A Callous Solidarity
Resisting International Justice
The UN Human Rights Council
At the UN General Assembly
China: A Spoiler May Be Evolving
The Disastrous Bush Years
The Failure to Seize the Initiative
The EU and the UN Human Rights Council
Taking Back the Initiative
A New Direction in Washington
A government's respect for human rights must be measured not only by how it treats its own people but also by how it protects rights in its relations with other countries. As we commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the response of governments to the plight of people abroad is often anemic. Indeed, it is a sad fact that when it comes to this international protection of rights, the governments with the clearest vision and strategy are often those that seek to undermine enforcement. The days are past when one would look to Washington, Brussels, or other Western capitals for the initiative in intergovernmental discussions of human rights. Today, those conducting the most energetic diplomacy on human rights are likely to reside in such places as Algiers, Cairo, or Islamabad, with backing from Beijing and Moscow. The problem is that they are pushing in the wrong direction.
These human rights opponents defend the prerogative of governments to do what they want to their people. They hide behind the principles of sovereignty, non-interference, and Southern solidarity, but their real aim is to curb criticism of their own human rights abuses or those of their allies and friends. The activities of these "spoilers" have come to dominate intergovernmental discussions of human rights. For example, they have ended United Nations scrutiny of severe repression in Uzbekistan, Iran, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have mounted intense challenges to criticism of the Burmese military and possible prosecution of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. And they have deeply compromised the new UN Human Rights Council.
The reason for their success lies less in the attractiveness of their vision than in the often weak and inconsistent commitment of governments that traditionally stood for the defense of human rights. It is not as if the people of the world are suddenly enamored of dictatorship and repression. Their desire for basic rights remains unchanged, whether in the displaced persons camps of Darfur, the tribal areas of Pakistan, or the prisons of Egypt. Rather, the vigor of the anti-human rights campaign is, ironically, a testament to the power of the human rights ideal. The spoilers would hardly bother if the stigma of being labeled a human rights violator did not carry such sting.
Shifts in global power have emboldened spoiler governments in international forums to challenge human rights as a "Western" or "imperialist" imposition. The force of China's authoritarian example and the oil-fueled muscle of Russia have made it easier to reject human rights principles. The moral standing of a country like South Africa by virtue of its own dark past means that its challenge to the international human rights agenda is influential.
Nevertheless, governments that care about human rights worldwide retain enough clout to build a broad coalition to fight repression-if they are willing to use it. Instead, these governments have largely abandoned the field. Succumbing to competing interests and credibility problems of their own making, they have let themselves be outmaneuvered and sidelined in UN venues such as the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, and in the policy debates that shape multilateral diplomacy toward Burma, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, and other trouble spots.
For the United States, that withdrawal is the logical consequence of the Bush administration's decision to combat terrorism without regard to the basic rights not to be subjected to torture, "disappearance," or detention without trial. Against that backdrop, Washington's periodic efforts to discuss rights have been undercut by justifiable accusations of hypocrisy. Reversing that ugly record must be a first priority for the new administration of Barack Obama if the US government is to assume a credible leadership role on human rights.
Washington's frequent abdication has often forced the European Union to act on its own. Sometimes it has done so admirably, such as after the Russia-Georgia conflict, when its deployment of monitors eased tensions and helped protect civilians, or in eastern Chad, where it sent 3,300 troops as part of a UN civilian protection mission. But the EU did a poor job of projecting its influence more broadly, to places like Burma, Somalia, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. It often sought to avoid the political fallout of doing nothing by hiding behind a cumbersome EU decision-making process that favors inaction. Moreover, its frequent reluctance to stand up to the Bush administration in protest against abusive counterterrorism policies opened the EU to charges of double standards that poisoned the global debate on human rights and made it easier for spoilers to prevail.
The US and the EU are not the only ones promoting human rights abroad. Increasingly, some governments in Latin America, Africa, and Asia can be looked to for support on international rights initiatives. Those that stand out include Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uruguay in Latin America, and Botswana, Ghana, Liberia, and Zambia in Africa. In Asia, Japan and South Korea tend to be sympathetic to rights but are generally reluctant to take strong public positions.
Yet forced to act without the firm and consistent backing of the major Western democracies, these important voices are rarely able to mount on their own a major international diplomatic effort to address serious human rights abuses. Even the best-intentioned middle-sized powers cannot forge a solution to the world's most repressive situations without the partnership of the larger Western powers that still dominate the United Nations, have large and active diplomatic corps, and can deploy substantial military and economic resources.
So by default, those often setting the human rights agenda in international forums are opponents of human rights enforcement-governments of nations such as Algeria, China, Egypt, India, Pakistan, and Russia. They want to return to an era when the defense of human rights was left to the discretion of each government, and violations carried little international cost.
