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Human rights and sovereignty
Hu Ping
10/6/2002



During the war in Kosovo, people who supported NATO's military intervention proposed a resounding slogan: "Human rights exceed sovereignty."

Actually, the idea that "human rights exceed sovereignty " is not novel. In his 1989 article, the author of "The Dilemma of the Chinese Communist Party's Nationalism" explicitly stated, "basic human rights exceed the government's sovereignty." By post World War II, some insightful people had already long been pondering in earnest over the relationship between human rights and sovereignty. When Hitler barbarically slaughtered the Jews in Germany, shouldn't the international society have exercised the right to take more effective measures than just standing by or issuing statements of condemnation?

From the perspective of pure morality and justice, the principle that human rights exceed sovereignty is correct. From the perspective of actual operation, however, the matter becomes quite complex. The question is “Who determines that a particular country’s human rights are severely violated, and that it needs intervention from the international society?” After all, the present world has not yet realized universal harmony, and is still in anarchy. Then, who could have this kind of authority over morality and justice or legal principles? Even the United Nations' authority is insufficient. In the debate over whether human rights exceed sovereignty, not many people truly oppose it from the perspective of morality and justice. In fact, the majority of opponents mainly worry that this principle might be abused and used as an excuse for powerful nations to violate weaker nations. Then again, declaring that sovereignty is supreme and that sovereignty exceeds human rights is no different from giving the green light to ruthless governments (such as the Nazi government and the Pol Pot government) that trample the human rights of their own people. Therefore, people have fallen into a dilemma. In theory and in principle, the correct standpoint should be that we must acknowledge that human rights exceed sovereignty. In practice, we should deal with each concrete intervention taken in the name of human rights individually, weighing the merit of all such actions. Support the ones that should be supported, and oppose the ones that should be opposed. Without a doubt, it is wrong to oppose generally that human rights exceed sovereignty, which is what the Chinese Communist Party does.

As for China today, the matter is much simpler. The issue is not that the government does not trample human rights yet foreigners violate China’s policy with military force under the banner of protecting human rights. In actuality, the truth is that the government flagrantly tramples human rights, but does not even allow others to criticize it with a few words; in fact, the government reprimands all criticism as "interfering with internal affairs." Some people are extremely sensitive to the danger of abusing human rights to intervene in the sovereignty of the country, yet they simply turn a blind eye to the situation wherein their own government abuses sovereignty to trample human rights.

The spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs always says that China opposes interfering with other nation's internal affairs in the name of human rights, and states that a nation's problems should be resolved by that nation's people themselves. This is not a refutation to the principle that human rights exceed sovereignty, but only an avoidance of the issue. The question we want to raise is precisely this: When a nation's people have been deprived by the government of their fundamental rights, as in the case of the Jews having been slaughtered by the barbaric Nazi government, should the international society only be allowed to sit back and watch, and not even criticize and condemn it? The Chinese Communist Party simply labels all other countries' criticism and condemnation of its human rights condition as "interfering with internal affairs."

The Chinese Communist Party has probably discovered that this supreme sovereignty theory cannot hold ground. So it has changed its wording to reflect this view: Jiang Zemin said it was neither that human rights exceed sovereignty, nor that sovereignty exceeds human rights; only by having sovereignty can human rights be protected. No sovereignty, no human rights.

Nonetheless, this view still has problems. Who said "no sovereignty, no human rights?" Hong Kong prior to 1997 clearly displayed a typical instance wherein there were human rights but no sovereignty. The spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that a nation's problems should be resolved by that nation's people themselves. What does he mean by "resolved by that nation’s people themselves?" That relies on the establishment of a free, democratic system, the realization of the principle that sovereignty belongs to the people, and the guarantee that sovereignty is built upon human rights. Jiang Zemin said sovereignty protects human right, which clearly implies that it is not that human rights support sovereignty, but sovereignty supports human rights. The Chinese Communist authorities have completely fallen into self-contradiction while they publicly deny that human rights exceed sovereignty. In the meantime, they have no choice but to acknowledge it as well. Once again, the Communist Party has proven that it suffers from aphasia.

*Hu Ping is Editor-in-Chief at "Beijing Spring" magazine.

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