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USF Center
for the Pacific Rim
The Occasional Paper Series of the USF Center for the Pacific Rim ::

Pacific Rim Report No. 26, January 2003
Is the Human Rights Era Over? Reflections on the Asia-Pacific Post-September 11th
by Rosemary Foot, Ph.D.

This Pacific Rim Report records the 2002 Kiriyama Distinguished Lecture.

Delivered on October 16, 2002 at the Lone Mountain Campus of the University of San Francisco, the lecture featured Rosemary Foot, Kiriyama Distinguished Visiting Professor at the USF Center for the Pacific Rim in Fall 2002 and professor of international relations and John Swire Senior Research Fellow in the International Relations of East Asia at St. Antony's College, Oxford University.

Dr. Foot was introduced by Peter J. Coughlan, president of the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Foundation.

Rosemary Foot earned her doctorate in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science and went on to teach until 1990 at the University of Sussex in Great Britain. At Oxford she teaches in the M.Phil. and D.Phil. programs in the Department of Politics and International Relations.

Foot is the author most recently of Rights Beyond Borders: The Global Community and the Struggle over Human Rights in China (OUP, 2000). She has also published The Practice of Power: U.S. Relations with China Since 1949 (Oxford University Press, 1995), and A Substitute for Victory: The Politics of Peacemaking at the Korean Armistice Talks (Cornell University Press 1990) among others. Her many scholarly articles and book chapters include "A Buttress Not a Pillar: The UN System as a Pathway to Security in Asia", in Asian Security Order (Stanford University Press, 2002), "The ASEAN Regional Forum and China" (in Asia in the New Millennium: Geopolitics, Security and Foreign Policy, Berkeley IEAS, 2000), and "Whatever Happened to the Pacific Century?" (with Andrew Walter, Review of International Studies, Vol 25, Dec 1999).

We gratefully acknowledge the Kiriyama Chair for Pacific Rim Studies at the USF Center for the Pacific Rim for funding this issue of Pacific Rim Report.

Is the human rights era over, especially when we compare the current state to the 1990s during which there was a particularly vigorous interest in the promotion of human rights?1

In this lecture, I want to outline why this matter has become such an acute concern in recent months; and then to explore the proposition in greater depth, drawing on examples from US policy towards three states in the Asia-Pacific. Even though I shall conclude that it is an exaggeration to state that the human rights era is over, clearly the human rights idea is under challenge in ways that I shall illustrate at the start and at the close of my talk.


This question - is the human rights era over--is being asked because many involved with the theory and practice of international relations have argued that, post-September 11th, international--and especially US--concern with human rights abuses in other countries has given way to an overwhelming concern with security relations, reminiscent of the cold war era.

How is this argument put? As Michael Ignatieff wrote at the start of 2002, "the new element in determining American foreign policy" towards particular countries is no longer where you stand on the human rights/democracy index, but what assets you have in the struggle against terrorism. What "bases, intelligence, and diplomatic leverage" can you "bring to bear against Al Qaeda?"2 Mary Robinson, said something similar in the week that she signed off as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: "everything is justified by the T-word."

Robinson is right of course, up to a point. There are many examples to draw on which would show that the human rights idea is under threat or in danger of being sidelined.

With respect to Indonesia, for example, the US administration, and especially the Pentagon, searches strenuously for ways to restore full relations with a military that, while it is probably the strongest institutional ally in the country in the fight against terrorists, has also been and remains the source of extensive human rights violations that only help to swell the ranks of the desperate.

In China, the Bush administration has been accused of turning a blind eye to the Chinese crackdown on separatist forces in Xinjiang. Moreover, it recently came closer to agreeing with the Chinese leadership that Xinjiang should be thought of less as a region that has good reason to strive for independence or autonomy, and more as a center of terrorist activity--a place that houses groups with links to Al Qaeda.

The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, at the time of his visit to the United States in May 2002, apparently was no longer seen as a man that wields the Internal Security Act (ISA) and manipulates other aspects of the judicial system to imprison his political opponents--such as his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim--but instead is spoken of as a respected leader from a country that is a "beacon of stability" and that "plays an important role in the global war on terror". The examples could go on.

