Democracy Lab

The Human Rights That Dictators Love

Does the concept of "human rights" still have meaning in a world where everything qualifies?

Watch out. Kobe Bryant may be violating your human rights.

Farida Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on cultural rights, recently announced that she's launching a new study aimed at addressing "whether advertising and marketing practices affect cultural diversity and the right of people to choose their way of life." The announcement bears a photo of a larger-than-life U.S. basketball advertisement (featuring star player Kobe Bryant) looming over a Chinese playground.

This is all in a day's work for the United Nations' cultural rights office. Just last month, when Shaheed visited Vietnam, she took a break from discussing concerns about the freedom of expression to highlight another urgent crisis: the sensitive issue of the Cong drum. In case you haven't heard, the Cong drum is a unique cultural artifact used by certain indigenous tribes in Vietnam's remote highlands. Now, Shaheed notes, the Cong drum faces a new threat: it is "being played on demand for tourists in some places, thus clearly losing its original cultural significance." She urges the government to protect drum performances against "folklorization" -- apparently a major violation of the indigenous groups' "cultural rights."

It's worth noting that Vietnam is a communist dictatorship that completely ignores the freedom of religion, routinely imprisons monks and artists for their views, and has been criticized by countless human rights organizations for its widespread use of torture and routine abuse of detainees. (In the photo above, policemen prevent a photojournalist from taking pictures outside a courthouse in Ho Chi Minh City.)

"Vietnam is fast turning into one of Southeast Asia's largest prisons for human rights defenders and other activists," Robert Abbott, Amnesty International's Vietnam researcher, noted. But these violations are equal, in Shaheed's eyes, to the ghastly use of cultural artifacts in the tourism industry. The other, more serious violations merit just a one-paragraph rebuke in her report; apparently, they don't fall within the ill-defined spectrum of "cultural rights." Now, Vietnam can ignore most of what Shaheed had to say, and brush off her criticisms as a side effect of tourism.

Over the years, critics have ridiculed the U.N. Human Rights Council's willingness to heed the perverse opinions of the world's worst dictators, who figure prominently among its members. (These members even tried to ban the word "authoritarian" from council proceedings.) But the farce of "cultural rights" is merely a symptom of a much deeper malaise that some call "human rights inflation." Increasingly, groups have called everything they feel entitled to -- from spare bedrooms to foreign aid -- a "right." One special interest group is even clamoring to grant "access to the Internet" official "rights" status, as if freedom of expression weren't enough. Meanwhile, various parties have asserted their "rights" to employment counseling, paid vacation leave, free education through college, and a global financial tax to combat the economic crisis.

Today, we have a surplus of human rights -- and they're all claimed to be equally important and indivisible. Human rights are going nowhere. They've lost their value.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was signed in 1948, it restricted the world of human rights to just 30 provisions. Its drafters felt compelled to keep the list short and punchy. Out of those, 18 were considered rights, provisions that impose immediate obligations on states at the level of the individual; the 12 social, economic, and cultural provisions were considered aspirational. The latter were controversial from the start, and this is one of the reasons that the UDHR is not binding and contains no enforcement mechanism. In 1976, to address these issues, the rights were correctly divided up into separate binding treaties that impose obligations on the state through oversight bodies: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

This was a political compromise borne out of the ideological fight between the United States and the totalitarian USSR, which advocated for social, economic, and cultural rights at the expense of civil and political ones. To this day, the United States has not ratified the ICESCR.

The consequences of this ill-fated compromise have gotten quite out of hand. By 2013, there were 676 provisions that ranged from individual rights, to collective rights, and even to environmental rights. Some of these don't even impose immediate obligations on the state - instead they're established through "progressive realization," whereby the state, to the limit of its resources and capabilities, promises to fulfill them at some point in the future.

This bizarre proliferation of rights is caused by the fact that human rights are a valuable tool in the hands of every pressure group that stands to benefit from the expansion of rights -- and that includes illiberal states.

The right to food, for example, was made justiciable at the international level just last year with the adoption of the optional protocol to the ICESCR. The move received overwhelming support from, among others, Iran, which reiterated during the working group that "the protocol provided an opportunity to reiterate the equal status of all human rights." Meanwhile, the sane and liberal voice of the United Kingdom was all but drowned out: "The United Kingdom remained skeptical about the practical benefits of the protocol, considering that economic, social, and cultural rights did not lend themselves to adjudication in the same way as civil and political rights."

Some may argue that states do not typically want to proliferate rights because this imposes more obligations. Yet, it is precisely because of this proliferation that states can cherry-pick the rights whose obligations they promise to fulfill sometime in the future -- and thus, show off a "good" human rights record, even as they fail to uphold even the most basic civil and political rights. Desirable outcomes like housing or health care -- better understood as political goals -- were cloaked in rights language to make them seem more legitimate. From there, the right to a spare bedroom is but a stone's throw away.

