The leaders of some repressive Third World governments argue that they should not be held to Western human rights standards because of their peoples' different cultural and religious traditions. In essence, governments such as China, Iran and Indonesia claim that their populations don't really want, or even understand, the freedoms that citizens of established democracies assume as a birthright.
This cynical view must come as quite a surprise to the millions of Cambodians, Chinese, Haitians and other Third World peoples who continue to risk their lives in an attempt to gain the same basic human rights that Americans take for granted.
Some previous U.S. administrations also have attempted to propagate the notion that some developing countries simply "aren't ready for democracy." That convenient rationalization was intended to justify our government's close relations with authoritarian regimes in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Given that recent history, Secretary of State Warren Christopher made an especially important statement of Clinton administration policy this week when he insisted that our government should apply a universal standard of human rights in our relations with governments representing all regions and ideologies.
Speaking at the World Conference on Human Rights, Christopher specifically rejected the notion that Washington should lower its expectations for those countries with no tradition of democratic government. He insisted that the international community "cannot allow cultural relativism to become the last refuge of repression."
Christopher's words ring true. There can be no double standard on the subject of human rights. If developing countries have a legitimate complaint, though, it is that Western governments' actions do not always live up to Christopher's noble words.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali A. Alatas acidly told delegates at the Vienna conference that Western nations should deal with the outrageous human rights abuses in their own back yards before presuming to lecture Third World governments on the subject. Referring to Bosnia, he noted that "a few hundred kilometers from here, an entire nation is being subjected to brutal aggression, mass murder, systematic rape and the inhuman practice of ethnic cleansing."
Of course, Bosnia is the tragic exception to the West's tradition of democratic values. In any case, governments such as Indonesia and China cannot justify their own human rights abuses by casting an accusatory finger elsewhere. From Sarajevo to Jakarta, from Dupont Circle to Tiananmen Square, human beings have the same aspirations, and their governments have the same basic obligations.
As a representative of the world's oldest and most successful democracy, Christopher is correct to champion the universality of human rights. The leaders of repressive Third World governments may not like what he has to say, but their people do.