At least as relevant to this argument is US domestic legislation enacted since September 11th that represents a serious constraint on civil liberties. With the US detaining many, mostly Arab or Muslim men, refusing to reveal who is being held, and refusing public access to their trials; and with new law that can compel disclosure of all kinds of personal records, then it seems that the balance between national security and civil liberties has shifted sharply in favor of the former. As the American International Lawyer, Harold Hongju Koh has argued, these initiatives reject three principles by which the US has balanced national security and civil liberties since World War II:

1) the separation of "domestic law enforcement from foreign intelligence", to keep the government from spying on Americans and "to guarantee the constitutional rights of the accused";

2) the granting of civil rights to lawfully admitted aliens comparable to the rights of other citizens, "rejecting the notion that foreign born Americans or immigrants have only second class rights";

3) the acknowledgement of the executive branch's lead on national security issues, but the insistence "that its actions be subject to congressional oversight and judicial review".3

And if the United States, as well as other consolidated democracies in the world, are scaling back on civil liberties, how can these countries comment negatively on some of the oppressive national security laws that are in operation elsewhere in the world? Everything is justified by the T-word.

Or so it seems. I want to suggest that, while the prominent place that the human rights idea enjoyed in the 1990s has come under challenge, to argue that it no longer imposes any constraints on US policy (and it is US policy that I am going to concentrate on in this lecture) is an exaggeration. Two main arguments will be made in support of this.

1) The first rests on the notion that ideas and institutions matter, and the human rights idea over the course of the post-1945 era has become embedded and codified. Inside the US government, the United Nations, and in global and local civil society, many remain committed to the advancement of human rights protections.

2) But, in addition to this, what we have heard argued over the last few years is that human rights promotion and the promotion of security are not either-or propositions, but can be thought of as complementary, and this understanding too helps to maintain attention to rights.4 In this post-September 11th era, we are seeing some evidence that human rights and anti-terrorism programs are being brought together in particular ways to try to satisfy both the demands for security as well as for rights protection.

The difficult part is to determine when that linkage between human rights and security is being made for instrumental purposes without any genuine commitment to rights promotion, or when the means adopted for the promotion of human rights and security don't justify the ends, or when there is a genuine acceptance of the idea that the two concepts are indeed inextricably and beneficially linked.

The Institutionalization of the Human Rights Idea Post-1945

In the period since 1945, and especially since the 1980s, we have witnessed the growth and deepening of two bodies of law--human rights law and international humanitarian law. Despite the lack of an effective enforcement mechanism for human rights, the protection of rights has become built into the policy frameworks of democratic states, of multilateral lending institutions, and into the UN itself, and this in turn has prompted the development of civil society groupings devoted to the cause of promoting adherence to human rights.

US Congressional Initiatives

It was initiatives within the US Congress in the early 1970s that led to the development of commitments to promote rights protections--action that has been attributed to the burgeoning civil rights movement, the character and outcome of the Vietnam War, and the amoral aspects of the Nixon administration's behavior.5 To put this in summary form, Congressional legislation sought to deny aid to those countries that engaged in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. Although this might have been applied inconsistently, it had the overall affect of raising awareness because it required investigation of human rights conditions inside many countries before decisions could be reached.

The Carter presidency gave an enormous fillip to these developments. It was during his administration that the post of human rights coordinator within the State Department was upgraded to the level of Assistant Secretary. Between the years 1977 and 1979, the staff of two associated with the Bureau of Human Rights went up to 29. In subsequent years, the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices produced by the Deptartment of State became recognized as generally accurate, unbiased, and useful sources of information about human rights violations.

When some Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), as well as the US Congress, began to publish their critiques of these reports, these criticisms were sent to US embassies for use in constructing reports the following year. The embassies and their human rights personnel recognized that, in order to comply with the Congressional legislation and to satisfy or even shield from criticism high officials within the State Department, they would have to obtain better quality information. This led them to establish links with local human rights organizations, if there were any, and with opposition groups, thus deepening US understanding of the countries in question. Overall, levels of awareness about and of resources devoted to human rights matters increased within the US Congress, and in the bureaucracy, especially in the Department of State.

Turning more directly to the NGOs, both those that operate transnationally, as well as locally, these have increased substantially in number: for international NGOs have expanded five-fold between 1950 and 1993, with a doubling between 1983 and 1993.6 Many have established offices in New York and Washington DC, because of the lobbying opportunities this affords. The UN and individual governments have become highly dependent on the information that these NGOs provide, and these NGOs have become major contributors to policy development in the field of human rights. This has had the effect of tightening the bonds between the NGO and the policymaker and making them a recognized, often valued, part of the landscape in this issue area.