Well-intentioned rights groups have broadened rights legislation to embrace women's rights and minority rights for indigenous peoples, LGBT individuals, the elderly, and the disabled. Women's groups and human rights groups in Saudi Arabia have, for example, rallied the troops to consecrate the "right to drive." Of course, these groups should be respected and their efforts celebrated -- but there is no need to draw up new treaties or craft new rights. Traditional human rights instruments are enough. The UDHR clearly states that no one should experience discrimination because of their "race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status." You don't have special rights because you're a lesbian, elderly, disabled woman living in Saudi Arabia; you have rights because you're human.

The darker side of rights proliferation is that it allows dictators to level the playing field. The Human Rights Council is notorious for accommodating the desires of autocratic regimes eager to whitewash their reputations. In 2007, after refusing visits by U.N. special representatives for more than 18 years, Cuba welcomed Jean Ziegler, the Council's special rapporteur on the right to food. Ziegler praised the government for upholding the right to food as a "fundamental human right," and proceeded to blame the U.S. embargo for any food shortages. The policies of the 55-year-old communist dictatorship -- which disallows private property, private business, and the freedoms of movement and expression -- were apparently irrelevant to the food problem. Ziegler viewed the right to food in isolation, ignoring even relevant, non-food-related rights violations, and ultimately helped the Cuban regime get away with murder. Cuba could celebrate its success in upholding one right while tactfully glossing over all its many failures. Chronic rights abusers have an interest in diluting rights to the point where the whole concept loses its meaning.

"Sadly, this is par for the course these days," says Jacob Mchangama, co-founder and executive director of the Freedom Rights Project, a group that seeks to restore liberty back to human rights. Recently, his group held a conference at the Danish Parliament on what has gone wrong with international human rights and how to fix it.

The conference addressed, among other things, the worrying trend of rights proliferation. The speakers challenged the human rights community's dogmatic consensus on the indivisibility of rights and the doctrine of proportionality. Emilie Hafner-Burton presented research that demonstrates that there are few examples of human rights improving an illiberal state even after its leaders sign a human rights treaty. In most authoritarian states, signing the Convention Against Torture has had little if any impact on incidents of torture, and has allowed these regimes to stay in power longer.

"When everything can be defined as a human right, the premium on violating such rights is cheap," Mchangama told me in Copenhagen. "By presenting themselves as the champions of these third-generation rights, illiberal states seek to both remove the moral high ground from civil and political rights and to achieve political legitimacy. Rights proliferation is being abused by dictatorships to praise each other, and is diminishing the moral clarity that human rights once enjoyed."

We may be witnessing the slow bursting of the human rights bubble. Had I invested in the value of rights as a concept in 1966 when the ICCPR was adopted, the value of my shareholding would have peaked around 1993. This was the year that the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action of 1993 declared all rights to be equally justiciable and indivisible, rendering the distinction between civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural "rights" meaningless.

At least I can always seek comfort in playing my Cong drum -- that is, as long as there aren't any tourists lurking nearby, right, Ms. Shaheed?



The Man Who Wasn't There

Chinese are whispering about the possible downfall of Beijing's J. Edgar Hoover. Why won't they talk about it out loud?

It was an easy story to miss.

On Feb. 22, the Beijing newspaper China Business Herald, citing an anonymous source, reported that PetroChina International Vice President Shen Dingcheng had been missing for weeks. As a single point of data, the story means little. But the disappearance of Shen (which dozens of other Chinese news outlets covered) is likely another piece of the still unfolding and maddeningly opaque saga of Zhou Yongkang. Shen, it turns out, served as Zhou's secretary for part of the 1990s. Formerly one of the most powerful men in China, Zhou ran China's state security apparatus as a member of the Politburo Standing Committee -- the top Communist Party body -- from 2007 to 2012. Now, the party is almost certainly trying to bring him down: Reportedly under house arrest, the 71-year-old Zhou hasn't been seen in public since October, and dozens, if not hundreds, of men connected to him have been arrested.

Zhou's case -- if there is indeed a case against him -- is arguably the most important Chinese corruption investigation in decades, if not in the People's Republic of China's 65-year-history. Yet -- and here's the maddeningly opaque part -- we can only hypothesize about the what, when, why, and how of "the case." This murky struggle, playing out behind closed doors throughout China, is inaccessible to those outside China's elite. Even the "who" isn't confirmed: Beijing has not announced Zhou is under investigation, nor have any Chinese officials said on the record that Zhou is under suspicion, and domestic Chinese media doesn't dare to print Zhou's name in articles about the investigations of his subordinates. But even if we cannot know for certain what is happening to Zhou, his fate deserves our attention. If Zhou falls, it could shift both the public perception of the party and the balance of power among its elites. It could strengthen the party, split it, or hasten its collapse.

At this stage -- and in part because of Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping's admonition to fight both corrupt "flies" and "tigers," low-level bureaucrats and high-ranking officials, respectively -- many are using the metaphor of a net tightening around Zhou. But perhaps it's more useful to picture a different type of net.

