Defending the Indefensible?
China’s unflinching defense of its own and other countries sovereignty has hampered the efforts of the UN in dealing with genocide and other human rights abuses. Although gaining support from the regimes who benefit from Chinese trade and support, it is alienating the people who suffer under the oppressive regimes it supports and China is also is doing damage to its reputation on the international stage.
In many ways, China has just been opportunistic in its dealing with Sudan. China needs oil, Sudan has it. The negative criticism from the west and specifically the US regarding Beijing’s military aid for Bashir’s government has hurt China’s image but could also be justifiably perceived from a Chinese point of view as meddling when you take into account some of the undesirable regimes the US and Europe ally themselves with. That is not to say anyone should condone China’s actions regarding Sudan. They are providing the means for which Bahir can commit genocide. But as so often is the case, when China is being criticised they have so many examples of the West carrying out similar behaviour that the criticisms are easily fobbed off as a promotion of western policies that are set out to benefit the West.
China is caught between wanting to be taken seriously on the international stage but also at the same time clearly defending its sovereign right to govern how it sees fit. In the same way that the US overlooks China’s Human rights abuses when it comes to trade, it could be argued that China is just pursuing its own trade ties and bringing a nation which has been heavily critcised in from the cold with the intention to hopefully end the unrest and human rights abuses there through trade and engagement.
The Chinese argument for vetoing Security Council sanctions against Sudan, which was that they were the veto for the developing world as they themselves were a developing country would, if true and it did not result in countless deaths would be a valuable asset to the security council, as a voice that represents the developing world is what is needed on the security council.
Unfortunately, China’s use of their veto was to protect their trading partner so as they can keep getting oil and it was not the voice of the Sudanese people who have been killed or left homeless because of China’s veto. Although China has helped the economies of many developing countries, it risks alienating a lot of the citizens of these countries by supporting regimes who mistreat the people they are governing.
The argument of cultural relativism as a means in disregarding human rights is tired, weak and usually used by regimes who have a questionable legitimacy to be in power as a blanket to hide behind so they can carry out human rights abuses.
China is notoriously slow when it comes to change. But as pointed out by Jack Donnelly nearly all western religious and philosophical doctrines throughout history have been incompatible with human rights as we know them today. Its safe to say that nearly all western countries who have broken away from the shadow of religious morality or hereditary aristocracy and have become liberal and social democratic welfare states, for the vast proportion of people in these states their quality of life has improved with the improvement of their rights (Donnelly 2007).
As seen in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan; human rights are compatible with “Asian values”. There is so nothing within China’s indigenous culture which should prevent them from respecting and endorsing human rights.
That brings us to what is the best method for getting regimes to respect human rights in their own country and to also get states to put pressure on other countries who fail to respect them. Due to the economic importance of China, the US approach to dealing with China’s domestic human rights abuses has been one of gentle persuasion. China clearly should not be providing weapons to a regime that is carrying out genocide and saying that that what is happening in Sudan does not quite meet the definition of genocide is rather ugly rhetoric to be using to try and justify their trade ties. China seems to be incredibly proud of its peacekeeping duties so using an inclusive approach by other states to get China to adhere to the human rights norms of institutions may be the best way in getting China to take human rights more seriously. As we have seen with the arab spring, the advancement of technology has helped spread ideas and although the Chinese government keeps tight controls over all forms of media, it will only be a matter of time before the citizens of China demand more in the way of quality of life and human rights. There are already large scale protests taking place in parts of China concerning workers rights.
With China’s only guiding principle seeming to be that of defending sovereignty (Bass 2011), it does pose a considerable problem when a crisis unfolds in a country and mass killings take place as has been seen in Sudan and now in Syria. Which is when states and human rights groups should apply pressure on China and shame them into taking action. No matter how much China’s economy surpasses expectations until it starts taking human rights seriously it will never gain the respect on the international stage that the US has because no one who has experienced the freedoms that we have in the West would ever want to give them up.
Donnelly, Jack, ‘The Relative Universality of Human Rights’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 2, May 2007, pp. 281-306
Goodhart, Michael, ‘Neither relative nor universal. A response to Donnelly’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 1, February 2008, pp. 183-93
Donnelly, Jack, ‘Both universal and relative. A reply to Goodhart’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 1, February 2008, pp. 194-204
Franck, Thomas, ‘Is Personal Freedom a Western Value?’ American Journal of International Law, vol. 91, no. 4, October 1997, pp. 593-627
Foot, Rosemary, Rights Beyond Borders: The Global Community and the Struggle over Human Rights in China (Oxford: 2000), Chapters 8 and 9