I mention these developments because they provide an illustration of the constraining environment that is in place when states seek--or at least democratic states--seek to circumvent human rights promotion in their foreign policy. To quote Mary Robinson again: "human rights are now firmly on the agenda of the international community. ...Most governments today will at least acknowledge that human rights have a role to play [in international relations]. Unfortunately that does not necessarily mean that they will observe human rights standards. You will often still hear governments arguing that they must place other factors first. The difference is that today those sorts of claims go against the tide of opinion".7

Human Rights and International Peace and Security

My second argument relates to the intertwining of the concepts of rights and security. Since the 1990s, in particular, there has been increased attention to the concept of humanitarian intervention and the circumstances under which it is appropriate to intervene --including militarily--in support of populations that are experiencing gross violations of their human rights, actions that have been depicted as representing threats to international peace and security. Between 1991 and 1999, for example, the question of whether or not external institutions should organize or authorize military action within a state on humanitarian grounds has arisen on at least nine occasions within the UN Security Council. In these nine cases humanitarian considerations were cited as a basis for action. As Adam Roberts has argued, these were never the only reasons cited as the basis for action, and it is unlikely that humanitarian motives will ever stand alone, but nevertheless it was striking how frequently humanitarian concerns were referred to.8

Indeed, we have witnessed this even in the case of President George W. Bush and his description of the war against the Taliban. Those that have tracked Bush's speeches argue that he moved from emphasizing a "retributive strike", to statements that claimed that the action was in support of the broader humanitarian goal of "helping transform Afghanistan into a stable member of the international community", through the building of its capacity to maintain the Bush definition of human dignity.9 And the argument runs that Bush was forced to develop this rhetoric in order to maintain both local Afghan and international support for the policy.

Other examples that show the intertwining of rights and security involve the implementation of policies that help to reform the security sector in countries where large-scale abuses of human rights have taken place. The US and UK governments, for example, have provided aid designed to reform the security apparatus of a variety of countries because this apparatus--that is the armed forces and police, paramilitary and intelligence--has been heavily associated with human rights abuses. Thus, US AID among others have developed policies that are designed to strengthen civilian management of the security forces and their accountability; and to create a climate in which civil society can monitor the security sector and be consulted regularly on defense policy, resource allocation and related issues.

Both the debates over humanitarian intervention and security sector reform are responses to the argument that international order "cannot rest solely on the sovereignty" and inviolability of state boundaries, but depends as well on building an individual's "own sense of security".10 The idea of human security has entered the lexicon. Human security places the individual not the state as the point of reference, and as a paradigm assumes that the safety of individuals is the key to global security--the protection of basic human rights stands as a crucial component and, for some, the sole component of what we mean by human security.

In laying out this case for the deepening over time of international attention to human rights issues, I do not mean to suggest that it is not still a huge struggle to get governments to behave consistently and in a principled manner when it comes to human rights promotion. All I mean to say, is that it has become more difficult to ignore the commitments that numerous governments have made in terms of domestic legislation and international law, and that human rights concerns have filtered out from the foreign ministries into other agencies of governments (particularly the development agencies). In the case of the United States, the legislative branch has also long played an active if selective role. Bodies such as these have embraced the human rights idea and brought that idea to bear on their own particular concerns.


Let me now try to apply some of these ideas to the Asia Pacific states I referred to at the start of this lecture: namely China, Indonesia and Malaysia, and in particular examine US policy towards these countries, post September-11th.


Lowell Dittmer is surely right when he argues that America and other governments have always found it difficult to formulate a coherent and consistent human rights policy towards China, constrained by the fact that, only under the most exceptional circumstances, would either the international community or the US intervene forcefully in such a country to protect the abused. Moreover, trade and investment sanctions as an alternative also impose sacrifices on the enforcing country, especially with respect to a country with the size and potential of China. Moreover, at the time of the Most-Favored-Nation/human rights debates in the United States, many in Hong Kong and elsewhere argued that economic sanctions against China were likely to have their greatest impact on the more cosmopolitan within the targeted country.11

Apart from the immediate post-Tiananmen period, the US human rights promotion policy has relied primarily on two main avenues: verbal shaming of China either at the UN Commission on Human Rights, or in bilateral meetings between US and Chinese officials, or through reports of special US Commissions set up for monitoring purposes; and through some "subcontracting" of the issue via funding of NGOs, for example, that carry out 'rule of law' initiatives, or trying to persuade US businesses to adopt codes of conduct in the workplace that seek to advance health and labor rights.

