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Human Rights and the Arrogance of Power

International policy statements sometimes attract attention because they deal with serious matters, such as human rights, concerning which an important speech was made to the UN Security Council on April 18 by US Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Ambassador Haley declared that “When a state begins to systematically violate human rights, it is a sign, it is a red flag, it’s a blaring siren – one of the clearest possible indicators that instability and violence may follow and spill across borders.” She singled out Burma, Cuba, Burundi, Iran, North Korea and Syria for censure and urged the nations of the world to adopt a policy of “standing for human rights before the absence of human rights forces us to react.”

So it seems that the United States wishes to lead the world in penalizing countries judged guilty of violating human rights, which is a principled and admirable stance.

It is appalling that so many countries have no “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” as laid down in the UN Charter and quoted poignantly by Ambassador Haley. And one most effective action that human rights-abiding governments could take to ensure that offending countries would cease their hideous abuses against their citizens would be to end all cooperation with them because, as she observed, “It’s past time that we dedicate ourselves to promoting peace, security, and human rights.”

We must agree with Ambassador Haley, because it is indeed “past time” that the United States dedicated itself to promoting peace. Perhaps it has been recognized that the United States failed to do that by invading Iraq, blitzing Libya, and engaging in its longest-ever war, still being waged in Afghanistan.  In addition to killing many thousands of innocent people these conflicts created millions of refugees, while radicalizing citizens of all strata and resulting in expansion of Islamic State terrorism.

Then Ambassador Haley rightly warned that “if this Council fails to take human rights violations and abuses seriously, they can escalate into real threats to international peace and security,” and we must hope that this message struck home around the world.

Many countries are guilty of human rights violations, as documented in the US State Department’s Human Rights Report of March 3, but it was intriguing that, contrary to long-established custom, the Secretary of State, Mr Rex Tillerson, did not present the report in person in spite of Ambassador Haley’s emphasis on the importance of “standing for human rights” and his declaration that “our values are our interests when it comes to human rights.”

But when the Report is examined in detail it is obvious why Secretary Tillerson was reluctant to enthuse about his Department’s findings, because some of them don’t fit in with public pronouncements concerning the essentiality of human rights in all countries.

One inconsistency concerns Turkey whose President Erdogan recently won a referendum granting him almost total power. The first head of state to congratulate him was President Trump “shortly after international monitors delivered a harsh verdict on the referendum on constitutional changes. They found that the opposition campaign had been restricted and media coverage was imbalanced, and that the electoral authority had unfairly changed the rules after polls had opened.”  Further, Mr Trump’s State Department reported that “multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech” while “the government continued to prosecute at least one judge and four prosecutors involved in pursuing charges in connection with a major corruption scandal in 2013 that involved then prime minister Erdogan, his children, and close political advisors and business associates.”

Other than Mr Trump, not many heads of state congratulated Erdogan, but one who did was King Salman of Saudi Arabia where violations of human rights include “citizens’ lack of the ability and legal means to choose their government; restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and pervasive gender discrimination and lack of equal rights that affected most aspects of women’s lives.” This oppressive dictatorship is valued by Washington for “playing an important leadership role in working toward a peaceful and prosperous future for the region,” while being “the United States’ largest foreign military sales customer, with nearly $100 billion in active cases.”

Saudi Arabia enjoys “close friendship and cooperation” with the United States although it is recorded by the State Department that “civil law does not protect human rights, including freedom of speech and the press,” while Ambassador Haley declares that “When a state begins to systematically violate human rights, it is a sign, it is a red flag, it’s a blaring siren . . . ”

Then there is another valued ally of the United States, Bahrain, whose king is also an autocrat with “the power to amend the constitution and to propose, ratify, and promulgate laws.” His penal code specifies penalties of “no less than one year and no more than seven years in prison, plus a fine, for anyone who ‘offends the monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain’.”   His country “plays a key role in regional security architecture and is a vital US partner in defence initiatives” as the base for the US Navy’s nuclear-armed Fifth Fleet which demonstrates US military power in the Persian Gulf.

The State Department records reports of “torture, abuse, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” in Bahrain, while “societal discrimination continued against the Shia population, as did other forms of discrimination based on gender, religion, and nationality.”  These are exactly the sort of tyrannical human rights’ abuses denounced so vehemently by Ambassador Haley who described the United States as “the moral conscience of the world.”

There are complications, however, in ordering Bahrain’s ruler to cease torture and other inhuman punishment because, as Bloomberg reported, there were two related developments on March 29. First, the commander US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, told a Congressional Committee that “foreign arms sales to allies shouldn’t be burdened with preconditions tied to human rights because they could damage military-to-military ties” and singled out Bahrain as an example.  Then “the State Department told Congress it backs the sale of 19 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters to Bahrain [for $2.7 billion] without preconditions on improved human rights previously demanded by the Obama administration.”

And suddenly the country with “the moral conscience of the world” looks a trifle off-balance, because you (as an individual, a nation or an international organization) can’t have it both ways.  Either you condemn human rights abuses totally and unconditionally, or you accept them in like manner.  It is a moral travesty to accept a little bit of torture or a morsel of gender discrimination.  For example, how much torture is permissible?

Two shrieks or three?

It should be heart-warming to hear the ambassador of the United States to the United Nations  delivering ethical lectures in the Security Council about how other countries should behave in regard to human rights. But it isn’t much good preaching about human rights and then embracing a policy conveying the message that if a country has “strong military ties” with the United States then it is of no consequence if it persists in “torture, abuse, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” of its citizens. It is bizarre that that any such country can continue to enjoy “close friendship and cooperation” with the United States

This is an in-your-face example of the arrogance of power. And the likes of General Votel, who declares that “foreign arms sales to allies shouldn’t be burdened with preconditions tied to human rights because they could damage military-to-military ties,” personify that swaggering vanity.  He and his ilk will prosper, while the country with “the moral conscience of the world” makes money and extends its power by supporting dictators who exercise “discrimination based on gender, religion, and nationality.”  Spare us the humbug.

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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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