The US mangles its message

By Aryeh Neier


Tuesday, Dec 09, 2003,Page 9


One of the casualties of the war against terrorism -- or, rather, of the way the US is conducting the war -- is the US influence in promoting human rights worldwide. For the international human rights movement, this is a severe setback.

For more than a quarter of a century, ever since advancing human rights internationally became an explicit and avowed goal of foreign policy under then-president Jimmy Carter, US influence played a leading role in mitigating abuses. The consequences were most profound in what were the countries of the Soviet empire, but they extended to other regions as well.

Even where the US supported regimes that committed grave violations of rights -- or served as an apologist for them because other national interests took precedence -- it was often possible for the human rights movement to embarrass Washington by making it the surrogate villain for its clients' abuses. In the 1980s, this approach focused attention on abuses in conflict-ridden Central America and in former president Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which the Reagan administration favored in its struggle with its enemy, Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. It thus sometimes achieved indirectly what could not be done directly: the leveraging of US influence to promote human rights.

But the US' capacity to promote human rights in other countries has never been weaker than now. One reason is the tremendous increase in anti-Americanism since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This is largely due to a widespread perception of US arrogance. Despite (or because of) its insistence that all who are not with the US are against it, the Bush administration alienated many who previously counted themselves either as friends of the US or those who did not take sides.

At the same time, rising anti-Americanism preceded the US response to the terrorist attacks. The Bush team was outspoken in its hostility to a range of international agreements, from the Kyoto Treaty to reduce global warming to the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

Whatever goodwill towards the US that existed after Sept. 11 was quickly squandered. The Bush administration proclaimed a national security policy that insists that the US provide the only sustainable model for national success, and asserted its right to engage in unilateral, preemptive military strikes. It treated the UN Security Council with disdain in its rush to war in Iraq, invoking justifications that have not stood up to scrutiny. Since then, it has continued to insist that its arguments for invading Iraq are beyond criticism, while making a mess of the postwar administration by refusing to share authority.

The other major reason that the US is losing its effectiveness as a promoter of human rights is a widespread perception of hypocrisy. Even before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the US' image as a rights proponent had been tarnished, particularly in Europe, by its continued practice of capital punishment and, to a lesser degree, by its high incarceration rate -- approximately seven times the average in the EU's fifteen member countries.

Since September 2001, the cause for concern has grown dramatically. Much international attention has focused on the US Patriot Act's sanctioning of grave violations of civil liberties, and on the subsequent treatment of thousands of immigrants -- particularly south Asian Muslims -- who have faced secret detention and deportation. Above all, the rest of the world has looked on with alarm as the US holds more than 600 men at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba without access to family or counsel, and without prospect of an impartial hearing or trial.

In some instances, reports of rights violations in the US are exaggerated. But this is an inevitable consequence of the Bush administration's own haughty manner, with leading spokespersons, such as US Attorney General John Ashcroft, proclaiming their own righteousness in leading the effort to abrogate rights. Ashcroft is much less known internationally than US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but he is an even match in arousing dislike for the US among those who do know him.

Unfortunately, there is no ready substitute for the US as a force for advancing human rights internationally. The UN has been useful as a forum for adopting standards, but its machinery for seeking compliance with those standards is weak and has been badly compromised over the years by its failure to address grotesque abuses. The choice of Libya to chair the UN Human Rights Commission adds insult to injury. Some European governments have evolved strong human rights polices but, for a variety of reasons, they have been unable, individually or collectively, to exert the influence of the US.

Fortunately, while this is likely to remain true for the foreseeable future, the international human rights movement is not completely without resources. Its own prestige is high: groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are respected voices, to whom many governments feel obliged to pay attention.

There is also the promise of new institutions. In cases of extreme rights abuses, the chance that an international criminal tribunal will ultimately sit in judgment of those principally responsible is growing, thereby becoming a deterrent to would-be tyrants elsewhere. The US should take note.

Aryeh Neier is the president of the Open Society Institute and a founder of Human Rights Watch. His most recent book is Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights.


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