In broad terms, there is not much difference between the Clinton and current Bush administrations in the human rights promotion policy towards Beijing. One change is that there is greater rhetorical emphasis under Bush on the need for enhancing religious freedom in China. Bush's speech at Qinghua university in February 2002 (carried live on Chinese TV, but heavily edited by the Xinhua News Agency) gave considerable attention to religious faith and freedom. And Bush has also given greater support to the Tibetan struggle. For example, where Clinton received the Dalai Lama on an unscheduled basis, Bush broke with this in May 2001 in a scheduled and well-publicized 'private' meeting--the date was particularly significant because it marked the 50th anniversary of the signature of the 17 Point Agreement of 1951, "an agreement Beijing claims as the legal basis for its take over of Tibet, and which the Dalai Lama's government in exile insists has been grossly violated by Beijing".12

The Bush administration's recently published National Security Strategy (September 22, 2002) in its sections on China also gives some prominence to human rights matters: it stresses the need for Chinese people to be able "to think, assemble, and worship freely" and records "profound disagreement" over three issues--Taiwan, weapons proliferation commitments, and human rights. With that language on record in this document and in many previous ones, it is difficult if not impossible for the Bush administration to lay the matter aside. And should Bush seek to do so, the pluralist nature of the political system ensures that there is continuing attention to China's human rights record, especially from China's critics in the US Congress (operating either for political or strategic reasons or out of genuine concern), the Human Rights NGOs, and the media.

These particular forces are relevant to the human rights issue that has received most attention post-September 11th: that is, the apparent US closing of its eyes to the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang, and the US labeling of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement operating in Xinjiang as a terrorist organization. Two reasons have been advanced as to why the US agreed to the Chinese designation of this group as terrorist in late August 2002:

1) In order to get the Chinese to promulgate and implement missile-related export control regulations, particularly important in the age of terror; and

2) to get China to soften its attitude to the likely military action against Iraq (an abstention rather than a veto in the UN Security Council).

It seems to me that the timing of the designation of this group as terrorist might well be explained by these two related issues, but that the actual designation of a group in Xinjiang as terrorist was probable anyway. As early as March 2002 US officials were on record as stating that there was no question "that at least some members of the Uighur population who are Chinese citizens were trained at the Al Qaeda camps". Chinese Uighurs were picked up in Afghanistan during the fighting against the Taliban and some are still being held in the US camps in Guantanamo bay. Moreover, prior to September 11th, the Chinese government had been trying to persuade the Taliban to stop its support of certain groupings in Xinjiang.

However, US officials in March and on subsequent occasions always add to their statements, there are "also peaceful Uighur dissidents and the United States is concerned that" the struggle against terrorism not be used as a tool to "persecute...particular religious and ethnic minorities."13 And in terms of the broader point about turning a blind eye to China's crackdown on the Uighurs, it is notable that US administrations have always paid less attention to that Uighur struggle for independence than to the actions of those in Tibet fighting for a similar cause. Tibet has been the minority issue of concern to the US Congress, the attentive public, and administration--not the Uighur struggle.

Thus, the human rights issue will remain important in bilateral relations. Although the actual policy influence of human rights ideas will remain limited as it has in the past, human rights groups in Congress and outside of it have put this matter firmly on the domestic agenda and this sets limits on the US relationship with China. A stable and cooperative relationship between the US and China is difficult to maintain and human rights issues remain an important component of that.


Undoubtedly there is a strong desire within parts of the Bush administration to restore ties with the Indonesian military in order to step up the level of cooperation in the fight against terrorist groupings in the country that are linked to Al Qaeda forces. This has been pressed with particular vigor by the Pentagon since April 2002, and is likely to get stronger still as a result of the recent terrible events in Bali in October 2002. Arrayed against the Department of Defense are certain US Senators, international NGOs, and NGOs inside Indonesia who have been watching these efforts closely. The Bush administration is also constrained by its recent discourse stressing that those in the military responsible for past atrocities have to be held to account before military to military ties can be fully restored.

The links between the US and Indonesian militaries were severed in the first place because of two serious instances of human rights abuse, both involving East Timor, first in 1991 and then again in 1999. In reaction to the Santa Cruz massacre in Dili in November 1991, the US Congress stopped all American training of Indonesian officers under the IMET (the International Military and Education Training) program. Further restrictions were added in 1994 and 1998. The violence that accompanied East Timor's move towards independence in September 1999 was severe enough that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke of the need to establish an international tribunal for war crimes. At that point, President Clinton cut off most remaining ties.

The most powerful legislative constraint on the restoration of these ties is the amendment put forward by Senator Leahy that has made assistance and contact with the Indonesian military contingent on evidence that the Indonesian government is holding military officers accountable for major human rights abuses. This legislation has served as an obstacle to restoration of full ties and it has to be overcome by those who seek to deepen US relations once again with the Indonesian military.

