Monday 5 February 2007, by Human Rights Watch
What government is today’s champion of human rights? Washington’s potentially powerful voice no longer resonates after the US government’s use of detention without trial and interrogation by torture. The administration of President George W. Bush can still promote «democracy»—the word it uses to avoid raising the thorny subject of human rights—but it cannot credibly advocate rights that it flouts.
As America’s influence wanes, China’s waxes. Yet China is hardly a leader on human rights. Its growing economic power has enhanced its global influence, but it remains at best indifferent to the human rights practices of others. Unwilling to permit political pluralism or the rule of law at home, Beijing pretends that human rights are an internal affair when dealing with others abroad.
Russia, with its internal crackdown on independent voices and its dirty war in Chechnya, is going down the same perverse path. Its goal seems to be rebuilding a sphere of influence, especially among the nations of the former Soviet Union, even if that means embracing tyrants and murderers. Attempting to deflect criticism, President Vladimir Putin went so far as to dismiss human rights as «artificial ‘standards.’»
In this bleak environment, the European Union and the world’s emerging democracies could provide potential sources of human rights leadership. Each has made important contributions, but none is performing with the consistency or effectiveness needed to fill the leadership void.
With Washington’s voice diminished, the European Union today should be the strongest and most effective defender of human rights. It is founded on human rights principles and aspires to greatness in global affairs. But as the EU grapples with its enlarged membership, it is punching well below its weight. Its effort to achieve consensus among its diverse members has become so laborious that it yields a faint shadow of its potential. Union was supposed to enhance Europe’s influence. Instead, when it comes to promoting human rights, the whole has been less than the sum of its parts.
The democracies of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, some long established but many new and insecure, have begun to stand up for human rights in certain international dealings. Despite moments of promise, however, these governments have yet to cooperate across regional boundaries to find an effective common voice. Too often, they show greater allegiance to their regional blocs than to their human rights ideals, greater solidarity with neighboring dictators than with the people whose rights they have pledged to uphold. This tendency played a particularly pernicious role in the United Nations’ new Human Rights Council, which, far from improving on the discredited Commission on Human Rights, is threatening to repeat its disappointing ways, damaging the credibility of the entire UN system.
Every government these days seems to have a ready excuse for ignoring human rights. High-minded pronouncements occasionally ring from capitals or from ambassadors to the United Nations, but without the sustained follow-through needed for real leadership or change. Commitments are crabbed by caveats, engagements by escape clauses. Whether it is the lack of punitive consequences for Sudan’s criminal campaign in Darfur, the EU’s requirement of consensus before taking collective action, China’s proclaimed deference to national sovereignty, Washington’s preoccupation with Iraq and terrorism, or the developing world’s sacrifice of human rights principles to regional solidarity, the excuses for inaction overwhelm the imperative of decisive action.
The trend is bleak, but not irreversible. Whether Washington’s credibility gap is the temporary consequence of a particularly lawless administration or a long-term problem that will plague US standing for years depends in part on the new Congress—and whether it repudiates past abuses, presses for policy change, and seeks accountability for those responsible. No one pretends that such a turn-around will be easy when the architects of those abuses still control the executive branch, but it is essential if the United States is to redeem its tarnished reputation as a defender of human rights.
Leadership will also be needed to steer China and Russia toward more responsible behavior. To a large extent, Beijing and Moscow are the beneficiaries of low expectations. As long as few insist that they uphold international standards at home or abroad, they have little incentive to do so. Their new economic strength—China’s booming market, Russia’s energy reserves—only reinforces their ability to resist what meager pressure is directed their way while discouraging other governments from even exerting such pressure. Meanwhile, China’s growing foreign aid program creates new options for dictators who were previously dependent on those who insisted on human rights progress. Changing this dynamic depends on treating China and Russia like countries that aspire to global leadership—on insisting that they respect human rights in their treatment of their people and their peers, and holding them accountable if they fall short. They must be convinced that the route to influence and respect is not through callousness and thuggery but through responsible global citizenship. But they can hardly be expected to improve if other governments’ commitment to human rights is so cheaply sold for energy contracts or investment opportunities.
