Human rights and the US as global judge

WASHINGTON – Every year since 1976, The U.S. Department of State has published an extraordinarily detailed report on the state of human rights in the world. The latest, out in April, runs to more than 2 million words. Printed out from State’s website, it would run to more than 7,000 pages. The report covers 194 countries.

That’s every country in the world, except one: the United States.

Which gives rise to a few questions. Is the United States the one and only country on the planet with a perfect record of observing human rights, at home or in the countries where it wages war? If not, why does the government feel entitled to scrutinize the human rights practices of others? The report discovers blemishes even in countries that rarely come to mind in the context of human rights violations.

Switzerland, say, where in 2010 “police at times used excessive force, occasionally with impunity.” Or Canada, where “human rights problems included harassment of religious minorities, violence against women, and trafficking in persons.” Or the tiny South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, where American human rights checkers found “police violence, poor prison conditions, arrests without warrants, an extremely slow judicial process, government corruption, and violence and discrimination against women.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describes the annual report as “the most comprehensive record available of the condition of human rights around the world” and its attention to detail is indeed impressive. The Vanuatu chapter, for example, runs to almost 5,000 words, a lot considering there are only 220,000 inhabitants.

Given the effort that goes into the report, the only global assessment of human rights by a government (as opposed to private advocacy groups), one might assume that its findings play a major role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. But that is not the case. Where U.S. national interests are at stake, human rights violations are not necessarily obstacles to normal or even close relations.

“It’s easy to see the whole exercise as holier-than-thou preening that alienates even countries sympathetic to the cause,” wrote David Bosco, a professor at American University’s School of International Service, in a comment in Foreign Policy magazine. Among some countries, American criticism produces not alienation but red-hot fury.

Russia, heavily criticized in the latest U.S. report, shot back by describing the document as “obvious evidence of the use of ‘double standards’ and the politicization of human rights issues.” Russia’s foreign ministry pointed to “odious special prisons in Guantanamo and Bagram, still functioning despite promises to shut them down” as part of the reasons why the United States should clean its own house before criticizing others.

China, another target of American rebuke, has been so angered by the human rights reports that it began publishing an annual counter-report in 2000, focused solely on the United States. The latest came out just two days after the U.S. report which highlighted China’s intensifying crackdown on dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers.


China’s response: “The United States ignores its own severe human rights problems, ardently promoting its so-called ‘human rights diplomacy’, treating human rights as a political tool to vilify other countries and advance its own strategic interests.”

The Russo-Chinese-American sniping brought to mind the old adage that people in glass houses are well advised not to throw stones but China’s point about human rights as a political tool and the primacy of strategic interests merits closer attention than it tends to get in the United States.

In a just-published, thought-provoking book, Ideal Illusions – How the U.S. Government Co-Opted Human Rights, the historian James Peck argues that beginning in the 1970s, Washington began shaping human rights into an ideological weapon for reasons that had more to do with promoting America’s global reach than with furthering rights.

In the words of its introduction, the latest U.S. report provides “encyclopedic detail” on human rights for 2010, before the turmoil that has swept North Africa and the Middle East in the first three months of 2011. “However, our perspectives on many issues are now framed ” by these changes.

The changes provided yet more evidence that the universal values Washington officially espouses are not universally applied and that self-interest can trump human rights considerations. After mass protests swept from power the autocratic rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, other countries reacted to popular uprisings with violent repression. In Libya, the United States has sided militarily with the opposition. In Yemen, the United States called for the president to step down.

No such calls for the royal rulers of Bahrain, where pro-democracy demonstrations prompted the imposition of martial law, more than two dozen people were reported killed and 400 arrested in a ruthless crackdown supported by neighboring Saudi Arabia. Bahrain is of key importance to the U.S. – it’s the base of its Fifth Fleet which patrols vital oil shipping lanes.

“We hope that this (human rights) report will give comfort to the activists,” Clinton said on April 8.  To those in Bahrain probably not.

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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