At the beginning of August this year, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced new aid to Indonesia ($50million+), but over 93% of that is to go to the police, and the bulk of the rest is to fund so called regional counter terrorism fellowships to provide training to the Indonesian military, with $400,000 to go to IMET (still blocked in Congress at the time of writing). Money to the police is designed to help develop a civilian institution that will take over a number of the roles that have in the past been carried out by the Indonesian military. The so-called regional counter terrorism fellowships are to go to military officers, and thus this looks like a breach of current restrictions on military to military ties. But supposedly those fellowships are only to go to officers that are not prime suspects in human rights cases. This promise will be monitored closely, again by NGOs, local and transnational, and by some in the US Congress.

Beyond some congressional and NGO oversight on this activity, US officials and the US ambassador to Indonesia are on record as saying at the time this funding was announced that the matter of accountability had to be addressed before full normalization of relations could be realized. The trials of Indonesian army officers were described as "an important litmus test" of Indonesia's seriousness about accountability. A week later, the Indonesian judiciary demonstrated it was not serious about accountability when its human rights tribunal acquitted six army officers, and the last Indonesian-appointed governor of East Timor received a sentence of only three years, despite being found guilty of crimes against humanity. US officials described the outcome of these trials as a "disappointment"--a serious understatement since the administration knows that in order to circumvent the Congressional legislation and its prior verbal commitments it needs to demonstrate that the military in Indonesia has indeed been held to account for its past abuses.

This is an ongoing story, but again it shows that human rights matters have been imposing some constraints on what the US executive seeks to achieve, even in an important second front country in the struggle against terrorism.


My third example is Malaysia, a country whose human rights record does not concern the United States as much as the records of Indonesia and China. Nevertheless, relations had been frosty for many years related generally to a dislike of Mahathir, and more specifically to Malaysia's liberal use of its Internal Security Act, together with the arrest, trial and sentencing of Mahathir's former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, who had many supporters in the United States.

US relations with Malaysia began to improve markedly from April 200214 with US officials praising Malaysia's support for the struggle against terrorism, and in particular for the detention of a former army captain who had been linked to some of the September 11th highjackers. There has also been some discussion about establishing a regional center to coordinate anti-terrorism activities.

However, despite the success of Mahathir's meetings in Washington with Bush administration officials in May this year, human rights concerns have not been laid to rest. In this case, it is not the US Congress that has been especially active but the media, as well as the human rights organizations. CNN, for example, ran an interview with Mahathir that was focused largely on the illiberal way in which Mahathir treats his domestic political opponents. And during each of the meetings with the press during that May visit and in the course of subsequent meetings in Kuala Lumpur, the matter of the Anwar trials was raised. All US officials, entrapped by previous statements they had made about the Anwar trial, use similar language to describe the current US position on this episode: the "trials were flawed".

During Colin Powell's last visit to Malaysia at the end of July 2002, he reported to the press that human rights issues had been raised on every occasion that he met with Malaysian officials, and that his Assistant Secretary of State had met with Anwar's wife, Dr Wan Azizan Wan Ismail. Powell also raised concerns about the detention of six reform activists under the ISA, including five leaders from the opposition National Justice Party. A full coming together has been denied therefore and human rights matters plays some, not insubstantial, role in preventing that.


While all three Asia Pacific states have become important in new ways to the US in the struggle against terrorism, my point in discussing these three cases in some detail is to illustrate a number of things: that

1) words matter - there is discursive entrapment at work here. Past verbal commitments to the protection of rights do constrain: we document these things more fully than in the past, in part because of the NGOs--both local and transnational. (As Michael Ignatieff reminds us, human rights has gone global by going local--"imbedding itself in the soil of cultures and world views independent of the West".15) There is too a media in the Western world and elsewhere that is more skeptical of politicians and more investigative in its methods. It too has taken up the cause of rights.

2) There have also been a number of legislative commitments made in the United States, and these can be difficult to circumvent.

3) There has been a coming together in the thinking about human rights, development, and security--an acceptance of the idea that the security apparatus can often produce much insecurity in its abuse of human rights.

The Bush administration's National Security Strategy document picks up this latter idea. As it puts it: "poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks". Prosperity and a stable peace belong only to those "nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom".

Having mentioned this national security document again brings me to my final and in some ways most troubling points. The University of San Francisco is devoted to making a better world and sees human rights promotion as a vital part of that. It is one of the reasons why I have enjoyed being a part of this community. But as many have recognized--and particularly as a result of the military intervention in Kosovo--all those concerned about human rights promotion face serious moral questions, for one thing because human rights and security issues have come together in a way that is both logical and intellectually defensible. But it can also be a dangerous coming together.

