Human Rights in a Global Context

Dueling human rights reports were issued by the United States and China this week. The US report accuses China of human rights violations including repression of ethic Uighur and Tibetan minorities as well as increased censorship stemming largely from the Google incident. For its part, the Chinese report accuses the United States of global human rights abuses stemming from the ongoing international economic crisis, which China asserts was caused by the United States. It also accuses the United States of human rights abuses against its own citizens due to lack of health care.

While the media is asserting that the two reports are a political tit-for-tat between the two countries, the competing reports also reflect differing conceptions of what constitute human rights in the first place. In the United States, a greater emphasis is generally placed on negative liberties, [glossary] such as freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and the press. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights is a testimony to the role of negative liberties in the United States (and western political thought more generally). But throughout much of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union consistently debated whether positive or negative liberty should be emphasized. The Chinese report appears to follow on that debate, emphasizing the failure of the US to provide the foundation for the well being of citizens. The Chinese definition of human rights centers on assertions based in positive liberty [glossary], the notion that citizens should be equally enabled to participate in the political life of the country. Unlike negative liberty, which requires restraint on the part of the government, positive liberty is predicated on an active state which intervenes in positive ways to ensure the equal ability of individuals to participate in the political life of the community, providing equal access to education, for example.

From this perspective, the dispute between China and the United States is not just a political game of tit-for-tat. It is a more philosophically rooted difference in what constitutes human rights in the first place.

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