To resist that aspiration will take a determination that too often has been lacking. First, because the most effective human rights advocacy is by example, governments hoping to defend human rights elsewhere must commit themselves to respect those rights in their own conduct. As described in more detail below, that means, in the counterterrorism realm, a definitive end to such abuses as the use of torture and other coercive interrogation techniques, the "disappearance" of suspects in secret detention facilities, and the long-term detention of suspects without trial-as well as a willingness to speak out immediately if any government, including a close ally, resumes these practices. It also means addressing such persistent abuses as racism in the criminal justice system, mistreatment of migrants, or use of the death penalty.
Second, as in the case of any serious human rights violation, offenders must be held to account. For example, only by investigating, acknowledging, and repudiating the wrongdoing that has occurred, prosecuting serious crimes, and taking remedial steps to ensure that these abuses never recur, will Washington begin to build credibility as a government that practices what it preaches in the human rights realm.
Third, serious efforts must be undertaken to build a broad global coalition in support of human rights. In the case of the United States, it should seek to rejoin multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council and ratify key treaties such as those on women's and children's rights, enforced disappearances, cluster munitions, and antipersonnel landmines. It should adopt a policy of embracing the rule of law by re-signing the International Criminal Court treaty, actively supporting the court, and initiating a process for ultimate ratification. And it should actively support-politically, financially, and militarily-multilateral efforts to protect civilians from mass atrocities.
In the case of both the European Union and the United States, vigorous efforts should be made to reach out to governments of the global South, especially those that largely respect human rights at home but continue to resist the defense of human rights in their foreign policy. That requires addressing issues of particular concern to Southern governments, such as economic and social rights, racism, and the rights of migrants. It also requires avoiding double standards and remaining open to dialogue and appropriate political compromise.
Governments of the global South, in turn, must reconsider their reflexive stand shoulder to shoulder with the oppressors of the world rather than their victims. This misguided solidarity is particularly disappointing in the case of governments such as India and South Africa, which today are democracies that on balance respect the rights of their own people but pursue a foreign policy suggesting that others do not deserve similar rights. Bloc solidarity should not become a substitute for embracing the more fundamental values of human rights.
Finally, the new Obama administration must abandon the Bush administration's policy of hyper-sovereignty. It is music to the ears of the governments of China, Russia, and India to hear Washington deflect human rights criticism on sovereignty grounds. That approach effectively pushes back the clock to an era before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the many legal and institutional mechanisms it has spawned. A radical reappraisal of US policy is urgently needed. President Obama has promised such changes, and none too soon. The test will be whether he can resist pressures to sustain the Bush-led status quo.
Today, 60 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is not tenable simply to deny the worthiness of the human rights ideal. As a result, the spoilers that are intent on undermining the international human rights regime rarely describe their intentions in those terms. Instead, these governments tend to say that they support human rights in principle, but oppose only the way that rights are allegedly twisted, used, or perverted by more powerful nations. They mimic the language of anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, or solidarity with the downtrodden, but in fact, the spoilers are no friends of the persecuted. They find common cause with the dictators and tyrants of the world, not with the ordinary people facing oppression. They invoke Southern solidarity, but behind the lofty rhetoric, the solidarity they have in mind is with repressive governments, not their Southern victims.
There are many different reasons why some governments choose to play negative or indifferent roles with respect to human rights. Certain serious offenders, such as Belarus, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, push back against any human rights scrutiny to forestall international consideration of their own abuses. They are not leaders in international forums but they do speak up and vote. They seek to avoid any external constraint on how they treat their people. Sovereignty, not rights, is their watchword.
Other states play more of a leadership role in trying to limit human rights scrutiny.
They include the governments of nations with poor human rights records, such as Algeria, China, Egypt, Pakistan, and Russia. They also include certain democracies from the developing world, such as India and South Africa, which boast strong institutional guarantees protecting rights despite committing some ongoing violations. Some of these governments also want to avoid scrutiny of their domestic rights practices, but they are motivated as well by a rejection of what they see as a US-led imperialist vision of international politics and development. In addition, some members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference resist what they perceive as a war against Islam waged by the United States and other Western powers.
The governments seeking to subvert human rights articulate a litany of excuses for their actions. They cite Western double standards in promoting rights-a deplorable reality, but irrelevant to the plight of the victim. There is no question that Western governments are at times responsible for committing, supporting, or ignoring serious human rights violations, and they deserve criticism for those transgressions. But few people facing slaughter, rape, or arbitrary detention would forsake rescue simply because someone else's suffering is being ignored. Nor should they be forced to by the spoilers' ideology of convenience.
The same is true of the spoilers' invocation of the colonialist heritage of some nations that want to end human rights abuses. Yes, the West has a history, often ruthless, of colonial exploitation. But few people facing repression today would reject help simply because those who might lend a hand had ancestors who themselves were repressive. The spoilers should not block that help for these victims.
