US Human Rights Leadership Debased

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[Issue Of Principle]

It is not simply a cliché that when the USA, as the sole remaining hegemonic super-power coughs, the rest of the world catches pneumonia.

The impact of US policies and actions on the world, for better and worse, has been most obvious since World War II, when the US replaced European countries as the dominant global power.

In the field of human rights and for Africans, the impact of US policies in the immediate post World War II period was, on balance, positive. It was US championing the cause of human rights in general and the practical Pan-African leadership and solidarity provided by principled African-American luminaries such as W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and Ralph Bunche and Black Churches in particular, that gave enormous impetus to and reinforced the struggles by Africans against European colonial imperialism.

The esteem with which Africans regarded African-American leaders in particular and the US in general during the post-War period up to the era of decolonization, has now, however, been eclipsed by a different attitude among politically conscious Africans. The change of attitude has been particularly pronounced during the Bush Administration, mostly because of the double standards the Administration has adopted on critical issues of principle on human rights and democracy and by the gap between what it preaches and what it does.

The Bush administration has dealt devastating blows to the US record of distinguished leadership in the fields of the rule of law, human rights and democracy, through both the cynical manipulation of phrases such as “human rights”, “democracy”, and “the rule of law” simply as political slogans without contents and by the use of Orwellian double-speak language or double standards when making pronouncements about human rights, the rule of law and democracy.

The magnitude of this sad and even tragic turn in history might be well appreciated when it is considered that in the second half of the twentieth century — following the devastation during World War II, no country did much more than the US to advance the cause of human rights through the rule of law. The distinguished tradition of American leadership can be traced to President Franklin Roosevelt’s championing of the principles of restraints on the use of force in international affairs; peace and freedoms from fear and want; respect for self-government and territorial sovereignty; and the rule of law as an anchor of human rights. All of these were neatly summed up in the Atlantic Charter of 14th August, 1942, which formed the basis of the UN Charter adopted in San Francisco on 26th June , 1945.

US leadership in the field of human rights flowered beautifully when under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the Commission on Human Rights fashioned from disparate perspectives the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly on 8th December, 1948. It was the set of principles and standards in the UDHR, which more than any document in history inspired colonized people to organize in order to assert their rights vis-à-vis European colonial imperialism. In fact, historical record shows that following World War II, US support for the self-determination of colonized people was more often sincere than not.

Although the US wavered in its leadership during the high-tide of the Cold War, it never quite arrogantly departed from the principles and standards of the UDHR, which are quite similar to the first 15 Amendments to the US Constitution’s. In fact, at the height of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy deployed human rights as a sword and shield with which to get the better of the Soviet Union. The approach was perhaps best exemplified by Kennedy’s inaugural speech when he pronounced that we must here on earth do ''Gods’ work'' and in his establishment and promotion of the Peace Corps.

After a brief interlude of abeyance, the torch of human rights was again held high by President Jimmy Carter. He made this clear from the outset of his Administration when he proclaimed in 1977 that human rights would constitute a cornerstone of US foreign policy. In Uganda, for example, President Carter’s foreign policy had a definite and practical impact during the grim period of Idi Amin’s military dictatorship. The stand taken by the Carter Administration made Ugandans feel that despite their suffering, they could rely on US solidarity. This helped give Ugandans a sense of hope and determination to organize against the military dictatorship.

But today, polls after polls have shown, rather sadly, that the perception of US in the larger world could not be starkly more different now than it was during the Administrations of Roosevelt, Kennedy and Carter. In Africa, the support provided by the Bush Administration to militarist dictators such as Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, both of whom have invaded their neighbors and dealt brutally with democratic opposition in their countries, has shown Africans that the US cannot be relied upon to support genuinely indigenous democratic forces. Similarly, the support for the military dictator of Pakistan, President Pervez Musharaff, must signal to democratic forces in that country that they are more or less alone in the efforts to bring about democratization in the country.

With such a record of supporting anti-democratic individuals and forces, the sweet preaching that members of the Bush Administration engage in from time to time can scarcely be taken seriously. Hence, when recently, during an official visit to Russia, US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, pledged support for human rights activists in Moscow, and accused President Vladimir Putin of rolling back democracy and trampling rights; although the sermon sounded quite well, it rang rather hollow when measured against practice. Similarly, when Secretary Rice told the activists she wanted to support indigenous organizations to fight the violations of constitutional and human rights and the stifling of democracy by an authoritarian regime, the speech, which should have been music to the ears of those involved in the struggle for human rights and democracy was more or less like a poisoned chalice.

Indeed, for most serious democracy and human rights activists, such a speech is not taken seriously, partly because of the Bush Administration’s record in foreign affairs and partly because of what it has done domestically. A few examples will suffice to illustrate the point.

At home, the administration has fostered a regime of fear under the amorphous pretext of “fighting terrorism”, which it has used to make a telling mockery of the rule of law. The  various draconian measures against the doctrine of habeas corpus, which has traditionally anchored human rights and served as a bulwark against tyranny, tell us more than sermons what the Administration’s attitude is about the rule of law. Fortunately, because of the strength and the independence of the judiciary in the US, the impact of the various measures against the rule of law have had rather minimum impact on the enjoyment of human rights in the country.

In the domains of international rule of law and human rights, the Bush Administration’s stand has equally betrayed the distinguished tradition of US leadership in world affairs. From the distain of the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocols on global warming, through efforts not to apply the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to the use of rendition—illegal kidnapping and detention of suspected “terrorists”—the Bush Administration has shown by example that it is not serious about issues of ethical principle in foreign affairs.

Tragically, a number of dictators, not least in Africa, have emulated the Administration’s approach to opponents and have gained confidence that even if they run rough shod over ethical principle of the rule of law and silence dissenting democratic voices and activists, as long as they demonstrate loyalty to the US in its “war against terrorism”, the US would not speak up. It is this demonstrative impact of current US policies at home and abroad that has had chilling repercussions for human rights and democratic pluralism in the rest of the world.

If the US is to redeem it distinguished tradition of leadership in human rights and the rule of law, it is doubtful it can do so by simply preaching in the manner of the Pharisees. It can do so only by being true to its ideals. The words of Eleanor Roosevelt, spoken at Brandies University on December 17, 1954, should provide a compass. She said that while the US did lead in military and economic strength, it also had to lead in: knowing what the values of the country were; what the things its citizens believed in; and to show that they were willing to live up to these values. This way, she added, the US could help itself and at the same time help the world.

With the presidential elections next year, US citizens have a great opportunity to elect a leader who will reaffirm the US tradition of leadership in the fields of human rights and the rule of law, by holding high the torch of practical idealism. There is little doubt that the US will not only improve its tarnished image but also inspire the rest of the world for the better, if its policies and actions are in consonance with the vaunted values the country is traditionally known to stand for.

Black Star News columnist Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Executive-Director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. His column appears bi-weekly online and in the newspaper.

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