Human rights isn't a zero-sum game

Human rights isn't a zero-sum game

Human rights isn't a zero-sum game

Slate's blog on legal issues.
April 21 2008 5:26 PM

Human rights isn't a zero-sum game

Eric , nothing that the pope said Friday favored one set of rights over another.  Indeed, as my post stated, his speech to the U.N. General Assembly included "a tacit reprimand to those who would privilege civil and political rights over economic, social, and cultural rights -- or vice versa . "  (emphasis added)  The point I'd intended to underscore was that the pope had reaffirmed the indivisibility of both sets of rights, the civil/political, on the one hand, and the economic/social/cultural, on the other.  Indivisibility was inherent in the 1948  Universal Declaration of Human Rights , but frayed when Cold War geopolitics pushed the U.N. Human Rights Commission to separate the 2 sets as it began the process of drafting treaties designed to make binding all those rights that states had endorsed in the nonbinding Declaration.  That separation, which seemed essential at the height of the Cold War, may be less so today:  160 countries are full members of the 1977  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights , while 157 countries are full members of the 1977 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights .  That means that 3/4 of all the United Nations' member states are firmly in each Convenant's camp.  Vestiges of Cold War concerns may be found, however, in the fact that the United States is not party to the latter Covenant and China is not party to the former.

As for China : application of the concept of indivisibility means that China is no more a "champion" of human rights than any other state.  The role that the Chinese state has played in alleviating poverty deserves attention.  Indeed, how each country addresses the basic needs of persons within its jurisdiction deserves note, as I've argued with regard to the United States in a forthcoming essay just posted at SSRN .  But the costs of such programs also must be assessed, respecting matters as wide-ranging as the health problems and the repressions of civil liberties that may result from economic development at all costs.  (Here, too, insert a "vice versa.")

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On 2 points, it seems, we agree.   1st:  Athletes honored to carry the torch a bit of the way toward the 2008 Olympics should not have to fear anger and assault as they run through the streets of their home country.  2d:  Comprehensive, critical comparison of the nature and extent of states' programs to protect human rights rarely will yield a clear "winner."