In a significant diplomatic victory for the Chinese “communist” regime, the State Department’s leading human rights official, Michael Posner, conceded that human rights is a relative issue not a universal one.
In order to curry favor with the Chinese officials Posner suggested that our treatment of Muslims or the recent law passed in Arizona on illegal immigration was the rough equivalent of the kind of human rights problems found in China. While misguided and likely unconstitutional, to suggest that what is happening in Arizona is morally or logically equivalent to the brutality the Chinese mete out against their ethnic minorities is appalling. Posner also told the Chinese that just like in China the US lacks sufficient resources to insure worker safety and health. While there are (serious) problems in the US in this area there is nothing close to the problems that Chinese workers face. In China there are no unions, there is no independent health and safety agency and workers suffer terrible injuries and death in the workplace everyday.
Relativism has been the major intellectual argument used by the Chinese in their offensive in international agencies like the ILO and elsewhere over the last decade. I examine this issue in detail in my recent book, From Che to China. The argument comes in two forms: either, one, regimes like China, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela will argue that what we do here in the US to minorities (or labor, women, the poor) is as bad as what they do in their countries; or, two, westerners just do not understand the cultural context in which the alleged abuse takes place – if they did, they would realize it is actually a good thing!
Of course, sadly, Posner is only following the path laid out by his boss, the President, who shocked the international human rights community last year by sending his aide Valerie Jarrett to India to ask the Dalai Lama not to come to the United States for a meeting with the President and then refused to meet with the Dalai Lama when he showed up in DC anyway. China’s occupation of Tibet is only the most visible example of the way that it treats ethnic minorities.
Posner, along with the State Department’s Harold Koh and Sarah Cleveland, the White House’s Samantha Power and Defense Department’s Rosa Brooks, is part of what some have called a Human Rights Dream Team. Yet they have clearly disappointed many. Koh recently defended unmanned drones used to assassinate American citizens as a valid act of self defense.
The Posner concession to China is also a setback for efforts by American labor to support independent unions in China by supporting groups like the China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong led by Tienanmen Square veteran Han Dongfang. One of the AFL-CIO’s top international officials, Barbara Shailor, was recently appointed to head up the labor rights effort at the State Department under Posner. Historically, Shailor has stood fast in support of independent unions and the universal norms of human rights that make genuine trade unions possible. Her impact is surely now compromised and one hopes she may reconsider accepting the appointment as should the AFL-CIO itself consider registering a protest over Posner’s attempt at “constructive engagement” on human and labor rights with China.