The US National Security Strategy makes reference to failed states that might host terrorist or other criminal networks and that invariably abuse the human rights of their citizens. But it speaks too of the doctrine of preemption--the right to take preemptive military action against terrorists and their state sponsors, unilaterally if necessary. Iraq, of course, comes to mind in all this. There is no doubt that in calling for regime change in Iraq the Bush administration--in support of its case--can point to credible instances of human rights abuse on the part of this odious government in Baghdad, along with the more strictly national security case that it has been making.

Nevertheless, Iraq and a number of other cases raise the question of whether we want military action to be used in support of human rights in this and other instances. And if we don't, what are we left with except some of the policies I have mentioned: verbal shaming of abusers, occasionally economic and diplomatic sanctions, and sometimes policies that engage the abuser and focus on reform efforts.

Despite the lack of strong legal enforcement mechanisms associated with the human rights regime, I think the answer has to be that rarely, and only under very exceptional circumstances, should force be contemplated on human rights grounds. And even then, only when all possible attempts at peaceful resolution have been exhausted. If force is used then the just war tradition has to be appealed to: it has to be proportionate. Crucially for me it also has to have attracted the legitimacy that multilateral endorsement brings along with it.

While in certain respects it is of some credit to the current US administration that it places stress on the need to protect "human dignity" as it puts it, it is necessary as ever to weigh the consequences of the policies that appear to be about to flow from its ideas of protection, especially the likelihood of their truly bettering the conditions of those human beings inside the abusive state. It is also necessary to ponder the consequences of its portrayal of human rights promotion as an imposition rather than a negotiation. That tone of imposition will also have negative consequences for those who are interested in rights promotion in America.16

So, the human rights era is not over but it is a troubled time for it. If you're an activist, it is necessary to keep on with the struggle; if an oppressor don't think that matters are going all your own way; and if an academic, then watch, document, and try to expose what it all might mean for the future of the human rights idea.

Audience Questions

Can you give us some perspective on European approaches to human rights promotion?

There is a difference. In Europe, in general, there is more emphasis on reformist efforts than on sanctioning. Obviously when something major happens, such as Tiananmen in 1989, then sanctions are applied by the Europeans, the Japanese, the Americans, and so on. But in general what you see is a set of policies that focus more on things like security sector reform or on programs designed to promote the rule of law. This often gives rise to criticism of the Europeans on the grounds that they are trying to protect their economic interests and not really interested in promoting human rights. Obviously there is something to that, but it is very striking that it is an approach that cuts across all regions of the world, even areas which are not especially important to Europeans countries' economic interests.

Do you think the anti-globalization movement should be considered a legitimate part of the human rights movement and, if so, do you think it will continue to be so?

The 'anti-globalization movement' is a rather rough and ready term for many different groupings bringing together a huge variety of different interests. If one can generalize, these groupings are indeed something of a response to the inequalities that globalization has brought in its wake. Although some countries or some sectors of some countries have enriched themselves as a result of the phenomenon of globalization, there are many countries, communities, and individuals that feel totally left out of that. So, in this generalized sense the anti-globalization movement includes voices that say we should think about the negative consequences, about people whose livelihoods have been destroyed, about some of the basic issues such as opening rich economies to trade from poor countries. So I think this movement is important for putting human rights ideas on the agenda. I also think that it will continue because those inequalities and injustices are still present.

Australia and a number of other countries in the developed world have toughened their refugee asylum laws. Doesn't this represent something of a setback for human rights in the post-Sptember 11th world?

I think you are absolutely right. This is a huge problem with something like 18 million refugees in the world at the moment. We know, for example, that people have been returned to countries where they can be expected to undergo torture, certainly imprisonment. This is a particularly difficult issue and I would have to think about qualifying my argument; I would be perfectly willing to give ground on that one. Refugees have always had a pretty rough time. It would be worth actually looking over a longer time period to see whether there has in fact been a dramatic recent increase in the intolerance which immigrants are subject to, or whether that intolerance has been growing rather steadily in recent years for different reasons. Certainly that has been the case in the UK well before September 11th. I would like to look into that a bit further but I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that you have made a very good point.

There was a great interest in academia in the 1960s in modernization theory. One model that was identified was way that the Turkish military had modernized their country. The 'Berkeley mafia' [of economists] went to Indonesia to promote a similar process and this led to many of the issues you spoke of. This would not seem to speak well for the role of the academy [in human rights promotion].

