China is emphasizing "harmony" as an important concept for the development of human rights as it marks International Human Rights Day.
In the past two years China's top leaders have called for the building of a "harmonious society" at home, a "harmonious Asia" and a "harmonious world."
Chinese human rights experts believe that peace and security are invariably interlinked with human rights and the close relationship between a harmonious world and human rights can be a virtuous circle or a vicious spiral.
As Dong Yunhu, vice-president and secretary-general of the China Society for Human Rights Studies puts it in an era of globalization, "Harmony requires peace, security and a happy co-existence between different people, communities and nations."
Social harmony relies on justice and the right to development because both poverty and injustice were the roots of disharmony in the world, Dong says.
All disparities between nations, urban and rural areas and the rich and the poor could be attributed to neglect or ignorance of human rights, Dong said. The value of human rights was universal but the dynamics of its implementation varied in different countries.
"A country's human rights cause must be built upon the harmony of its internal social environment whereas the universal realization of human rights is impossible without the harmonious co-existence of all nations with different cultural, political and religious beliefs," Dong says.
Although the United Nations adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 40 years ago, Dong points out that uneven global development during those years has resulted in more uncertainties affecting world peace, development and harmony.
Not all people, however, agree with Dong and other Chinese human rights experts.
James Oliver Williams, a US professor of political science at the North Carolina State University, believes that the concept of harmony reflects "different ideas of rights."
For most western countries, he argues, the principles embodied in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights were considered the minimum rights that all individuals desire and deserve, regardless of their different political, cultural and religious backgrounds.
However, citing Asian values as contradictory to the western notion of universality, Williams says in Asian countries at large, "governments are keen to advocate cultural factors as playing a role in universal rights, acting on the principle that an individual's rights can conflict with the wider social harmony and stability."
In his view, unless an agreement is reached on these principles there would be little harmony on human rights among the major countries of the world. And the political systems that Williams sees as "non-democratic" are what he calls "a bigger impediment to human rights" than the cultural and social values system of a country.
But Dong disagrees and says, "If human rights were a vehicle then political liberties and socio-economic development are like the two wheels. The vehicle will overturn if they're unbalanced.
"A nation should not be engaged in the development of political power or liberties without considering its socio-economic development. If you go ahead there'll be social chaos and more human rights will be damaged as harmony is destroyed," Dong says.
"Human rights are abstract like the concept of fruit, which is a collective notion of an apple, pear or banana," Dong said. "But the United States just wants to push its ideal of human rights to the whole world as the standard of human rights fulfillment. It's like saying only a banana is a fruit but the apple and pear are not."
Education helps make human rights tangible and a way of life, according to Dong.
Education was for both government officials and ordinary people. For civilians they should be told their rights and duties whereas officeholders must be told from where their power is derived, he says.
Government officials must clearly understand that the power in their hands came from the people, who are the main body of power. Therefore their duty was to safeguard the people's rights rather than take it as privilege and abuse that power.
Whatever differences Dong and Williams hold dialogue is essential to mutual understanding about what human rights really means to different people.
(China Daily December 11, 2006)