Castles in the Air

The United Nations convened in Vienna a few weeks ago, and waltzed all over the subject of human rights. Amazingly, they came out with the right view—in spite of stiff opposition. Controversy raged over the philosophical question whether human rights are universal. On one side were mostly western nations, arguing that, yes, human rights are valid for every society. The opposing faction, made up of Third World nations, said no, human rights are merely relative; they depend on cultural, political, and religious traditions. Freedom of speech? Freedom of worship? Freedom from torture? These are merely Western notions, this group said. Westerners need to respect a diversity of opinion on such matters. Predictably, the nations arguing for relativism and diversity were all notorious human-rights abusers: Leading the faction was China, with the Tiananmen square massacre on its record. Joining China were the other communist countries—Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea—along with dictatorships like Syria, Iran, Burma, and the Sudan. What really worries these nations is that western foreign aid is often tied to demands for human-rights reforms. The relativism argument was a ploy to break that tie. You see, if human rights are relative, then violations of human rights cannot stand in the way of economic aid—and the west can no longer make foreign aid conditional on the behavior of despots who just want to practice a little torture or ethnic cleansing on their subjects. In other words, the message was: Just send the money and be quiet. To their credit, the western nations would have none of it. U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher expressed the classic western view eloquently: "We respect," he said, "the religious, social, and cultural characteristics that make each country unique. But we cannot let cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression." A final document from the conference declares unequivocally that human rights and freedom are universal. But I wonder if anyone was struck by how ironic it all was: This bold defense of universal human rights was a castle built in the air. You cannot have universal rights unless there is some universal truth applying to all nations—some transcendent moral standard prescribing what is right and wrong for all governments everywhere. But that is precisely what our western intellectual elites deny. For them, truth is man-made; values are an expression of shifting human needs. In fact, transcendent truths are seen as downright oppressive. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once wrote that belief in absolutes is a threat to democracy; that "relativism is the American way." What we saw in Vienna—tyrants and communist dictators flying the flag of cultural relativism—proves Schlesinger wrong. In the real world, it is relativism that undermines democracy: For it gives tyrants a free hand to do as they please. This is an argument you and I can make when people accuse Christians of being absolutists. Turn it into a compliment. Tell them that transcendent, absolute standards are the only way to restrain a tyrant, guarantee liberty, and promote universal human rights. This is one lesson we can all learn from the tinhorn tyrants of the world.


Chuck Colson


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