A disappointing illustration of this hostility to the international protection of human rights is the South African government's response to the crisis in Zimbabwe. The African National Congress built a broad international coalition in its struggle against apartheid. Where Western governments failed them, they found willing allies in the global human rights movement. During Nelson Mandela's presidency, South Africa seemed to embrace the human rights cause, establishing a model constitutional democracy with strong legal guarantees of individual rights. But under President Thabo Mbeki, rather than join a global movement to apply pressure on the Zimbabwean government to stop its repression, Pretoria refused to speak out. It justified that softer approach to itself by interpreting the anti-apartheid struggle as primarily a fight against imperialism, and by casting Robert Mugabe as the legitimate heir to that mantle. As a result, the South African government was seen as backing a repressive leader rather than his suffering victims.
Indulging a short memory of its own struggle, the South African government also turned its back on the people of Burma. International pressure helped to end the apartheid regime. But today, Pretoria opposes action by the UN Security Council on behalf of the people of Burma because severe military repression supposedly falls outside the Security Council's mandate. South Africa says it prefers more democratic UN institutions, such as the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council, but it has hardly been a vigorous promoter of human rights for Burma there, either.
The new government in Pakistan also has yet to translate its own struggle against dictatorship into support for similar efforts elsewhere. The elected, civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari is a direct beneficiary of interventions by the international human rights community. Over the past two years, human rights groups placed enormous pressure on Gen. Pervez Musharraf and his military to release pro-democracy jurists from detention, restore ousted judges, and permit free and fair parliamentary elections. Now that Musharraf has resigned under threat of impeachment, there are some signs that the Zardari government is reconsidering Pakistan's traditional hostility to international human rights initiatives. It signed the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and its ambassador to the Human Rights Council has toned down Pakistan's usual attacks on the UN high commissioner for human rights and graciously accepted comments by nongovernmental organizations on Pakistan's human rights record. But Pakistani diplomats at the UN still often push an anti-human rights agenda, as if Musharraf were still in power. For example, they have been at the forefront of efforts to limit NGO comments on the rights records of governments undergoing the new "universal periodic review" at the Human Rights Council.
The spoilers should not be equated with the global South as a whole. Many Southern governments today are at the forefront of efforts to enforce human rights. In Latin America, for example, the governments of Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay have consistently supported human rights initiatives, from the International Criminal Court to the Human Rights Council. Mexico has played an important role at the Human Rights Council (actively engaging in the examination of all countries undergoing universal periodic review), the UN General Assembly (defending the independence of the high commissioner for human rights and her program) and as a prospective member of the UN Security Council (stating its belief that major human rights issues should be on the agenda). Unfortunately, Mexico has been slow to address severe and persistent human rights problems at home, resisting human rights conditionality on US assistance to fight drug trafficking known as the Merida Initiative, and pressing for removal of the representative of the UN high commissioner for his critical comments about Mexico's domestic human rights record. Brazil in recent years has actively supported the human rights mechanisms of the Organization of American States, but at other times it has shown sympathy for the sovereignty-trumps-human-rights views of the spoilers, such as in the negotiations for a treaty banning cluster munitions. Meanwhile, Cuba-still the one closed society in the Americas after the transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl-has toned down its leadership role among the spoilers, though with the tacit understanding that the Human Rights Council not revive critical resolutions on Havana.
In Africa, a number of governments have bucked the unhelpful lead of Algeria, Egypt, and South Africa. For example, Botswana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Zambia tried to press the African Union to stand up to Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Nigeria is also well represented in Geneva by its ambassador who presides over the Human Rights Council and has shown a commitment to depolarizing it. Numerous African governments have provided troops to peacekeeping efforts in Burundi, Darfur, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the main task is to protect civilians. Morocco played a constructive role at negotiations for a new treaty against enforced disappearances. Even South Africa, after failing to support a special session of the Human Rights Council on Burma, finally spoke out against Burmese repression once the session took place. But these positive examples are often overshadowed by the aggressively destructive efforts of the spoilers.
The spoilers were recently roused to action by the request of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Sudan sought to convince the Security Council to suspend the prosecution. The ensuing political battle pitted a government that is responsible for mass murder, rape, and displacement against the victims and their quest for justice. One would have hoped that African governments would join hands with the victims. But in the name of African solidarity, South Africa, along with Algeria, Egypt, and Libya, backed a campaign to stop the prosecution of the accused mass murderer-Bashir. Clearly these governments did not have the suffering of ordinary African people in mind. To their disgrace, the African Union, the Arab League, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Organization of Islamic Conference joined the campaign.
Some African governments complain that the ICC has unfairly singled out Africa. Although the four countries where the ICC has initiated prosecutions are indeed African, none was selected solely by the ICC. Three African governments (Uganda, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo) petitioned the court to take cases in their countries, and the Security Council referred the fourth (Sudan) to the court for its atrocities in Darfur. The criticism also ignores the larger international justice effort. For example, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has prosecuted far more suspects than the ICC. This past year, it took custody of former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic to try him for genocide.