I am inclined to agree, and of course that idea of modernization theory has lived on. It is not unrelated to the 'Asian values' argument or the developmentalist rhetoric that a number of countries use, claiming that we have to have strict political control and to curtail freedoms in order to be able to develop at a certain pace and in certain ways. I never found that argument very convincing even on empirical grounds because I think that human rights are indivisible and that we need to pay attention to subsistence as well as political freedoms. I am not impressed at all by the 'Berkeley mafia' of the 1960s and there are a lot of people out there who are arguing something different these days, not the least of whom is Amartya Sen, a man and a voice that is listened to very closely. His message is that political freedom and economic advancement go hand in hand.

I wonder whether advancing the human rights agenda can help to win the war against terror.

That could be so, but it depends on the direction that the struggle against terrorism takes. One problem is that advancing human rights is a very long term proposition. You cannot impart democracy overnight to a country; you have to have institutional change and development, and the strengthening of particular political bodies. These matters take a very long time. I would agree with the proposition that countries that actually do protect human rights are less likely to fall prey to terrorist acts or to house terrorist groups.

Migrant workers have suffered badly in Southeast Asia post-September 11th. How can their rights be protected?

This helps me to say something about local NGOs. I am sure you know better than I do that inside these countries there has been a vast increase in the number of groups that have tried to bring about some recognition of the rights of these kinds of workers. Malaysia is a very good case in point. It is also interesting that groups in that country find it necessary to discuss this rights issue not so much with reference to an international human rights regime but in relation to their own local language of and cultural perspective on human rights. They draw much less on the idea that there is indeed an international refugee asylum law, that there are things like the International Labor Organization with its rules and regulations, and try instead to find indigenous ways in which they can promote their message and get it to the people involved. This is a huge issue inside these countries particularly after the Asian financial crisis and it is one that local NGOs are taking up with some vigor.

How have Southeast Asian governments been affected by terrorism and responded to terrorist threats since September 11th?

There are many changes. In Malaysia you have gotten more use of the Internal Security Act. In the Philippines there has been a major change: the idea of actually having US forces back on Philippine soil is phenomenal, indeed something that no one would have predicted as being possible, in the short term at least. Other mainland Southeast Asian countries are obviously less touched by it, but Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines see themselves as being in the thick of this and indeed have been meeting together to discuss regional counter-terrorism initiatives and counter-terrorism legislation. This is another issue that bears close watching because anti-terrorist legislation can be used or abused. The problem of how best to strike a balance between national security and civil liberties is something that is facing all of us and these Southeast Asian countries are no exception.

What about the issue of human rights violations within the United States?

There are several possible responses to this question. Some of the United Nations special rapporteurs and monitors have been to this country and looked at prisons and other issues and made various negative comments about what they have found here: about the disproportionate number of minority groups, for example, inside prisons, and about the use of the death penalty. The death penalty, and in particular its use on those below the age of 18, is a major issue internationally and it is one of the issues that has sometimes made it difficult for the Europeans and the US to come together inside bodies like the UN Commission on Human Rights.

One of the small things that the US could do that I think would be enormously beneficial would be to actually add itself into the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. It is something that the Europeans have done only recently with their own reports. Although European states were extraordinarily reluctant to do so they came under extreme pressure from human rights organizations to be more introspective. So in their own reports they do talk a bit more about themselves, especially about things like the issue of racism in Europe. I think this is a very healthy development, not because I think that there is a kind of moral equivalence wherever you look around the world, but because we all need to be more introspective in this issue area.

There is international monitoring of the United States, but as you probably know it has taken a long time for the US to sign up to international human rights covenants and when it does it often adds reservations, and 'understandings' which some human rights organizations claim strike at the core of these agreements. The United States still has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, for example. This gets thrown back at the US when it tries to promote its human rights policies. The argument used in the United States is an interesting one. It is said that the US Constitution is the 'supreme document'; it guarantees democracy in this country, and it alone represents the people's opinions, and rights and ideas and so on. Therefore, it is sometimes argued that imposition of international law is just not appropriate. One can see something in that type of argument, but it does not play well internationally.

Is it possible that the US can work to prevent human rights violations in places like Asia without appearing to be the overbearing international policeman?

It is extraordinarily difficult. One always has to listen to local views and try to get a better understanding of what people on the ground are saying. Of course a bit of humility is not a bad thing. It is interesting that when Bush gave his speech at Qinghua University [in Beijing] it played very well in China's press and Chinese commentators were more receptive to it because he did put it in a reasonably modest, humble way: that problems existed in the United States, and he gave reasons why he held to his own beliefs, etc. He wanted to appear to be more sensitive and not to impose his ideas, and it seemed to play extremely well.

