The changing ground of human rights

Updated: 2012-12-14 08:04

(China Daily)

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Editor's note: Experts from across the world were invited to present papers at the Fifth Beijing Forum on Human Rights, which focused on Science and Technology, Environment and Human Rights, in Beijing from Dec 12 to 14. Excerpts from some of experts' papers follow:

Is free Net a promotion or threat to rights?

Today one in three Internet users compares the right to free Internet access with the need for fresh air, water and food. Any restriction on accessing the world's information network is taken as deprivation of voting right or violation of the freedom of speech.

However, I am more worried about the challenges the Internet poses, firstly, to the rights of children, human honor and dignity. A person, especially a child, remains unprotected in the modern global network and can be a victim of criminals, swindlers, preachers of hate, pedophiles, vandals, terrorists, dishonorable journalists and/or spin doctors that specialize in black PR; influence of advertising on the subconscious; and dissemination of pornographic videos. Protecting honesty and dignity in these days of indecent online media is not at all easy and sometimes even impossible because of the lack of clear protection mechanisms and legal liability.

I believe that protecting children from the Internet is an urgent need, which can be addressed only if a government uses a comprehensive approach to manage the Internet. Examples of national policies for creating a safe environment on the Web include practices in France, England and Canada, which have established legal responsibility systems; the practice in Italy, where the Association of Safe Internet Providers has a wide scope of operations, and the practice in Russia, where the Safe Internet program has been in place at the national level with different versions for government institutions and home Internet users.

A particular threat that emerges when cyberspace is used to carry out acts of terrorism, destabilize the public order in countries and undermine their sovereignty and independence, or when one country exploits the Internet in a cyber war against another nation. Also dangerous is the creation of software that spread information illegally on the Internet without any control over its sources and contents - for example, an "underground Internet".

It is a policy of double standard that exercises stringent control over free Internet access for "domestic use" and calls for free unlimited Internet for "exports" to other countries. But a country is indeed using double standard if its government advocates freedom of public access to cyberspace in other countries and exercises total control over people in its own country and collects their personal information without their consent.

The fight for the control over the Internet under the pretext of promoting freedom of information veils the fight for the control over natural and human resources, markets and money.

This situation calls for controlling the spread of information in cyberspace and setting up an international legal framework to regulate information-related activities.

I believe the problem can be solved only if the United Nations establishes an international agency that, with the consent of all member states, would devise an international legal framework to regulate relations in cyberspace. Therefore, we need to support the initiative of countries to establish such an international legal framework under the aegis of the UN to regulate information activities on the Internet.

Nina Karpachova is a member of the board of the European Ombudsman Institute, and vice-president of the Union of Lawyers of Ukraine.

Modernization not about Western concepts

Technological innovation is part of societies' modernization. By embracing new technologies, life can become more humane, efficient and healthy.

However, there also is a possible downside to technological innovation. Modernization as a process of technological advancement is often linked to modernity, that is, introduction of Western liberal value orientation. In other words, when technological innovations are introduced, the presence of Western liberal values or the need to incorporate them is often assumed.

According to this view, therefore, modernization requires or causes human rights to be interpreted and applied in a Western manner. But embracing modernization in the technological sense does not and should not require people in Africa and Asia to give up their indigenous human rights concepts.

Embracing modern technology and retaining existing social institutions will lead to "win-win" situations. Take, for example, combating HIV/AIDS in Africa. The latest insights and innovations available in Western biomedicine are being used there to secure the right to health and the right to life of those who have contracted the disease or are at risk of contracting it.

The application of these latest scientific insights is often hampered by the fact that the experts involved view African societies through a modernist lens. They assume that Africans adhere to the same liberal values as Western people do, or at least should adhere to them, and therefore, they tend to ignore the local context in which these innovations should be shaped. Consequently, attempts to prevent and combat HIV/AIDS are far less effective than they could be if this context would be taken as a point of departure.

Tom Zwart is a professor at School of Law of Utrecht University, the Netherlands, and director of the Netherlands School Human Rights Research.

Biotechnology a challenge to human rights

Biotechnology, especially genetic testing and DNA sequencing, has given rise to a series of ethical issues that need urgent attention: the conflict between a woman's right to abortion and a fetus' right to life; the conflict between the right of people with incurable diseases to choose euthanasia to die with dignity and the oath doctors take to treat and save patients; the conflict between the right of every citizen to keep their personal information secret and the right of scientists to share research data and information; the conflict between patients' right to receive genetically modified organisms and human genes and cells and the right of the natural owners of these organisms, genes and cells; and the conflict between the great medical breakthrough provided by human embryonic stem cells and the practice of depriving embryos the right to life.

Biotechnology offers human beings huge profits and, at the same time, is profoundly influencing their recognition of themselves and their circumstances.

