University of Iowa

Who Speaks for Human Rights?

November 1st, 2010

By Downing Thomas, Dean of International Programs

In an article originally published in the Global Times and reprinted in the China Daily on October 29th, Zhang Weiwei chided the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, for claiming that “human rights stand superior to state sovereignty.”  Weiwei argues that this “obsolete Western tune” is a fallacy for three reasons: that standards on human rights vary from country to country; that no one (and certainly not the Nobel Committee) is authorized to determine what is or isn’t a violation of human rights; and that the notion that state sovereignty must bow to human rights is far from an accepted truth.  Support for the latter assertion is found in the Charter of the United Nations, which lists the equality of sovereign states as its first principle.

In my view, Weiwei’s reasoning is flawed and, perhaps more importantly, in perpetuating stereotypical views of West vs. East (he imagines a unified and hegemonic “the West”) he does a disservice to the goal he espouses, which is to “carry out free exchanges on human rights issues and join hands to bring real equality, justice and peace to the world.” The fact that the definition and observance of human rights vary from country to country does not invalidate the claim that they should trump national sovereignty.  It is clear that human rights violations occur in countries in all parts of the world, in Europe and in the U.S., as well as in Asia and the Middle East.  Human rights are a work in progress.  Pointing to human rights violations and censoring leaders or countries for their role in these violations should not entail a claim of superiority. By definition, human rights are universal; and universality trumps the particular claims of state sovereignty in that domain only.  The fact that Jagland, speaking on behalf of Norwegian Nobel Committee, claims the superiority of human rights does not exempt Norway from being held accountable, in the eyes of the international community, for any human rights violations that occur within its borders or laws. When the UN cites human rights violations, it does not countermand its founding principle of state sovereignty; instead, it censors specific practices and/or laws.  Those are two very different actions.

If human rights are to be preserved, nations must make every effort to respect them within their own borders; and a necessary step toward the observance of human rights is allowing individuals to speak out in favor of their protection.

Downing Thomas
Downing Thomas