Imagine a giant wall on a secluded floor in a Beijing office tower housing the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the powerful organization tasked with investigating malfeasance and corruption within the Communist Party. Now, imagine Zhou's name in the center of a web of hundreds of intersecting lines -- a much larger version of the type seen in police stations in U.S. mafia movies. In China, the term guanxi wang -- "network of connections" -- refers to a person's social circle. The web on this wall is Zhou's network, and the threads connect to those with whom Zhou intersected throughout his career: as an oil industry executive in the 1980s and 1990s, as party secretary of China's largest southwestern province of Sichuan from 1999 to 2002, and then as minister of public security until 2007, when he took on his most powerful role.

Shen is one of those threads. According to the China Business Herald report, Shen served as Zhou's secretary in the 1990s at the behemoth state-owned enterprise China National Petroleum Corp., before rising to become a top PetroChina official. There have been at least 10 people in PetroChina of "department level or above," a fairly high rank on the Communist Party hierarchy, to have disappeared or been investigated, the article states.

Shen is the fourth of Zhou's former secretaries -- other lines in his network of connections -- believed to have fallen. But further obfuscating matters is the Chinese media's failure to print Zhou's name. Like mafia foot soldiers afraid to testify against their boss until they know for sure he's been disgraced, none of the wide Chinese coverage of the arrests mention Zhou's name. "The four [fallen officials] all worked at different times as secretaries for a high-ranking official who has since left office," reported the Oriental Morning Daily, a Shanghai newspaper; Hexun, a Chinese financial portal, used the same language. The popular web portal Sina even posted a chart of the hierarchy of those four officials -- without putting Zhou at the top.

Even among the secretive world of Chinese officials, we know exceedingly few details about Zhou. One thing we do know is that Zhou liked to demonstrate his physical strength. "When he'd go places for investigation, he'd do like 50 or 100 push-ups" in front of others, a Chinese academic who lives overseas and is familiar with elite politics told me, which I quoted in an earlier story I wrote about Zhou. In August 2007, two months before he ascended to the Standing Committee, Zhou visited a police station in south China's Yunnan province. He surprised onlookers by doing "10 sit-ups in one breath," after which everyone "spontaneously burst into applause," according to China News Service, a state-run news agency. During an interview in December, I asked former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who has met with Zhou, what his impressions were of him. "He's roughly 6 feet tall," he said with a smile.

But understanding as much as possible about the situation that may be befalling Zhou is crucial because he looms at the nexus of nearly all the crucial debates about China's future. Because as a Standing Committee member he ran the Central Political and Legislative Committee, overseeing China's legal system and police force, he played an especially large part in rule-of-law issues, including those concerning social tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet, treatment of Chinese dissidents, and control of China's Internet. And he was probably a patron of Bo Xilai, the former party boss of Chongqing who endured a public (for China, at least) disgrace after being sacked in early 2012.

It is still unknown if Beijing will risk allowing the public to glimpse the undersides of these struggles via a public accusation followed by a trial, as it did with Bo from February 2012 to August 2013. Zhou may wither away under house arrest or in prison, never to be heard from again. One hint that Beijing may be moving toward a trial is that on Feb. 20, prosecutors finally brought charges, including murder and "Mafia-style conspiracy," against tycoon Liu Han, who disappeared last March. An English-language article in the party-run newspaper the Global Times titled "Sichuan billionaire mafioso prosecuted" detailed that Liu had a "a powerful patron," -- presumably Zhou, though the article didn't mention him by name. But the business magazine Caixin did link Liu to Zhou Bin, the only known son of Zhou Yongkang. Zhou Bin "is deeply involved in the country's hydropower and oil businesses" and is a "former top leader's son," Caixin reported on Feb. 21 -- but again, it did not mention Zhou Yongkang by name. (Reuters reported in December that Zhou Bin is complying with the alleged investigation against his father, while the Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post reported in January that the son may face a trial over charges of bribery.)

The story of Zhou has -- almost as if by design -- trickled out via a series of hints, details, and rumors, difficult to connect and nearly impossible to confirm. An Oct. 11 Financial Times story, published just after Zhou's last public appearance, proclaimed confidently, "Net closes on former China security chief." A follow-up story, after months of arrests, speculations, and rumors, was more cautious. "China has placed two high-ranking officials under investigation in moves that appear to close the net more tightly around the country's powerful former security chief," reported the Financial Times on Feb. 23. Probably the most accurate description of that which is actually confirmed comes from Reuters, which stated that the Feb. 24 announcement of the sacking of a vice police chief with ties to Zhou came as "speculation intensifies" about Zhou's fate.

Zhou may be in trouble because Xi sees him as a threat to his power. Perhaps Zhou is being punished for his presumably close relationship with the much lower ranked Bo, now serving a life sentence for abuse of power, bribery, and corruption. Or maybe Zhou is actually far more corrupt than his peers and is thus more deserving of an investigation? "Whatever excuse they give for [the fall of] Zhou, it will never be the real reason," said human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has been one of the few people in China to speak publicly about Zhou. The true cause of Zhou's downfall, Pu said, is an elite power struggle -- for which people like Shen are just one thread among many.