That does seem one wayof achieving greater receptivity. Reform efforts and rule of law programs seem to be another way in that local groupings desire these sources of support. Inside China, many local lawyers look to these international standards and to outsiders as ways of introducing the ideas that they themselves support and to argue that there is an international consensus on the nature of legal reform. So, local people sometimes help find avenues through which outsiders that are concerned with human rights can promote those goals without seeming to be overbearing.

One of your points was that human rights approaches have begun to taken roots outside the West, yet some could argue that 'human rights' grow out of the philosophical traditions of Europe and North America. Is there a movement to try and ground these new approaches in local traditions then, or are they still centered on Western ideas?

Local grounding is certainly taking place. Sometimes this is being done to advance a particular political agendy, deliberately trying to make it appear that these ideas draw on local traditions. For example, a woman's group might not start talking about the transnational feminist movement in some countries, but might try to find elements in some local tradition in order to advance certain cultural ideas. In the Chinese case, there is a great effort made to find within Confucianism a 'rights' tradition, and this is the subject of much debate. Ideas of benevolent rulers, for instance, have been inserted into the discourse about China and human rights. Some countries find it necessary to try and 'indigenize' the discussion in this way.

Other countries that are more receptive to the idea that we live in a globalized world might actually look outside at that international standard and accept that this is the best that the global community has come up with. Peoples in these countries might be willing to say "we want to be part of this modern international world, so, why don't we draw on these standards and transform our ideas to fit with that globalized model?" So, different groups do use different strategies.


1. I would like to thank Rita Kernacs, of the USF Master of Arts in Asia Pacific Studies program, for invaluable research assistance for this lecture. [RETURN TO TEXT]

2. Ignatieff, International Herald Tribune , 6th Feb. 2002; and see too the Far Eastern Economic Review 25th Oct. 2001--"United States policy toward Asia has undergone a radical realignment since the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Suddenly, all other priorities have become secondary to the overriding focus that redefines foes and friends on the basis of whether they support the U.S. in the new war against terrorism."[RETURN TO TEXT]

3 Harold Hongju Koh, article in The Nation, accessed via on 10th October 2002. [RETURN TO TEXT]

4. "Where human rights are ignored, experience shows that criminals and terrorists thrive, and regional and global security are at risk, because chaos spreads". Speech by the UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, 18th April 2002. [RETURN TO TEXT]

5. For further detail and references see Foot, Rights Beyond Borders: the Global Community and the Struggle over Human Rights in China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) esp. pp. 42-45. [RETURN TO TEXT]

6. Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), pp. 10-11. [RETURN TO TEXT]

7. Mary Robinson's Farewell Speech, 12th September 2002. Jack Donnelly had put it in a similar way in 1998: "In contrast to the 1970s and early 1980s, when debate often focused on whether human rights should be an active foreign policy concern, today the question is usually which rights to emphasize in which particular cases." International Human Rights (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998). [RETURN TO TEXT]

8. Adam Roberts, "The So-called 'Right' of Humanitarian Intervention", in Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law, vol. 3, Spring 2002. [RETURN TO TEXT]

9. Simon Chesterman, "Humanitarian Intervention and Afghanistan", in Jennifer Welsh (ed.) Humanitarian Intervention and International Relations: Theory and Practice (forthcoming). [RETURN TO TEXT]

10. Fen Osler Hampson and John B. Hay, "Human Security: A Review of the Scholarly Literature" produced for the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Human Security Index project, October 2002. [RETURN TO TEXT]

11. Lowell Dittmer, "Chinese Human Rights and American Foreign Policy: A Realist Approach", The Review of Politics, 63/3, 2001. [RETURN TO TEXT]

12. John W. Garver, "Sino-American Relations in 2001: the Difficult Accommodation of Two Great Powers", International Journal, March 2002, p.3 in internet edition. [RETURN TO TEXT]

13. Thus, when the US embassy in Beijing made a sloppy statement that parroted the Chinese description to the effect that ETIM was responsible for more than 200 acts of terrorism in China, the US press and the NGOs were immediately on to this, demanding proof and criticizing that statement for its inaccuracies and simplistic tone. [RETURN TO TEXT]

14. According to a report in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Bush administration had "rebuffed at least three envoys sent to Washington by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad" before Sept. 11th 2001. Far East Economic Review, 25th Oct. 2001. [RETURN TO TEXT]

15. Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 7. [RETURN TO TEXT]

16. The United States has always been problematic in this regard, because, while it is a leading norm entrepreneur in this field, it is reluctant to ratify a number of the major human rights instruments. The recent debate over the International Criminal Court is illustrative of this. [RETURN TO TEXT]

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