As Bertrand Russell said, what we know is quite few and reasonability is limited; the more people know through reasonability, the more they do not know. No matter how biotechnology is developed, it will only solve the reality problem, namely, the question of "what". Science cannot provide any answer to the issue of values.

The more biotechnology develops, the more prominent the question of "what is it" will become. Human rights, or human dignity as the core of modern legal values, are the fundamental norms to tell good from evil.

In the past 200 years, attracted by the spirit of human rights, people signed social agreements to control the barbaric acts of governments, making the modern law-based government possible. Today, facing the unscrupulousness of bioscience, human beings should admit their own vulnerability and reach new agreements with science through global efforts in order to march forward confidently under the restraint of limited reasonability.

Qi Yanping is dean of Law School, Shandong University.

How can competing human rights be balanced?

The information age, characterized by the soaring spread of the Internet, on one hand, raises the awareness of human rights protection among the public - online judgments, public hearing videos and other legal materials facilitate people's access to the legal world and establish more channels for international judicial cooperation. On the other, it gives birth to unprecedented problems - the once peacefully coexisting rights become irreconcilable under certain situations today.

How to strike a fair balance between the competing human rights, such as the right to know (namely, the right to access information) and the right to not to be known (the right to personal data protection), the right to say (namely, the freedom of expression) and the right to privacy becomes an inevitable task confronting us.

Elisabeth Steiner is a judge at the European Court of Human Rights.

US trying to influence practice of rights

The United States' efforts to advance Internet freedom in China have hurt Sino-US relations. China believes the US' efforts could threaten its political security.

As far as Chinese domestic politics is concerned, the US' advocacy is deceptive and misleading, and could confuse some Chinese people into blindly believing in the American idea of Internet freedom and questioning the legal Internet regulation practiced by the Chinese government.

The US also pressures China by taking advantage of the Internet freedom issue, which provides activity space for some political forces and is not conducive to resolving basic social conflicts and social management issues in China. According to the 28th Statistical Report on Development of Internet in China issued by China Internet Network Information Center, by the end of July 2011, the number of micro blog users in China grew by a whopping 208.9 percent from the end of 2010, increasing from 63,110,000 to 195,000,000.

Micro blogs have become the Internet application mode with the fastest growth. Some experts say that the US domination of the right to freedom of speech on the Internet could influence or instigate emergency and mass incidents in China and thus destabilize the political order of Chinese society. Also, Internet hacking and encryption are becoming increasingly sophisticated, which could encourage political crimes in China.

Besides, the US' efforts to "spread" Internet freedom in China may impair the two countries' strategic mutual trust. The US says it wishes to deepen Sino-US cooperation, but it secretly supports anti-government forces in China and fans the flames of discontent by using the Internet in the hope of engineering a regime change. This practice will inevitably harm Sino-US cooperation and the possibility to establish long-term strategic mutual trust.

Moreover, the US is spreading the "China threat" theory through the Internet, which has also harmed Sino-US relations. Using the right to freedom of speech on the Internet, the US has been influencing American citizens' perception of China. For example, in 1997 about 43 percent Americans saw China as a "threat" but today their number has grown to 58 percent. Similarly, 22 percent Americans considered China as a "superpower" in the economic and military fields in 1997 but today their number has increased to 46 percent.

A latest Internet poll shows that an increasing number of Americans believe China is becoming a potential enemy and the main competitor of the US. Given such public opinion, the US administration also considers China its main competitor and has adopted a policy to contain China's rise.

Luo Yanhua is a professor at the School of International Studies, Peking University.

The environment and human rights

The environment and human rights have been identified as essential and key parameters to human life in Kenya. Therefore, the two share a strong relationship.

Interestingly though, there are instances where human economic activities that seem to protect and even enhance human rights actually violate these same rights through environmental degradation. We shall examine these under three major areas: industry, mining and farming.

Industrial pollution has led to the enjoyment and violation of individual rights in equal measure. Take, for instance, the discharge of liquid wastes by industries into rivers. While manufacturing their products with the intention of meeting the needs of their consumers - which could be helping others to enjoy human rights - they pay little attention to the fact that the wastes being dumped into the rivers contain toxic materials which could be deadly for their potential consumers using the rivers' water.

It is the right of a human being to get whatever he/she wants at any cost as long he/she does not violate the rights of others. But it is a violation of the same rights if in the process of satisfying one person's (or group of people's) rights someone causes harm to others.

The process of mining is more related to human rights violation than other factors in today's world. Mining has been the cause of several human rights violation cases in recent history. When a mineral is discovered in a given area, the news is normally received with utmost joy as people and the government concentrate their energies in fantasizing how tantalizing the profits would be and how the lives of the concerned parties would change drastically for the better.

