. Or as Harry Truman put it, "We must build ... a far better world, one in which the eternal dignity of man is respected."
Success in South Africa: a Joint Effort
There remain a number of countries where the disregard for human rights is an entrenched way of life, and it is these nations which are most resistive to change. "All the diplomatic pressure in the world isn't going to make a Libya or a Cuba change its course," says veteran foreign affairs authority and retired Senator Paul Simon. "Such efforts should not be made in isolation."
Examining a country where sweeping change finally did occur — South Africa — bears out Simon's view. For here is a nation with decades of apartheid policy which, as President Nelson Mandela put it, treated citizens as "disposable garbage."
The recent visit there by Bill Clinton marked the first time a U.S. president set foot in that nation and spotlighted the extent and importance of the progress made. (See "Embracing Tolerance," page 16.) Although many factors have been credited with bringing an end to the apartheid system, a closer examination is instructive.
It is notable that much of the momentum outside South Africa began in the United States. In 1971, a Philadelphia minister, Rev. Leon Sullivan, effectively kicked off what would become known as the "divestment movement" in the United States when he demanded that General Motors withdraw from South Africa. The movement caught fire on college campuses across the country and eventually spread to the halls of Congress. The United Nations stepped up pressure as well; in 1979, a United Nations committee published a list of entertainers who continued to perform in South Africa despite its racist policies.
In 1985 came a watershed event: Congress — under pressure from such members as Congressman William Gray and national leaders such as Rev. Jesse Jackson — passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, imposing federal sanctions against South Africa. They gathered enough support to override the veto of President Ronald Reagan.
Many Americans also refused to support companies that would not divest, while more and more companies, from soft-drink manufacturers to banks, joined in the divestment effort. Musical artists in the United States, Canada and Europe composed songs and produced albums and concerts protesting apartheid.
Within South Africa, human rights groups and activists did their part to expose the truth about the barbarities and burst the government's public relations bubble. In 1971, Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi revived the Inkatha, one of the few anti-apartheid groups not banned by the government. Throughout the 1970s, members of the Church of Scientology worked with like-minded individuals and groups to expose barbaric human rights abuses under apartheid in South Africa. Their work included revealing in Freedom the existence of psychiatric slave labor camps, where up to 10,000 blacks at a time were incarcerated, with many dying from wholesale neglect and abuses that included administration of deadly electro-convulsive shock without anesthetic.
In return for speaking up and catching the world's ear, the Church and its members encountered years of sustained assault from the apartheid regime, measures that included the banning of Freedom. With persistence, however, truth emerged victorious. Independent commissions vindicated and commended the Church's work and sweeping investigations and reforms were ultimately realized.
For some, the opposition was more violent and more personal. Activist Steve Biko, leader of the South African Students' Organization, who refused to be silenced, was killed.
Crisis Brings Change
The 1989 retirement of South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha, and his replacement by F.W. de Klerk, represented a significant political change. The imposition of sanctions by the United States forced de Klerk to accept the reality that economic isolation would translate into financial disaster for all South Africans.
But there was no single factor in bringing de Klerk to the negotiating table. It was a convergence of many forces, from Mikhail Gorbachev's "new thinking" to the changing class stratification of white Afrikaner society — and certainly the steady decline of South Africa's besieged economy.
Pretoria was facing a difficult but not impossible situation when the new president made his epochal February 2, 1990, speech releasing Nelson Mandela, removing the ban on the African National Congress and opening negotiations. His was not a surrender, but an act of political strategy.
De Klerk hoped to attain a commanding position where he could neutralize the black revolution by legitimizing it, then control the negotiations to achieve his goal of "power-sharing," in which the black majority would have a hand in government but not a controlling one. De Klerk's strategy was designed to prevent majority rule, but by enabling the black majority to mobilize politically he ensured it.
Those who did not join the United States in imposing sanctions were correct in at least one respect: There are no sanctions that cannot be circumvented. But the price of South Africa's bargaining disadvantage escalated over the years. In August 1985, when the anti-apartheid campaign had made it difficult for South Africa to raise foreign loans, it was forced to seek short-term, high-interest loans and then ask the banks to roll these over, year after year. Within a year, a disproportionate 67 percent of South Africa's $16.5-billion foreign debt was made up of these short-term loans, which could be called up at any time. For a country in political turmoil, this was a crisis waiting to explode.
That crisis came when Chase Manhattan Bank, already under pressure to withdraw from South Africa, decided to call in its loans. Within days, other banks followed. South Africa found itself facing demands for the repayment of $13 billion within four months. The shock sent the currency plunging. Unable to meet the demand, South Africa froze the debt and imposed strict foreign-exchange controls. The effect was to turn South Africa into a siege economy, keep it drained of foreign exchange and development capital and send white living standards into decline. All of which contributed significantly to creating the conditions from which de Klerk sought escape four years later.
Thus it was that the apartheid system was abolished, full and free democratic elections were held — a South Africa totally unlike any the world has seen since whites first landed there centuries ago.
Cooperation and Success
What the story of South Africa most certainly teaches is that the effort and vigilance necessary to topple an anti-human rights status quo can be immense, and that truly sweeping and lasting reforms are attained from the combined effort of private and public sectors, from national governments and international human rights bodies.
As the millennium approaches, and as the ability to send information to more places at greater speeds draws the corners of the planet closer together, those who seek peace and tolerance still must guard against the pockets of violence and mistreatment of others aroused by bigotry and paranoia. In certain nations, such as Germany, discrimination and persecution may be fostered by leaders at top levels of government, even while those same officials proclaim they stand for tolerance, justice and equal rights. (See "Embracing Tolerance," page 16, and "German 'Harassment' Condemned by State Department" page 20.)
"The degree to which a country observes and respects human rights is an excellent index of the quality of its democracy," says William C. Walsh, a noted human rights attorney and specialist in international law, who has also served the United Nations. "What that means to Americans is that they must care what is happening in countries abroad, especially as they may someday do business with or in those countries. They have to ask themselves: 'Do I want to get comfortable with a rogue state, or a nation which treats its own people intolerably?'"
The United Nations came up with both the best answer and the best defense. An absence of human rights stained the hands of governments and threatened their rules. But far too many governments have failed to sincerely implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those governments have not grasped that their very survival depends utterly upon adopting such reforms and thus giving their peoples a nation worthy of their patriotism. To bring peace where there is conflict, and to prevent future wars, it is vital that all people urge the adoption and implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, where needful, other sweeping reforms.
Looking back upon 50 years under the Universal Declaration, it is more than evident that much world turmoil could have been averted had that document been given more notice. The United Nations, the U.S. State Department and the scores of private human rights bodies are unquestionably doing the right thing for the world by insisting on compliance with that document. The importance of such voices — and the need for more voices and more action — cannot be overstated. As South Africa has shown the world, the effort must be cooperative.
Liu Qing, chairman of Human Rights in China, put it well: "We cannot simply wait for human rights and democracy ... to happen. There has never been a dictatorial government that has voluntarily given these rights to its people. Therefore, society must act on its own initiative to force governments to change and improve."