Some of those who denounce international justice most vigorously are leaders who fear that they or those whom they have commanded might be held to account for criminal conduct. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, for example, seeks to prevent independent prosecution of soldiers of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group he once headed, for war crimes committed during and after the Rwandan genocide, including the killing of at least 30,000 people. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is mandated to prosecute such crimes, but rather than see it try RPF soldiers, the Rwandan government arranged to have the one remaining case under ICTR investigation transferred to its own court where it could more easily determine, and limit, the outcome.
When the families of French and Spanish victims killed by RPF soldiers sought justice through their national courts, the judges charged with investigating these crimes issued arrest warrants for Rwandan officials whom they wished to interrogate. Rwanda retaliated by whipping up African sentiment against this supposed "clear violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity." Taking up the mantle of anti-colonialism, Rwanda also denounced universal jurisdiction (the power of any government to prosecute the most heinous crimes wherever they occurred) as an affront to Africa. But that claim ignored the fact that Rwanda itself has benefited more than any other country from universal jurisdiction-in holding to account many of those responsible for the genocide. The claim also overlooks the long history of universal jurisdiction being used against non-African perpetrators, such as the agents of the "dirty wars" of the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America including former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet as well as individuals involved in genocide in Bosnia and war crimes in Afghanistan.
Showing far more initiative and clarity of vision than traditional supporters of human rights, the spoilers have taken numerous steps to defang the new Human Rights Council, the UN's leading governmental body on human rights, because of its potential to hold them or their allies to account. Most notably, and tellingly, they resist critical resolutions about particular countries-unless the resolution could be watered down so much that the country in question would actually consent to it.
The spoilers in Geneva have included, at various times, Algeria, China, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Russia, and South Africa. Algeria and Egypt have played formal roles at the Human Rights Council as leaders of the African group. In the past year or two, a loose version of this coalition has:
The only exception to this campaign against country resolutions has been the spoilers' enthusiastic support for criticism of Israel for its conduct in the West Bank and Gaza and its war in Lebanon. Israel deserves criticism, but these condemnations lose much of their punch because of the spoilers', and hence the council's, reluctance to criticize anyone else.
The spoilers justify their opposition to most country resolutions by asserting that the council should seek only to cooperate and engage in dialogue with governments, never to pressure them. But that falsely assumes that all governments have a good-faith desire to respect human rights, and commit abuses only because of a lack of technical capacity which cooperative assistance might remedy. In fact, governments often commit abuses deliberately. The only appropriate response in such cases is to ratchet up pressure, through such responses as critical UN resolutions, until they stop.
As the spoilers have been able to cobble together majorities among the 47 governmental members of the Human Rights Council, they have sought to cement control by limiting the influence of independent voices. These voices-the UN high commissioner for human rights and her staff, the special rapporteurs and independent experts, as well as NGOs-serve as an important antidote to the politicized debates among governments that tend to dominate the council. The spoilers have tried to silence them.
For example, the biggest problem facing the experts, rapporteurs, and other independent observers from the UN system is a lack of cooperation from governments. Illustrative of the problem, Angola-a country with growing influence within the Africa group-closed the local office of the UN high commissioner for human rights only one year after pledging to increase cooperation with the office as part of its campaign to be elected to the Human Rights Council. But the spoilers promote the fiction that the problem is misconduct by these observers themselves, and that the solution lies in more state control of them. So the spoilers, led by Algeria, have increased governments' role in selecting the experts and rapporteurs, and restrained them with a new, intrusive "code of conduct."
The spoilers have also tried to tame the universal periodic review of governments' human rights record by insisting that it be based primarily on information provided by the government under review rather than by experts and human rights groups. Furthermore, they are now arguing for increased council oversight of the high commissioner for human rights.
Most of the spoilers' UN activity has been at the Human Rights Council, but they have also sought to undermine human rights initiatives in the General Assembly. There, however, they tended to have less success. For example:
Having long rejected any international criticism of its own rights record, China traditionally has been reluctant to criticize abuses by others. It thus frequently joins with the spoilers. In recent years, however, there have been exceptions. In Darfur, for example, China at times has used its influence as Sudan's largest oil purchaser and arms provider to nudge Khartoum toward accepting in principle the deployment of international peacekeepers. For the most part, however, the Chinese government remains hostile to human rights enforcement. It especially resists imposing sanctions, making its aid relationships more transparent, or acting upon the "responsibility to protect" doctrine that was adopted at a global summit in 2005. In some of the worst situations, its insistence that international intervention is unlikely to succeed masks an actual indifference to the welfare of the victims.
For example, China, along with Russia, vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have tightened sanctions on Zimbabwe in response to President Mugabe's violent refusal to accept the electoral victory of his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai. In addition, at the height of Mugabe's repression, including widespread violence against peaceful opposition supporters, China sent a boatload of arms to the Zimbabwean military. The South African government would have delivered the arms to Harare but for a protest by South African dock workers.
