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US missing the point on human rights / by Tom Zwart, March 20, 2017 Adjust font size:

The human rights hegemon [By Jiao Haiyang /]

The U.S. State Department has just published its traditional annual human rights report providing a scorecard on all other countries for their human rights performance, under which China traditionally gets low grades. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has replied in kind by issuing a critical report on the state of human rights in the U.S.

It is ironic that the U.S, which is so committed to due process of law that it is guaranteed twice in its Constitution, has not allowed the countries concerned the opportunity to comment on its draft findings, which mean it being declared null and void if challenged in an American court of law.

It is rather surprising that this ritual survives despite arrival of a new administration seemingly keen on minding its own business and which doesn't have to cater to liberal audiences and interest groups. However, the report does carry the signature of Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state. It may be that the report had already been completed under the previous administration and it was considered a waste of time and energy not to publish it. Maybe, then, it will be last of its kind.

There are good reasons not to continue with this routine. The report only looks at the formal measures taken by states to promote and protect human rights, such as law and policies. The U.S. government considers these probably the best way to implement human rights, and there is nothing wrong with that.

However, despite the fact the U.S. prefers such implementation methods, that does not mean that they enjoy exclusivity. Other states, especially those in the Global South, often do not rely on law and formal institutions to implement human rights, but lead on culture.

Thus, domestic violence in Swaziland is not combated with the help of law and courts, but through singing. In Swaziland, the women sing at all festive and solemn occasions. During their performances, everybody is supposed to listen, including the men. This is why the women address social issues, such as domestic violence, through their repertoire and this proves to be very effective. The same is not true for law: women are reluctant to file complaints and testify against their husbands, because if the men are sent to jail there is no breadwinner.

The Chinese people, also, tend to prefer to rely on culture to protect and promote human rights. General Secretary Xi Jinping has often emphasized that the Party and the people should rely on cultural self-confidence and cherish their values.

Thus, in his speech marking the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, he stated that both China's cultural traditions and its revolutionary accomplishments house the deepest aspirations of the Chinese people. These include the promotion and protection of human rights, where China's cultural confidence can serve as the backbone of the human rights protection system.

China has the oldest system still in place to petition government authorities concerning problems and failures, including human rights. It may be that, nowadays, other countries also have elaborate complaint systems, but only China can claim that petitioning has always been part of its "cultural genes." This home-grown remedy for human rights protection therefore deserves to be further developed.

Similarly, when the People's Republic of China was established, the equality between the sexes was introduced, decades before it happened in western societies. Consequently, women acquired the right to decide for themselves whom to marry, and gained access to education and the labor market. This gender equality, which is steeped in China's revolutionary tradition, served as the first major step towards gender justice.

Such an approach is not only in line with international law, which leaves it to the states to implement human rights obligations as they see fit, but also in accordance with the object and purpose of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was meant to be a people's charter, i.e. a tool to apply human rights in people-to-people relations. The best way to ensure that rights are applied in this way at grassroots level is to use local culture as their basis.

Relying on culture and traditions as building blocks for human rights protection is called the receptor approach to human rights involving two phases. During the matching phase, cultural traditions and values which meet the international human rights obligations are identified through anthropological research. If such cultural traditions are not adequate, they will have to be strengthened. This will be done during the amplification phase with the help of home-grown remedies rather than foreign transplants.

By only looking for human rights protection in laws and formal institutions, the U.S. loses sight of the many efforts undertaken by countries through culture.

Tom Zwart is a professor of cross-cultural law and human rights, Utrecht University.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of