In Latin America, while a few countries have actively resisted human rights scrutiny, others have played an increasingly important role in promoting the application of international standards. Rare glimmers of hope can be found in Africa and Asia as well. The world needs a true Southern defender of human rights—a nation that rejects reflexive regionalism as an anachronism, a throwback to an era in which authoritarian governments joined hands to deflect human rights pressure. Today, as a growing number of governments stand for periodic election and speak for the aspirations of their people, they should be guided in their dealings with other governments by concern for the same rights that their own citizens embrace.
As for the European Union, many of its members recognize the paralysis and are searching for solutions. The European experiment has helped to bring peace and prosperity to those lucky enough to live inside its borders, but the EU is falling woefully short of its promise as a defender of rights around the world. Some needed changes might be relatively straightforward and swiftly implemented, such as modifying the flurry of rotating six-month presidencies to permit better accumulation of expertise and pursuit of long-term strategies. Some would require a change in tradition and bad habits, such as making EU institutions more transparent in order to minimize the gap between popular values and governmental action. Some changes are more fundamental, such as easing the requirement of unanimity for collective action in the sphere of human rights, to permit more timely and effective action around the world. All require EU governments to recognize that the status quo reflects an unacceptable abdication of leadership at a time when such leadership is in dangerously short supply.
The Human Rights Challenges
There is no shortage of serious challenges to human rights requiring more effective global leadership. As recently as September 2005, the governments of the world, in an historic declaration, embraced the doctrine of the responsibility to protect people facing mass atrocities. That commitment has rung hollow, however, as Darfur remains synonymous with mass murder, rape, and forcible displacement while the international community has managed little more than to produce reams of unimplemented UN resolutions. The usual political cowardice when it comes to military deployments to prevent mass murder accounts for some of the inaction, but there has also been far too little pressure on the Sudanese government to accept a real protection force. Predictably, Khartoum responds to such spinelessness with rejectionism. As this report went to press in November, there were signs that the Sudanese government might relent somewhat, partly in response to new and welcome pressure from China, but it remained far from clear that Khartoum would permit the deployment of troops with sufficient mandate and capacity to stop the killings or that it would end its own murderous policies.
Part of the problem is that the US invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration’s belated attempts to justify it as a humanitarian intervention made it easier for governments like Sudan’s to build opposition to any forceful effort to save the people of Darfur. Similarly, the promotion of democracy, a central human rights goal, risks being discredited by the administration’s equating it with regime change through military force.
Meanwhile, the importance of bringing mass murderers to justice is under attack, particularly in Uganda, where the murderers are trying to trade impunity for an end to their killing. Terrorism—the dangerous view that civilians can be legitimately murdered for political ends—remains acceptable in too many parts of the world. Iraq has degenerated into massive sectarian blood-letting, with civilians the principal victims. Ruthlessly repressive governments impose enormous cruelty on their people in North Korea, Burma, and Turkmenistan. Closed dictatorships persist in Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. China is slipping backwards. Russia and Egypt are cracking down on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Peru and Venezuela are considering similar steps. Iran and Ethiopia are silencing dissident voices. Uzbekistan is crushing dissent with new vigor while refusing to allow independent investigation of its May 2005 massacre in its eastern city of Andijan. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe would rather drive his country to ruin than tolerate a political opposition. Civil war is reigniting in Sri Lanka, intensifying in Afghanistan, continuing in Colombia, and threatening in Nigeria. Israel launched indiscriminate attacks in Lebanon during its war with Hezbollah, while Hezbollah often targeted Israeli cities with no military objective in sight.
The intergovernmental institution devoted to addressing these problems—the new UN Human Rights Council—has yet to show any real improvement over its ineffectual predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights. A central duty of the council is to pressure highly abusive governments to change. That requires a series of graduated steps that can lead to the deployment of human rights monitors or public condemnation. Yet in a mockery of the high principles of its founding, the council has so far failed to criticize any government other than Israel. The most it has managed to muster is an «interactive dialogue» with UN investigators and a planned «peer review,» forsaking its most powerful tool—collective condemnation by fellow governments. This failure threatens to call into question whether the United Nations is capable of upholding global human rights standards. Proponents of «coalitions of the willing»—the antithesis of the UN ideal of universal standards—will have gained the upper hand unless remedied by governments supportive of human rights
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