Similarly, Beijing may have exerted some behind-the-scenes pressure on the Burmese military to allow humanitarian aid into the country following the devastating Cyclone Nargis, but it blocked Security Council action to address the problem. It also tried to prevent the Security Council from even discussing Burma's use of child soldiers, let alone imposing a wider arms embargo for that pervasive abuse, even though China had just ratified the child soldiers treaty ban.
Despite its endless rhetoric about being a good citizen at the United Nations, China snubbed not only the UN high commissioner for human rights but also five UN special rapporteurs who wanted to visit Tibet following violence there in March 2008. China also put pressure on Nepal to crack down on Tibetans who were demonstrating in Kathmandu against Chinese repression in their homeland.
While formally endorsing respect for human rights, Russia often joins with the spoilers in UN forums to protect its allies and ward off potential scrutiny of its increasingly repressive practices at home. It affirms that national sovereignty should override action on human rights, and stresses the importance of avoiding double standards and the imposition of "borrowed value systems." At the Security Council, for example, it tends to oppose consideration of human rights. It has deployed its veto or the threat of its use to block critical resolutions on Burma and Zimbabwe. Russia eventually supported the deployment of international peacekeepers in Darfur, but resisted moves for increased pressure on the Sudanese government.
Russia also uses its membership in various European human rights bodies to undermine them. For example, Russia is alone among Council of Europe states in blocking reform of the European Court of Human Rights that would enable the court to reduce its huge backlog. One of the apparent reasons is that the court has repeatedly ruled against Russia in cases of extrajudicial executions and "disappearances" in Chechnya. Russia also has failed to implement structural reforms ordered by the court.
In addition, Russia has successfully curtailed scrutiny of its own conduct, especially in Chechnya, and bullied other European governments to largely refrain from protest. For more than a year it prevented the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly from carrying out on-site monitoring of human rights in Chechnya and holding public debates on the topic. It also continues to block publication of reports on Chechnya by the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture.
Russia also plays a negative role in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). It has threatened, so far unsuccessfully, to "reform" the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Moscow sought to subject the ODIHR's election observation reports to consensus approval by all OSCE states, thereby enabling every state (including Russia) to veto criticisms and greatly weakening the ODIHR's work. Russia also tried to limit participation at OSCE meetings to those NGOs that were registered in their home country and approved by their country delegation-providing another way for abusive governments to silence their critics.
As the world's most populous democracy, India might be expected to be at the forefront of global efforts to promote human rights. In the past, India sometimes took a leadership role in defending rights, such as by opposing apartheid in South Africa and supporting the 1988 democracy movement in Burma. However, its current foreign policy often would make a confirmed dictator proud.
There are several reasons for this disappointing performance. First, despite strong legal protections and an independent justice system, the Indian government still commits serious abuses-for example, in Kashmir and in Manipur, in its repression of Naxalite insurgents and their alleged supporters, and in its treatment of Dalits-so it tends to oppose international action on rights, fearing a precedent that might be used against it. Second, as an emerging and globalizing economy, India increasingly prioritizes its economic and strategic interests over the promotion of human rights, particularly as it tries (often unsuccessfully) to minimize Chinese influence in South Asia and to compete with China in countries like Burma.
Finally, like South Africa, the Indian government subscribes to a misplaced Southern solidarity. Both the government and the bureaucracy, which has significant sway over policy-making, harbor a deeply ingrained world view that conflates international rights protection with colonialism. India has every right to remind Western powers of their earlier sins, but it is wrong to subordinate the needs of people suffering abuses today to a policy that is fixated on the past. Sadly, too many Indian officials seem to feel no responsibility for seeing that the people of other countries enjoy the same rights as most Indians.
There have been exceptions. At an important moment in Nepal, for example, India helped ease the way for the establishment of an office of the UN high commissioner for human rights (in part because of fears over a common Maoist movement), although it is now trying to ease out the UN's political mission. With respect to Burma, India appears to have suspended military aid in response to Burma's 2007 crackdown against peaceful demonstrators and the restrictions on international assistance to the survivors of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, but its private diplomacy achieved at best uncertain results.
More typically, however, India is hostile to the international protection of human rights, usually voting against country-specific resolutions at the Human Rights Council. For example, it voted in favor of blocking any debate on Sudan, abstained on a resolution criticizing North Korea, voted against a resolution on Cuba, and endorsed a "no action" motion on Belarus. To justify this hostility to the defense of human rights, India typically parrots the rationale about believing in private engagement on human rights rather than public pressure. Privately, officials say that such enforcement is almost always targeted at poorer countries while powerful nations get away with egregious abuses-an injustice but, as noted, not a legitimate excuse for inaction on behalf of poorer victims.
