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The Failure of Western Human Rights Policy: Fallacies and Misconceptions about China

posted Mar 14, 2013, 7:47 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Mar 14, 2013, 7:49 PM ]
By Kelsang Gyaltsen, Special Representative of HH the Dalai Lama to Europe (March 12, 2013). Delivered for the Conference by The World Uyghur Congress WUC on Human Rights in China: Implications of New Leadership for East Turkestan, Tibet and Southern Mongolia’.

 Many Western governments, including the United States and the European Union, are engaged in bilateral "Human Rights Dialogue“ with China. This dialogue is adopted as the primary instrument to promote human rights in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Today, after nearly two decades of bilateral human rights dialogue, it is an open secret that this approach has failed to produce any tangible progress. This is admitted even by diplomats conducting the dialogue in private discussions and by a number of authoritative studies.

There is despondency and dispiritedness among diplomats in the foreign policy community about the dismal records of their human rights engagement with China. They realize that there is something fundamentally wrong with the present human rights policy of their governments vis-à-vis China.

This conclusion is right. The present Western governments’ policy on human rights with regard to China is based on some basic fallacies and misconceptions about China.

In the West there has always been a school of thought that contends that “quiet diplomacy” is the more effective way in dealing with China on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The logical consequence of this has been for Western governments to exercise restraint in order to avoid “the loss of face” of Chinese leaders. And it is obvious and clear that this restraint to avoid the loss of face of Chinese leaders has a part in the loss of lives of an increasing large number of Tibetans and in the overall deteriorating human rights situation in the PRC.

It is clear that the Chinese willingness to engage in bilateral human rights dialogue only aims to prevent public discussion of her human rights record. The Western engagement in bilateral human rights dialogue – without any conditions and benchmarks – is seen by the Chinese government as a sign that Western governments’ priority is smooth relations on a wide range of issues of mutual interest rather than tension and confrontation over human rights.

The Chinese government does not see this engagement by Western governments as conciliatory nor as goodwill gesture but simply as weakness on human rights principles.

The Chinese government thinks and accepts that Western governments need to raise human rights with them in order to mollify the public at home. But the Chinese government never seems to have felt any real pressure to introduce any meaningful initiatives on human rights in China. As a result the credibility of Western human rights policy has been lost. Sadly, the bilateral human rights dialogue has become a ritual exercise that help to avoid the loss of face of not only the Chinese leaders but that of the Western governments, too.

Psychologically China has been skilful in cornering the Western governments in a defensive position by constantly lamenting “the humiliation” inflicted on China by Western colonialism. By exploiting the bad conscience of Western powers about their colonial past China has been able to reject any criticism of their human rights record as “interference in the internal matters” of China with impunity.

This is, however, in complete breach and contradiction of the universality and indivisibility of the declaration of human rights. Moreover, if such argument is tolerated then the question arises why this should not be applicable to other countries in Africa and Asia with similar history?

Another fundamental fallacy of the Western approach to promote human rights in China is the exclusive focus on engagement with the government. However, ultimately, it is the defenders and activists of human rights and advocates of democracy and the rule of law in those countries who will shape the future course of their country. Consequently, an effective human rights policy must aim at encouraging and strengthening those forces of human rights and democracy. Unfortunately, instead of considering every statement and every initiative how they might affect the spirit and actual situation of the people advocating greater respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms at great personal risks some Western governments take the sensitivity of the Chinese leaders as a measure for dealing with China on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The West knows from the testimonies of dissidents in the formerly Communist countries in Eastern Europe, such as the late former Czech President Vaclav Havel, how important official and public expression of solidarity and support from free countries in the West have been in sustaining their hope and aspirations of freedom. The West must now apply to the Communist rulers in Beijing the lessons learnt from dealing with Communist rulers in Eastern Europe and of the Soviet Union.

The attitude of Western governments towards China still seems very much influenced by the legacy of the Cold War. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was the enemy of the Western Bloc whereas China was seen more as an ally. Although Communism and one-party rule in China have been no less brutal and oppressive than in the former Soviet Union, the Western attitude towards Communist China has been more tolerant and conciliatory – irrespective of the immense systematic and widespread violations of human rights in the PRC. Tens of millions of Chinese perished in waves of political purges and campaigns carried out by the Chinese Communist Party. Nonetheless Western media and governments often portray Chinese Communism as benign. Mao was an icon of the Western youth in late 1960s and 70s. Even today, there are people who propagate the one-party rule of China as the more suitable and efficient alternative to Western style democracy. In this way there still continues to exist many fallacies and misconceptions about China impeding the formulation of a more realistic and firmer policy vis-à-vis China.

Against this background a more effective and robust human rights policy requires a return and rededication to basic values and principles of Europe. At the core of Europe’s spirit is the fundamental belief in the inherent equality and dignity of all human beings and in the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. With this spirit Europe succeeded in defeating and eliminating tyranny and despotism from the Continent of Europe.

Europe needs to realize that in our heavily interdependent and interconnected world our own basic rights and freedoms are not secure and safe as long as there are dictatorships and despotism in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, it is often those who are deprived of their human rights who are least able to speak up for themselves. This responsibility rests with those of us who do enjoy such freedoms.

It is, therefore, important that Europe’s commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law does not halt at the borders of Europe. A rededication to these basic values will strengthen political will and self-confidence needed for a principled and robust European human rights policy. With sustained and coordinated effort and a clear common political strategy and agenda on human rights Europe can play a crucial leading role in the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in China and thus also contributing to the alleviation of plight of the Tibetan people and a peaceful resolution of the issue of Tibet through dialogue and negotiations.

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