The Screaming Pen

Providing Global Insight, Context, and Perspective

Still the Shining City on a Hill?

Human Rights in the Pursuit of Terrorists

For twenty years after 1979, the U.S. Congress annually passed “Most Favored Nation status” with China. The legislation gave China access to the American market – and vice versa – under the same preferential tariff regime as many other counties. Chinese and U.S. business groups lobbied hard for its approval, and during the summer of 2000 they secured an even greater goal: passage of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR), which locks in MFN status for good and precludes the need for yearly review of U.S.-trade relations with China.

Because the PNTR debate was fought largely between two groups, its codification crystallized an important development in U.S.-China relations. Groups critical of China, many of which railed about human rights, used the MFN debate each year to shed light on China’s treatment of political prisoners, ethnic minorities, and Falun Gong members. PNTR’s passage, however, was a clear victory for business. Witness Chinese President Hu Jintao’s April visit to America that focused almost entirely on trade and security problems like Iran and North Korea. Business and war may disturb ties, but bickering over rights between the two powers will not: tellingly, mention of human rights is found reluctantly only after phrases like “also on the agenda.”


Doing America Few Favors

Indeed, advocates for human rights must be a grim lot these days. From a United Nations report calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, the Abu Ghraib scandal, rumors of secret detention facilities, handing terror suspects to other countries for torture, and extrajudicial renditions, the United States has seen its image as the international standard-bearer of human rights and justice slip away.

The “war on terror,” say America’s leaders, will last for many years, even decades. This is because an individual’s ability to attack the country will remain no matter what political developments occur. As such, it is worth asking whether – with no end in sight – the persistence of the conflict should cause the United States to turn its back on the ideals that won the support of people everywhere for decades, and therefore helped achieve foreign policy objectives that may have otherwise been unattainable.

True, the nature of terrorism poses new challenges that will require novel solutions. The catastrophic potential of terrorist attacks will sometimes require harsh preventative measures and there are certainly terrorists (among an unknown number of innocents, as evidenced by the fact that the Pentagon has released some of the detainees) in Gitmo. The way out of these challenges is not easy or obvious; yet it is vital that America’s leaders make a vigorous effort to stop terrorist attacks in a manner that is more consistent with the country’s professed values. A solid first step would be legal proceedings against those being held at Guantanamo and closure of the prison camp there. Fortunately, President Bush himself announced such sentiments in early May.

The Stakes are High

Like it or not, if America cannot better handle the balance other peoples will continue to find America morally indistinguishable from less savory characters like Chavez, Ahmadinejad and Putin. Therefore, leading by example – while immensely difficult – is thoroughly essential because U.S. behavior has implications not only for potential terrorists but everyone living under brutal regimes that benefit from a lax international human rights environment. Demonstrating proper behavior is in fact the only way to advance the cause, as aggressive promotion of rights in other countries can help justify misguided movements (see “neocon”) and cannot be allowed to engender conflict among major powers (i.e. U.S.-China relations). It’s time for the country to overcome the conservative-liberal divide and recognize that upholding human rights at home is in the U.S. interest; if it doesn’t, anti-Americanism will become endemic, American soft-power weakened, and U.S. influence in the world debilitated.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

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May 30, 2006 Posted by | Author: DML, China, Human Rights, International Relations, Politics, The War on Terror, United States | 5 Comments

Sin Padre, Thy Wither

How Venezuela, Iran, China, and Russia are Undermining Human Rights Everywhere

If you’re ever feeling overly happy and want to come down a bit, take a survey of the human condition around the world. Among a sea of rights violators in Africa, you’ll find the worst cases in Darfur, the D.R. Congo, Somalia, Eritrea, and Cote d’Ivoire. Robert Mugabe is systematically destroying Zimbabwe. The Middle East has long seen gross injustice and political repression in Syria, Iran, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Turkey has its Kurdish problem, which flares up from time to time when it feels Europe slipping away. To the north, Russia fights endlessly in the Caucuses and forces compulsory military service on its poor, dehumanizing a generation of young men with beatings and forced labor. Political opponents are jailed and attacked. Andijan and the “Stans” of Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, and North Korea. Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela, the favelas of Brazil and the poverty of Bolivia and Peru. The folks at Human Rights Watch are depressingly busy.

Depends on How You Look at It

Yet in spite of this dispiriting image and the gruesome confrontations between riot police and protesters caught on tape for everyone see, the news is not all disheartening. To be sure, most of these places were never free, open, or safe. It is only because of modern communication and the existence of vociferous groups like Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders that one can list the egregious examples above. And there are also examples of places where life has improved: autocratic dictators are out in Indonesia, the Philippines, Chile, South Korea, Spain, parts of eastern Europe, and the states of the former Yugoslavia. Something may finally be done about Darfur. And perhaps most importantly, great power war has been avoided for sixty years.


Sportily Taking in a Soccer Match

So between the good news and the bad, what the world needs is a state or organization exerting pressure on countries to uphold human rights. Near-inherent anti-Americanism means that most of the world no longer views the United States as this model, with consequences for both equality and U.S. objectives of every stripe. The United Nations is a misunderstood body that is limited here because it is merely a collection of self-interested states. Europe espouses many of the right ideals but is mostly focused on itself, often has an uncomplicated view of the world, and has its own internal conflicts to settle.

What the world does not need is a provider of money and material through which outcast regimes can sustain themselves in the face of international pressure. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was this source and when it broke apart Syria, Cuba, and other former dependents found it far harder to resist outside pressure. Desiccation of patronage led to the signing of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, largely because of a trickle down effect: without Soviet support Syria couldn’t continue to fund Palestinian resistance on par with American aid to Israel. Syria is weak now for this reason; without oil so too would be Iran and other former Soviet clients.

With Friends Like These

But today there is oil, and there are several antagonists capitalizing on anti-Americanism and spreading their largesse with debilitating effects for human rights. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is using oil profits to destroy institutions within his own country, promote populist movements (see the election of Evo Morales), and reportedly to fund resistance in Colombia. Fidel Castro has found renewed sustenance through friendship with Chavez. Iran – crucially demonstrating that the Iranian issue encompasses more than just the nuclear dispute – is channeling aid to Hamas in Palestine and trying to build ties from Indonesia to Venezuela. In an effort to isolate Taiwan, China is active in Africa (Zimbabwe, Sudan), Asia (North Korea, Burma), and to a lesser degree Latin America. In unison with Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China helps prop up Central Asian dictators.

Patronage from all of these states allows rights violators to defy international norms while finding support elsewhere and thus avoiding isolation. Minatory characters everywhere find it easy to become eloquent, usurp valid arguments, and draw more reasonable people to their side (see Ahmadinejad’s letter to George Bush). Without a paragon of virtue the debate becomes muddled, the message unconvincing, and gross human rights violations overshadowed.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

May 30, 2006 Posted by | Africa, Author: DML, China, Darfur, Foreign Aid, Hamas, Human Rights, Iran, Israel, Korea, Middle East, Oil, Palestine, Politics, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United States, Venezuela | 1 Comment