India also remains sensitive to any public discussion of its own rights record. It often opposes visits to India by UN human rights investigators, permitting visits only by special rapporteurs on the right to food in 2005, on violence against women in 2000, and on freedom of religion or belief in 1996. Meanwhile, it has ignored requests to visit by the special rapporteurs on torture and extrajudicial execution since 1993, as well as more recent requests by UN investigators on racism, toxic waste, human rights defenders, and arbitrary detentions.
As noted, the rise of the spoilers would have had less impact without an abdication of leadership by governments that traditionally hold themselves forth as defenders of human rights. No government bears greater blame for this abdication than the United States under President George W. Bush. As is widely known, the Bush administration chose to respond to the serious security challenge of terrorism by ignoring the most basic requirements of international human rights law. Its decision, made not by low-level "bad apples" but at the highest levels of government, was to "disappear" suspects into secret detention facilities run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) where their detention was unacknowledged, subject them to torture and other abusive interrogation including "waterboarding" (mock execution by drowning) and various "stress" techniques, and detain them for years on end without charge or trial at Guantanamo. The consequences have been disastrous. This flouting of international human rights law generated resentment that was a boon to terrorist recruiters, and discouraged international cooperation with law-enforcement efforts, particularly in countries that are most likely to identify with the victims and to learn of suspicious activity.
The Bush administration's misconduct profoundly undermined US influence on human rights. Sometimes Washington could still productively promote human rights: when the issue was the right to free speech or association, which is still widely respected in the United States; when the US government enjoyed the added leverage of a major funding relationship with the government in question; or when the atrocities were so massive, such as widespread ethnic or political slaughter, that the United States could oppose them without facing accusations of hypocrisy.
More typically, however, when the issue was human rights abuses that the Bush administration practiced itself, the United States was forced to cede the field. Nowhere was this more visible than at the Human Rights Council. Washington rightly criticized the many shortcomings of this new institution, but as explained in more detail below, it is far from a lost cause. Rather than work to realize its considerable potential, the Bush administration abandoned it from the start.
In part that may have been a concession to reality, since given the Bush administration's human rights record, the United States would have had a hard time getting elected. But a good part of the motivation seems to have been the Bush administration's arrogant approach to multilateral institutions. Instead of undertaking the difficult but essential task of building a broad global coalition for human rights, Washington tended to throw rhetorical grenades from the sidelines when it did not get its way. With one of the human rights movement's most powerful traditional allies having given up without a fight, it is no surprise that those allies who remain on the council face an uphill struggle.
As noted, the spoilers have taken center stage on global policy debates about human rights in part because the major rights-respecting democracies have chosen to hide in the wings. Of course, many of those democracies have never been consistent defenders of human rights, with their long history of closing their eyes to, and sometimes sponsoring, abuses by allies and strategic partners. But the hopes that the new century would usher in foreign policies built on a consistent and principled defense of human rights have been dashed by compromises made in the fight against terrorism and by a disappointing lack of commitment. Recent years have seen a particularly feeble performance. Increasingly, these governments seem to consign the promotion of human rights to relations with pariahs and adversaries.
In some cases of bilateral ineffectiveness, the United States bore principal responsibility. For example:
In other cases, the European Union or its member states were most at fault for a weak response to serious human rights abuses:
Quite apart from responding to abuses by others, Britain threatened to itself become complicit in abuse by continuing to insist on the right to send terrorist suspects to governments that torture. To do so, it would rely on flimsy diplomatic assurances of humane treatment from governments that routinely flout their treaty obligations not to torture. Britain's efforts to develop a common EU position endorsing this practice have so far been unsuccessful, but its bad example has helped to inspire other governments -including Denmark, Italy, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Spain, and Switzerland - thereby weakening the global torture ban. Britain also sought to hollow out an exception to the prohibition of sending people to places where they risk ill-treatment short of torture by promoting a new rule that would allow such deportation if the suspect's continued presence in the sending country posed too much of a security threat. The European Court of Human Rights unanimously rejected that proposal.
Especially in the Middle East, all Western governments seemed to share equally in the failure to promote human rights:
Elsewhere, Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands sought, at least at first, to undermine an absolute ban on cluster munitions by seeking exceptions for certain types that they tended to have stockpiled in their arsenals. An absolute ban was important because, as in the case of the landmines treaty, certain major powers such as the United States, Russia, and China could be expected to reject the treaty, but an absolute ban, by stigmatizing the weapon system, would make it politically difficult for them to use it anyway. A coalition led by Austria, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, and New Zealand overcame this resistance and achieved a total ban.
Similarly, the 1990 Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families has not been ratified by any EU member state, or by Australia, Canada, Japan, or the United States. To date, only governments that send migrant workers have embraced the treaty, greatly undermining its capacity to protect a large and vulnerable population.
Some of the major democracies did occasionally show positive leadership on human rights:
However, these positive examples were not repeated regularly enough to build momentum for the defense of human rights and thus to effectively deflect destructive pressure from the spoilers.
