Maximizing Human Potential: The Convergence of Development and Human Rights

The realization of human rights requires an effective government. An effective government is crucial for ensuring human rights, and this holds true in the Western context as well.

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Participants listen to a speech during the Forum on Global Human Rights Governance in Beijing, capital of China, June 14, 2023. (Xinhua/Li Xin)

It is widely known that in the mid-20th century, renowned British sociologist T.H. Marshall delivered a lecture entitled “citizenship and social class” at Cambridge University in 1949, which resulted in a significant publication in the field of human rights.

In his essay, Marshall proposed that three elements constitute citizenship, namely civil rights, political rights, and social rights. He believed that civil rights in western Europe were achieved in the 18th century, political rights in the 19th century, and social rights in the 20th century.

There is one point of Marshall’s definition that I agree with. Human rights are not inherent but possess a historical dimension. Human rights are realized at different historical stages.

The West first achieved economic rights, followed by social rights, and finally, the realization of “one person, one vote.” Even in countries like the United States, this right was only achieved in the 1960s. Therefore, human rights development follows a historical progression.

Development is a prerequisite for the realization of human rights. This principle applies both in the West and in East Asian societies. It is essential to focus on development first and then address rights gradually. We can observe this pattern in the history of East Asian countries like Japan.

They prioritized economic development before addressing issues of distribution and developing democratic systems. The same principle applies to the West. During the time of Karl Marx, he criticized capitalism, which later led to the estrangement of human beings and the emergence of the socialist movement.

This pattern can be seen in 20th-century Asia as well. A development pattern that prioritizes economic growth, followed by social welfare and then political rights, is often beneficial for the realization of both overall development and human rights. Disrupting this order could lead to complications.

It is worth noting that countries like the United States and some Western nations have advocated the idea of putting rights over development and have made it an ideological framework. They often attach additional conditions to their investments in developing countries, demanding respect for human rights, multiparty systems, and other prerequisites. However, these limitations have led to many developing countries being trapped in long-term poverty or a lack of development.

Human rights today are not strongly correlated with the Western model of democracy, specifically the “one person, one vote” concept. The world’s first social security program was implemented by Bismarck, the former chancellor of the German Empire, not through the democratic process. Moreover, very few countries have established these basic social systems after implementing universal suffrage. The United States serves as a good example. It is often regarded as a highly democratic country, it does not guarantee its citizens the highest level of rights. In reality, the United States is the wealthiest yet most unequal country in the world.

If we consider equality as a part of human rights, then the level of rights in the United States does not align with its level of development. Moreover, many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America gained independence after World War II and inherited Western systems of governance, including constitutionalism, multiparty systems and independent media. However, everyone focuses on politics and struggles for more economic benefits. This, in my opinion, is a significant political obstacle that hampers their long-term development.

The realization of human rights requires an effective government. An effective government is crucial for ensuring human rights, and this holds true in the Western context as well. For example, during Bismarck’s era, the German government was highly effective, and as a result, human rights were well-implemented. However, when a government becomes ineffective, human rights issues arise, regardless of the country’s economic prosperity. In this regard, the United States serves as an example.

China has lifted 800 million people out of absolute poverty, contributing 70 percent to global poverty alleviation efforts. An effective government plays a vital role in improving social services and achieving human rights. Over the years, progress in human rights has been closely linked to effective governance.

In conclusion, whether it is in European societies, North America, or East Asian societies, there are valuable experiences and profound lessons in the realization of human rights. It is worthy to summarize these best practices from various civilizations and countries to promote better human rights for more people.

Zheng Yongnian

Professor Zheng Yongnian, a distinguished academic, is the Presidential Chair Professor and Founding Director of The Institute for International Affairs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. With an impressive educational background from Peking University and Princeton University, he has held prominent positions such as former Director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore and former Research Director at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham.

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