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The quest for human rights

In the lead up to this year’s ASIL Annual Meeting, we asked some of our leading authors in international law to reflect on the most important new frontier in the area, what challenges it confronts, and how the field of international law is adapting to it. In this response, Lung-chu Chen, Professor of Law at New York Law School, considers a global quest for human rights.

Planet Earth is becoming ever more interconnected and complicated. In this context, the quest for common interests is imperative in dealing with problems in international law and global affairs. International cooperation at every level is essential in achieving minimum and optimum world order—and with it human dignity and human security. Nowhere is cooperation more vital than in the field of human rights. The concept of human rights is not confined to liberty for the individual. It is, in reality, an evolving concept shaped and shared via the collective political emancipation and participation of all people. In keeping with the letter and spirit of the UN Charter, a dynamic global bill of human rights has emerged and is undergoing continual renewal and development.

In the terminology of the New Haven School of international law, the cherished values embraced by conceptions of human rights fall into eight interrelated and universal categories: respect (freedom of choice, equality, and recognition), power (making and influencing community decisions), enlightenment (gathering, processing, and disseminating information and knowledge), well-being (safety, health, and comfort), wealth (production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services; control of resources), skill (acquisition and exercise of capabilities in vocations, professions, and the arts), affection (intimacy, friendship, loyalty, and positive sentiments), and rectitude (participation in forming and applying norms of responsible conduct). The sum of these value categories is termed human security.

Now more than ever human beings are at the center of international law. The remarkable development of contemporary human rights in the modern era can be conveniently summarized in terms of first-generation rights (civil and political rights), second-generation rights (economic, social, and cultural rights), and third-generation rights (human solidarity rights). The solidarity rights, with their emphasis on the aggregate, embrace, among other things, the right to self-determination, the right to development, the right to peace, and the right to a healthy and sustainable environment. These third-generation rights affect the very survival, prosperity, and well-being of humanity in general. Their achievement, by their nature, requires joint efforts at every level of the community.

The notion of third-generation solidarity rights is gaining acceptance, notwithstanding the challenges of a world which at times seems mired in group conflict. Take for example the right to development. The General Assembly, recalling the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development, eloquently pronounced in December 2015, in its resolution on The Right to Development, that “the right to development is an inalienable human right and that equality of opportunity for development is a prerogative both of nations and of individuals who make up nations, and that the individual is the central subject and beneficiary of development.”

Our thinking about international legal problems—even the most intractable ones—must be balanced with a regard for common interests and fundamental principles. Chief among these principles is the right to self-determination. As embodied in Article 1(2) of the Charter, a major purpose of the United Nations, is to “develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.” Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights afford a prominent place to the principle of self-determination.

The question of Taiwan’s international legal status is a matter of international concern. Taiwan, with its population of more than 23 million people, has evolved into a sovereign state since the San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan went into effect in 1952. Yet the PRC, which has never exercised control over Taiwan for a single day since its founding in 1949, continues to advance the claim that Taiwan is an integral part of China. The People’s Republic of China’s unceasing threats of the use of force against Taiwan encroach upon the right of the Taiwanese people to democratic self-governance and self-determination and are at odds with Taiwan’s status as an independent state and the conditions of peace and security. From 2008 to 2016, President Ma Ying-jeou, in emphasizing economic matters and cross-strait appeasement, failed to satisfy the Taiwanese people’s aspirations for sovereignty and self-determination, as evidenced by the emergence of the Sunflower Movement in 2014. As a consequence, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party dealt Ma’s Kuomintang a crushing defeat in the elections in November 2015 and January 2016. After many decades of de facto independence and the emergence of a vibrant democratic society and national culture, the Taiwanese people will never be content to see their country become the next Hong Kong under a flawed “one country, two systems” formula. The time has come for an internationally supervised plebiscite to be held on Taiwan’s future in full view of the world community. Any decision regarding Taiwan’s future must represent the genuine desires of the Taiwanese people in keeping with the principle of self-determination and the fundamental promises of the UN Charter. The quest for human rights is itself a quest for dignity and security for all individual persons, peoples, and for humankind as a whole.

Featured image: 辜振甫先生紀念圖書館, Da’an District, Taiwan. Photo by 蔡 嘉宇. CC0 via Unsplash.

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