The weakness of the EU's support for human rights was especially evident in multilateral settings such as the Human Rights Council. As noted, the Bush administration did not even try to make the council work, leaving the task to others. The EU has made some effort to assume the leadership mantle in Geneva, but talking to EU diplomats there is often a depressing lesson in defeatism.
Much of the reason lies in the influence-sapping procedures that the EU follows for building a consensus around a common policy. The council is divided roughly evenly among governments that tend to support human rights initiatives, governments that tend to oppose them, and swing votes-governments that have tended to join the spoilers but could be moved in a more pro-human rights direction. By giving broad strategic direction, the EU might have empowered its diplomats to act creatively and boldly to forge a multi-regional, pro-human rights majority from among the swing votes.
Instead, the EU let the process of building an internal consensus become an exercise in micromanagement. EU diplomats spend so much time negotiating a minutely detailed consensus among themselves, typically consisting of word-for-word approval of any proposed resolution, that by the time they reach agreement among all 27 member states, they are exhausted, with no energy or flexibility to fashion a consensus among other potential allies. To avoid restarting the painstaking process of building a new EU consensus, European diplomats must avoid genuine give-and-take and instead try to convince others to accept the agreed-upon EU position without amendment. Needless to say, that is not an effective negotiating posture.
This approach tends to worsen the already-poisonous West-versus-rest atmosphere that frequently prevails at the UN. This polarization and "bloc mentality" makes it more difficult for moderate states to separate themselves from the spoilers such as Algeria, Egypt, and South Africa that tend to dominate African Union deliberations, and thus harder to build a cross-regional, pro-human rights majority.
Even when the EU has wanted to act, its reluctance to criticize Washington for abusive counterterrorism policies has left it open to charges of selectivity and double standards. For example, by refusing to endorse a Cuba-backed effort at the Human Rights Council to criticize Guantanamo (even though the proposed resolution was deliberately written in the exact same language as the Council of Europe had previously used in its own resolution), the EU contributed to the protect-your-own mentality that now plagues the Human Rights Council. Similarly, by agreeing to end UN scrutiny of Iraq and Afghanistan after the US invasions, the EU made it easier for others to oppose country resolutions aimed at their own friends.
Unable for these reasons to build a pro-human rights majority at the council, the EU tends to resign itself to watered-down consensus resolutions, such as on Sudan, or to outright defeat, such as on the decisions to end the work of an expert group on Darfur or to terminate scrutiny of Belarus and Cuba. Similarly, despite ongoing massive atrocities in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the EU acquiesced in a "compromise" resolution sponsored by Egypt ending the mandate of the UN independent expert on Congo; the EU accepted the fig-leaf of scheduling another discussion of Congo a year later.
That the initiative on human rights has been captured by governments that do not wish international protection well should generate not despair but resolve. The new Obama administration in Washington offers the hope of a US government that can assume a place of leadership in promoting human rights. If the European Union can generate the political will and surmount its self-imposed procedural paralysis, it will be in a position to help build a genuine global coalition for human rights that can seize the initiative from the spoilers.
Governments that purport to promote human rights should abide by certain basic rules to be effective. First, they should ensure their own scrupulous respect for human rights-because international law obliges them to do so, because it will set a positive example, and because compliance will help silence charges of hypocrisy. They should also abandon efforts to undermine human rights standards, such as the prohibition of torture in the context of fighting terrorism, or refugee protection in the rush to develop a common asylum policy. When these governments face criticism for violating human rights, they should accept it as legitimate discourse rather than an affront to be reflexively rejected.
In their foreign policy, these governments should promote human rights as even-handedly as possible. That means criticizing not only pariah states but also friends when they commit serious rights violations. They should also elevate the importance of human rights in their relations with other governments, assigning the issue to senior officials, insisting on human rights occupying a prominent place on the agenda during bilateral discussions, and establishing clear benchmarks for change with specific consequences for indifference or retrenchment.
In multilateral settings, these governments should make it a major priority to build a pro-human rights majority by encouraging rights-respecting states from all regions to speak out on human rights. With respect to the Human Rights Council, for example, rights-respecting states should be encouraged to offer their candidacy, while the candidacies of the spoilers and their allies should be actively opposed. The defeat in recent years of the candidacies of Belarus and Sri Lanka illustrates what must be done more regularly.
Efforts should also be made to ensure that governments obstructing the defense of human rights pay a political price at home. Democratic governments with vibrant civil societies such as India and South Africa are able to get away with negative positions on human rights because few people in those countries track their voting records in intergovernmental forums and their national media rarely report on their conduct there. So when they vote to protect Burma, Sudan, or Zimbabwe, they do not face the criticism that they surely would encounter were they to adopt similarly regressive domestic policies. Helping journalists and civil society representatives visit New York, Geneva, and regional capitals to monitor and lobby their governments would be a useful first step.