Farming can also disrupt the environment. When farmers engage in malpractices in farming, they actually harm the environment and jeopardize the process of securing food.

In Kenya, like in many other developing countries, there is need to strike a balance between the need to protect human rights through affirmative action, and the need to take proactive steps that ensure the environment is well taken care of. As Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai said: "I have seen rivers that were brown with silt become clean-flowing again ... The job is hardly over, but it no longer seems impossible."

I believe we can guard our human rights and improve the environment at the same time.

Bernard Kibet Kurgat is head of the Programme of Public Education and Training of Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

Disinformation in the age of information

Systematic interviews with ordinary people on the healthcare system in China during a recent trip (summer 2012) through the country revealed that all of them believe the situation has improved a lot in the last five to 10 years.

It is thus surprising that in its Annual Report 2010, Amnesty International criticized the Chinese government for the "lack of access to adequate healthcare" in the country. This criticism is voiced not only in the section on China, but also in the general overview of the situation in Asia, where China is singled out with regard to the topic. In Amnesty reports, such general criticism for the lack of access to healthcare is rare - most issues relating to healthcare are discrimination problems or deal with the condition of refugees or prisoners.

The only other countries where general access to healthcare was criticized were Afghanistan, the United States and Zimbabwe. The statistics for Zimbabwe might be problematic and, hence, the data presented in the report cannot tell us much. The criticism of Afghanistan is problematic, too, because it is not easy to provide adequate healthcare in a country experiencing armed insurgency.

The criticism of the US is justified, but that of China is not, because in 2008, a series of articles in The Lancet, a renowned medical journal, lauded China's recent progress in healthcare.

Only serious interdisciplinary research by human rights and medical experts, and competent statisticians can provide the necessary data for evaluating long-term and recent effort made by governments to provide adequate healthcare to their peoples.

Over the past decades, China has been the target of extreme Western criticism, especially in the field of human rights. Expediting solid research in this field and getting the results published in international academic journals is the only way of defending against ideologically motivated disinformation which has flourished in our so called "era of information".

Otto Kolbl is a researcher at the German Department of the Lausanne University, Switzerland.

Peaceful exploration and use of outer space

Manned space flight is a great way to explore outer space.

Thanks to the correct leadership and decision-making of the Chinese government, support of all Chinese people, energetic coordination among related sectors throughout China and the hard work and unselfish devotion of all the people in various research and development units of manned space flight engineering, China has made great achievements in manned space flight. The space flight program showcases China's economic and social development, and its outstanding contribution to exploration and utilization of outer space.

The manned space flight program has shown China's comprehensive science and technology development level, industrial and economic strength, and management capability. It has brought about rapid development of its high-tech enterprises, such as China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, and fostered world-class talents with high innovation capabilities.

Outer space is the common wealth of humankind, and peaceful development and use of space resources are its common pursuance. China has always followed the principle of peaceful development and use of space resources and would like to begin cooperation with other countries in manned space flight engineering. We believe that such cooperation will enhance human beings' exploration, discovery and development abilities, increase the countries' mutual understanding and trust, and make our world a more beautiful place.

Zhou Jianping is chief designer of China's manned space program.

Good policies protect Tibet's environment

Thanks to the use of the power of autonomy in regions with high concentration of ethnic groups and the central government's external incentive mechanism, China has safeguarded some major environmental rights of ethnic people. Some of the successful cases are worth promoting. For instance, the Tibet autonomous region has taken the lead among China's provinces and autonomous regions in launching a pilot project for giving awards for protection of pasture ecology, initiating a program for replacing firewood with less destructive fuels in rural areas throughout the region and helping 150,000 families of farmers and herdsmen to use clean methane energy.

So far, 21 ecological reserves, seven national forest parks, three geo-parks, one national level place of interest and 47 natural reserves of different levels and types have been established in Tibet over 34.5 percent of its total area, which is the highest percentage in the country's provinces and regions.

The forest cover in the region has increased from less than 1 percent when it was peacefully liberated to 11.91 percent now. The autonomous region also has more than 6 million hectares of wetlands under protection. Latest environment communiqus show that water and the atmosphere in Tibet are basically not polluted. Tibet is among the world's best natural environmental regions, and it has embarked on a sustainable development road with equal emphasis on economic development and ecological protection.

To build a basic ecological safety barrier for Tibet by 2030, the central government on March 2, 2009, approved the Program of Tibet on the Protection and Construction of the Ecological Safety Barrier (2008-2030), for which it plans to invest 15.5 billion yuan.

Han Xiaobing is a doctor of jurisprudence, vice-dean of Graduate School of Minzu University of China, and director of China Society for Human Rights Studies; and Shesrab Nimais vice-president of and professor and PhD supervisor at Minzu University of China, and executive director of China Society for Human Rights Studies.

(China Daily 12/14/2012 page9)