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Human rights: An American weapon

January 24, 2014 at 11:42 am

The US has sought to impose its philosophy, lifestyle and culture on the world ever since it became a “superpower” politically, economically, militarily and technologically after World War Two. It still claims to represent “the free world” due to its liberal values which glorify freedom, individualism and the market.

As democratic and human rights values spread after WWII, some of which were included in the UN Charter of 1945 signed by 51 countries, they gained an international flavour with the publication of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. This is regarded as an important development emphasising the development of nations, people, countries and groups, and highlights the importance of human rights and the need for states to respect them.

Around 100 international agreements have branched out from the UDHR which form the basis of human rights laws and conventions. These took on a new importance during the Cold War between the democratic West and Communist/Socialist  East.

If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the fruit of the spread of democratic ideas after the defeat of fascism and Nazism, as noted in the UN Charter seven times, then it was done through an initiative by some Latin American countries and a huge diplomatic effort, not least by Lebanese diplomat Charles Malik. In stark contrast, the Declaration did not receive much notable attention from the US or western Europe; socialist countries had reservations about it as well. When it did eventually start to pay attention to human rights, the US used them as a means to combat the spread of the socialist system, especially in the fifties and sixties as Washington highlighted the importance of individual rights as opposed to the Soviet Union’s insistence on collective rights. The US also gave priority to civil and political rights over economic, social and cultural rights. This caused much conflict globally.

During the Kennedy presidency, think-tanks started to emerge which expressed the interests of the military industrial complex to launch an intellectual attack against the socialist bloc based on building bridges between cultures. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B Johnson said that they would be bridges over which goods, ideas and life styles will cross to infiltrate the socialist camp, which seemed impenetrable from the outside but was actually weak on the inside.

Washington did not hesitate to impose its own diplomatic vision of human rights through propaganda and politics over many years. The 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, attended by 33 European countries as well as Canada and the United States adopted the principle of jus cogen in international law, providing basic fundamentals from which no deviation is allowed. Furthermore, the importance of individual, civil and political rights were stressed, with hints towards collective, economic, social and cultural rights. This meant that that which is mentioned in the UN Charter in terms of human rights was elevated to a higher level binding in international  affairs. This spearheaded US President Jimmy Carter’s policies as well as those of President Ronald Reagan.

The US not hesitate to use all means necessary to achieve its goals, including utilising the UN Security Council and General Assembly, especially after the weakness and dissolution of the Soviet bloc. It has also resorted to sanctions as a weapon in international affairs. Some governments traded Washington’s acceptance of their internal situation, including US silence on human rights abuses, in return for economic interests, military bases, arms, preferential deals and other benefits and privileges. 

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) seeks to put pressure on countries which violate human rights and requires them to adhere to international standards; that’s the positive side. However, this has been exploited by Washington for selfish reasons with the result that a negative mention in the annual US report to the UNHRC would at one time have been sufficient to condemn a country. That is no longer always the case.

Due to Washington’s power and international weight, reports by the US State Department had an impact on the Human Rights Council, and there were occasional leaks that made their way to international organisations, including those with a lot of credibility, and were used as a means of blackmail and political bartering. This weapon has also used against Washington. I remember  back in the nineties when the interior minister of an Arab state scolded me for a campaign launched against his country. All I did was show him a report by the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, which covered 22 Arab countries, as well as a special chapter on the policies and approach of the United States which supported Israel and its racist practices in Palestine. In addition, the report also covered America’s continued occupation of Arab countries and denial of their full rights, particularly the right to decide their own fate, not to mention the US position on the concept of “international terrorism” which is used in a selective and hypocritical manner.

Now Russia is trying to change the rules of the game. It is revealing US human rights violations and using this as a weapon, breaking Washington’s near-monopoly on its use. The context is slightly different to that in play during the Cold War but its moral aspect is still important. I have seen a report issued by the Russian foreign ministry called “The state of human rights in the United States”; it lists a number of violations during the past year and covers freedom, rights, racial and ethnic discrimination, torture and extra-judicial killing (especially outside the US), poor treatment of prisoners, the death penalty and Washington’s refusal to ratify several international agreements on human rights, such as the Convention on the Prevention of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child Right as well as agreements on labour and immigrants. In terms of freedoms, the report monitored violations against 80 journalists who were beaten by police and reported the phenomenon of abandoning journalists in difficulties abroad because of their political views and their criticism of the US administration.

The Russian report looks as if it is based on several sources, including information from human rights and international organisations. It will ignite debate and controversy over the human rights situation in the United States in particular, and around the world in general. As such, it reflects the positive side of globalisation, even if has a self-serving motive behind its publication. Moscow is accused of human rights violations and is now trying to accuse Washington of the same thing as a part of the wider conflict of the Game of Nations post-Cold War. Thus has the accuser become the accused, backed up by a lot of damning evidence.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.