An Imperfect Union, Seeking a More Perfect World

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Note: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.

Beijing did not shield its displeasure at the annual International Religious Freedom Report, which the State Department unveiled in August and which faulted China for detaining thousands of people because of their religious beliefs. Xinhua, a Chinese state-owned media outlet, referred to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, before noting that “despite its self-proclaimed role as the world's human rights champion, the fact is the world's sole superpower is far from becoming a respected role model in this regard.”

Xinhua is correct when it notes that the United States is far from a perfect democracy. But it is incorrect to make the argument that invariably follows from this point: that because of its flaws, the United States has no business in promoting human rights abroad. This view is articulated not only by Chinese diplomats and media outlets, but also by some Americans who believe we ought to turn our focus inward. It is perhaps the most compelling critique of U.S. human rights promotion.

The argument relies on the premise that countries with imperfect human rights records should not speak up about human rights abuses in other countries. Yet this premise is fundamentally flawed. When a country advocates on behalf of a value, the legitimacy of that advocacy comes from the value itself. For example, when Beijing criticizes the United States for racial inequality in our criminal justice system—as it did in a report issued this year, after the State Department gave its own report on human rights in China—it is not sufficient for our response to merely point back to China’s mistreatment of ethnic and religious minorities. To do so would be to commit an elementary error in logic, the ad hominem fallacy. Arguments must be judged by their merits, not by their proponents.

This recognition is not just a matter of formal logic. Human beings are flawed creatures, and the nations we lead and inhabit are similarly flawed. If we were justified in discarding views based on the people or nations that espouse them, then we would also be justified in disregarding all forms of activism and advocacy. It would mean that so long as no perfect nation existed, none would be right to speak up on behalf of human rights. 

That is where Xinhua’s reasoning leads. The Chinese government seems to want a world in which no country can comment on or interfere in the affairs of any other. But this is the kind of world that looks past discrimination, war crimes, and genocide. The international community rejected this view after the Holocaust, when it signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It did so again in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, embracing the concept of the “Responsibility to Protect” people threatened by gross human rights violations.

The truth is that it can feel uncomfortable to speak up about injustice around the world when it exists here in the United States. But that discomfort should not keep us silent. It should instead push us to improve our own country—to recommit ourselves to advancing human rights at home and abroad.