The CCP recruited its friends to sign an alternative declaration on human rights, whose aim is in fact justifying Chinese and other violations of the same human rights.
by Massimo Introvigne
With great fanfare, the CCP organized in Beijing on December 7–8, 2017, a South-South Human Rights Forum, which produced a Beijing Declaration on Human Rights, which is now heavily promoted internationally after a new Forum was organized on December 10-11, 2019. The countries officially represented at the Forum were mostly African, and with a poor record on human rights, plus such well-known champions of freedom as Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Some individual academics also participated and signed, curiously some of them from The Netherlands.
One can ignore the document as obvious propaganda. However, the CCP seems to regard it as important, and as nothing less than a viable alternative to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for those who do not like it. It may be attractive to a number of non-democratic countries, both for its content and for its ideological basis. Both include an element of fraud.
First, the content. Article 3 claims that “the right to subsistence and the right to development” are the basic human rights. All the other human rights come after these two. This may sound nice, but in fact isn’t. It implies that, in the name of development, rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of the media, religious liberty, and democratic rights may be crushed. To eliminate any possible doubt, the preamble makes an explicit reference to the thought of President Xi Jinping, which is precisely based on the idea that development and stability are more important than freedom.
Article 5 distinguishes between human rights and their exercise. While the notion of human rights is “inalienable,” their exercise may be restricted as “determined by law,” on the basis of “the legitimate needs of national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morals and the general welfare of the people.” Since what is the “general welfare of the people” in totalitarian regimes is determined by the ruling parties and their leaders, who also define the scope of “national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morals,” Article 5 means that in practice, all forms of exercise of human rights may be denied by the authorities.
Article 6 mentions religious liberty. We read that “States have an obligation to respect and protect religious minorities, and religious minorities have the same obligation to adapt to their local environment, and this includes the acceptance and observance of the Constitution and laws of their localities, as well as their integration into the local society.” This echoes the Chinese Constitution’s idea that religion is theoretically free but in practice is allowed only if it is regarded as “normal.” The CCP defines which religions are, or are not, “normal.” Similarly, Article 6 leaves to non-democratic authorities to determine which religions “adapt to the local environment,” “respect the laws,” meaning the restrictive laws typical of totalitarian regimes, and are “integrated into the local society.” Once they are declared not adapted, not integrated, and not loyal to the (totalitarian) laws, religions can be freely persecuted.
Finally, Article 8 protects those who violate human rights from the reactions of the international community, by stating that, “The international community’s concern for human rights matters should always follow the international law and the universally recognized basic norms governing international relations, of which the key is to respect national sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of states.” Even if a state does not respect the very minimal human rights standards of the Beijing Declaration, others are not allowed to protest and interfere in its “internal affairs.”
Obviously, the Beijing Declarations is not a charter for human rights but a tool to protect those who abuse the same human rights.
The first two articles provide the ideological rationale for the Declaration, expressing ideas that are at the core of Xi Jinping’s thought. Article 1 states that, “the realization of human rights must take into account regional and national contexts, and political, economic, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds. The cause of human rights must and can only be advanced in accordance with the national conditions and the needs of the peoples. Each State should (…) choose a human rights development path or guarantee model that suits its specific conditions.” Article 2 adds that “Human rights are an integral part of all civilizations, and all civilizations should be recognized as equal and should be respected. Values and ethics of different cultural backgrounds should be cherished and respected, and mutual tolerance, exchange and reference should be honored.”
This is Xi Jinping’s idea of “human rights with Chinese characteristics,” and may be attractive to all those who denounce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as not universal at all, but “Western,” and are interested in replacing it with statements about “human rights” with Arab, Iranian, African, Russian, or North Korean characteristics.
This is, however, doubly fraudulent. First, the “Chinese characteristics” of Xi Jinping are in fact the “CCP’s characteristics.” Xi’s reconstruction of Chinese culture is largely bogus, ignoring for example China’s rich religious heritage and any value in its history that is antithetical to the CCP’s Communism. Second, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflected a consensus that emerged after the horror of World War II. By the way, one of its drafters was a Chinese academic, Chang Pen-Chung (張彭春, 1892–1957).
The drafters were well aware that the Nazis and others had denied human rights in the name of their national traditions. In Germany, human rights and in particular religious liberty had been severely restricted by the German Empire through the so called Kulturkampf well before Nazism. Not only in the countries defeated in World War II together with Germany, Italy and Japan, but all over the world, in different ways, human rights emerged slowly and with difficulties, and had to overcome national traditions and prejudices. Chang knew that there had never been human rights in the modern sense of the words in China—but this was true of many, if not most, other countries. One of the countries whose legislative history defined the very notion of human rights, the United Kingdom, restricted the liberties of minority religions for centuries.
Precisely because of the tragedy of World War II, the countries who signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights acknowledged that they should overcome their “national characteristics” and agree on shared, universal values. Either human rights are universal, or there are no human rights. The Beijing Declaration is simply a new tool the CCP plans to use, and offer to other non-democratic countries, to justify their continuing violation of human rights.