Because of China’s willingness to capitalize politically and economically, often in natural resource deals, on opportunities created by international pressure, international efforts to protect human rights generally have no net effect on the abusing regime’s actions and only push them towards closer relations with Beijing. States seeking to uphold international human rights standards must therefore choose between working to promote these standards to their own strategic detriment and with minimal prospects for success, or to refrain and implicitly confirm that the state-enforced international human rights system is dead. Increasingly, they are making the second choice.
This does not mean that there is not a role for more abstract international standard-setting or that civil rights movements, efforts by citizens to fight for their rights within their own countries, are dead, even in places like China. It also does not mean that human rights advocates should not rejoice at what China has done to bring hundreds of millions of its people out of abject poverty. It does mean, however, that those unlucky souls around the world who find their rights massively abused by their own governments can, thanks largely to China, expect little or no help from foreign states.
In short, the post-war system of fundamental individual human rights superseding state sovereignty in cases of mass, government-led abuse of its own citizens is coming to an end and the world, from a state sovereignty perspective, is starting to look more like the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Unfortunately for us all, we already know where that disastrous system leads.
Jamie Metzl is Executive Vice President of the Asia Society. He served in the U.S. National Security Council and States Department during the Clinton Administration and as a Human Rights Officer with the United Nations in Cambodia. The views expressed are his own.
Jamie previously commented on this subject in the Wall Street Journal.