PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 1994, 12:00am

WHILE many Westernised countries like to view themselves as upholding human rights and declaring the concept a universal one, others seek to differ. Asia, by no means alone, counts many of its member nations among those who believe human rights to be relative and not something to be dictated by meddling outsiders.

It does not seem coincidental that virtually all the countries in the first category are fully fledged pluralist democracies, while a good many of those in the latter are either dictatorships or one-party democracies. This happens to be the case with theprominent dispute between the United States and China.

While Washington pursues its human rights agenda with China by tying it to the only thing more crucial to the American dream - money - Beijing consistently sidesteps the slings and arrows by telling the US to put its own house in order first.

With the US acting as the world's referee on human rights, there comes a time when countries, such as China, ask who is going to judge the umpire? And despite the shadows that lurk around the edges of its own domestic agenda, Beijing's point has to be taken into account sooner or later.

It transpires there is indeed someone working away at the task of compiling a report on the US's human rights record. It must be a tricky task because it was supposed to have been finished six months ago. The author? The US. And if that sounds rather like Steven Spielberg chairing this year's Academy Awards judging panel, relax. When it (finally) appears, it should be worth reading - not least in Beijing.

When the US belatedly became a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), it was obliged to submit - in good, quasi-Maoist fashion - a self-criticism of its own performance in this sphere. For some bizarre reason no one has been able to explain, the State Department is compiling it. It was due last September, and never came. Amid a background of what one hears is reluctance of some departments (notably the Justice Department) to hand over sensitive data to the compilers, it is now promised for sometime in late spring.

In the vacuum caused by the report's absence, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently issued one of its own. Of course, this is an organisation with its own agenda, which may tend to find human rights violations when others merely see solid law enforcement. But the HRW report is nevertheless a sobering insight into the malaise of US society. It is also a reminder of the group's healthy predilection for getting in everybody's face, whether it be Chinese or Caucasian.

What it reveals is that if one does judge human rights by objective standards - the ICCPR's, for instance - then the US fails almost as many acid tests as China. Among HRW's findings: rampant race discrimination in education, housing and employment; police brutality, again often along racial lines; sex discrimination; arbitrary use of the death penalty; inhumane prison conditions; and violations of immigrants' rights.

Such facts alone do not mean the US is any less preferable a place to live than the human rights basket-cases the HRW also takes to task. What they show is that even in the freest democracies, some standards fall victim to the tension between well-intentioned legal frameworks and the way the authorities interpret them.

In the US, this manifests itself in the constant tussle between the American Constitution and the Supreme Court. The 200-year-old document and its string of amendments are the foundations upon which the nation's cherished liberties have been built. But it remains a devilishly vague set of criteria, which is why the court's role as ultimate arbiter of its intentions make it as powerful as any number of presidents in terms of shaping the country's way of life.

TAKE capital punishment. The Supreme Court virtually made it untenable in 1972 in a judgement against Georgia, ruling its sentencing guidelines were too arbitrary. When Georgia changed its statutes, the court reversed its decision. Since then more than 220 people have been electrocuted or given a lethal injection, and nearly 3,000 convicts sit on death rows in the 30 states that allow capital sentencing. And the court may again rewrite history.

The senior Justice, Harry Blackmun, recently announced he was abandoning a lifetime of supporting capital punishment because he now believed it was unconstitutional in that it was imposed arbitrarily from state to state, and even in-state. Justice Blackmun's volte-face, which revealed it was a human rights hornets' nest, means that two centuries on from the founding fathers, the US still does not know whether it is right to kill its worst criminals.

On race discrimination, the Supreme Court again is at the centre of the debate. HRW cites a string of judgments, notably in challenges to employment disputes, where it has failed to protect the intentions of civil rights legislation. And last week, Rodney King was back in court, pursuing a damages claim following the police beating which ignited the Los Angeles riots..

The great difference with China, of course, is that in the US the King beating was given a free airing in the media, and the officers eventually brought to justice. The prisoners who are beaten daily in many Chinese jails do not enjoy such a luxury. The US human rights debate stirred up by foreign policy bureaucrats will inevitably go much deeper than the Most Favoured Nation status wrangle. Quite how the US takes up the challenge of diagnosing its own ailments will make interesting reading.


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