June 30 Placing human rights in context


With or without the annual assessment of the human rights practices of other countries which the US State Department releases, human rights and democracy would remain high on the universal agenda.

If world history has any direction, it is one in which these rights gradually have become central to people's understanding of themselves and of their systems in the flux of time. Universal rights provide a benchmark for nations to assess their practices against what they know should be their norms.

Thinkers and activists have died, been jailed or exiled for pushing for inalienable human rights which, in a nutshell, are the rights of humans to be treated as humans.

The problem occurs when one country, situated at a particular stage of economic and political development, seeks to judge other countries on the basis of standards that it deems to be universal.

This is the issue with the latest US report as well, which pays insufficient attention to national contexts in passing judgment on the state of human rights around the world. Context is essential because it determines how human rights are defined on a list of national priorities and weighed relative to other needs.

Singapore therefore has reacted with annoyance at the portrayal of aspects of its system, such as the use of caning as a punishment for certain crimes and the Internal Security Act (ISA), which permits detention without trial.

What is galling is that such lofty moralising should come from the United States, whose treatment of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay attracted so much criticism at home and abroad.

Double standards aside, the US approach to human rights is open to criticism that it is unwilling to acknowledge circumstances and realities in countries whose ideological dispositions do not coincide with its own.

What the world needs, as the power transition under way reconfigures international relations, is greater and not less understanding of differences in domestic political cultures and systems among countries and regions such as the United States, China and Europe.

China's scathing human rights report on the US is an example of a country hitting back. It focuses on issues such as firearms-related crimes, the distorting effect of political contributions on the political process, eavesdropping on citizens and the growing income gap.

There are, no doubt, Americans who would respond that these problems need to be kept in context and not be allowed to give the impression of an unjust and deeply divided society.

That is what many citizens elsewhere will say about the portrayal of their own systems in America's magisterial assessment of the global state of human rights.