It is also important to recognize that many governments from the South have legitimate grievances about the behavior of Western governments. These grievances do not justify their hostility to human rights, but they clearly affect their perspective. Expanding the number of Southern governments willing to promote human rights will require addressing their sense that Western concern for human rights varies with the level of strategic interest, that powerful countries are allowed to get away with bad behavior, and that richer parts of the world are insufficiently concerned with economic and social rights in the global South, such as the right to food in the context of rising prices or the right to basic health care in the midst of a declining economy. A genuine commitment to recognizing these concerns would help to engage with states such as Ghana, Zambia, Mexico, Peru, Indonesia, and the Philippines that ought to be exerting greater human rights leadership in international and regional forums.
Finally, there is a need to break the bloc mentality that leads so many governments to vote-almost by default-with their regional groups even when their own views are more progressive. Moderate states need encouragement to distance themselves from the spoilers that tend to dominate bloc voting. Thus in Africa, Ghana and Zambia should be encouraged to part company with Algeria and Egypt. In Asia, the Philippines and Thailand should be weaned from Burma and Vietnam. Success will require a strategy and vision, engagement and diplomacy-all designed to reach out to moderate states, take their concerns seriously, and bring them into the pro-human rights fold.
The success of any effort to retake the initiative from the spoilers will depend to a large degree on Washington. The Obama administration must undo the enormous damage caused by the Bush administration and begin to restore the US government's reputation and effectiveness as a human rights defender. Changing US policy on how to fight terrorism is an essential place to start. Among the steps that President Obama should take would be to:
The Obama administration should also signal that, from now on, the US government will submit to the requirements of international human rights law and reengage with international institutions for the enforcement of that law. President Obama should:
Finally, President Obama should reassess US bilateral relations with certain governments whose significance as strategic or counterterrorism allies led the Bush administration to overlook their abuses. The United States should use its substantial economic leverage to push for an end to abuses by close allies, such as Ethiopian atrocities in the Ogaden and Somalia, the Pakistani military's use of torture and "disappearances," Egypt's stifling of political opposition, Israel's use of collective punishment to respond to Palestinian rocket attacks on civilians, and Colombia's obstruction of investigations into links between senior government officials and murderous paramilitary forces.
Like other global endeavors, the effective promotion of human rights cannot ignore shifts in global power. The traditional role of the West in promoting human rights is not enough. New coalitions must be built by reaching out to other democracies that largely respect human rights at home and could be convinced to join efforts to promote human rights around the world. But such coalitions cannot be built without significant shifts in the policy and approach of the world's leading democracies.
Today, the effective defense of human rights requires new commitments-to studiously respect human rights in one's own conduct, to insist on accountability for serious abuses regardless of the perpetrator, to promote human rights consistently without favoritism for allies or strategic partners, and to reach out to potential new allies with an openness to addressing their human rights concerns. None of this is impossible. Those who believe that global shifts in power will sound the death knell of human rights enforcement are confusing the leading democracies' current poor performance with immutable reality.
But the successful defense of human rights will require serious self-examination on the part of these democracies and a willingness to change course. The arrival of the Obama administration in Washington with its seeming determination to end the disastrous abuses of the Bush years provides an ideal opportunity. The task facing the human rights community is to convince the supporters of human rights-both traditional allies and potentially new ones-to seize this opportunity. That would truly be something to celebrate in this sixtieth anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This report is Human Rights Watch's nineteenth annual review of human rights practices around the globe. It summarizes key human rights issues in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide, drawing on events through November 2008.
Each country entry identifies significant human rights issues, examines the freedom of local human rights defenders to conduct their work, and surveys the response of key international actors, such as the United Nations, European Union, Japan, the United States, and various regional and international organizations and institutions.
This report reflects extensive investigative work undertaken in 2008 by the Human Rights Watch research staff, usually in close partnership with human rights activists in the country in question. It also reflects the work of our advocacy team, which monitors policy developments and strives to persuade governments and international institutions to curb abuses and promote human rights. Human Rights Watch publications, issued throughout the year, contain more detailed accounts of many of the issues addressed in the brief summaries collected in this volume. They can be found on the Human Rights Watch website, www.hrw.org .
As in past years, this report does not include a chapter on every country where Human Rights Watch works, nor does it discuss every issue of importance. The failure to include a particular country or issue often reflects no more than staffing limitations and should not be taken as commentary on the significance of the problem. There are many serious human rights violations that Human Rights Watch simply lacks the capacity to address.
The factors we considered in determining the focus of our work in 2008 (and hence the content of this volume) include the number of people affected and the severity of abuse, access to the country and the availability of information about it, the susceptibility of abusive actors to influence, and the importance of addressing certain thematic concerns and of reinforcing the work of local rights organizations.
The World Report does not have separate chapters addressing our thematic work but instead incorporates such material directly into the country entries. Please consult the Human Rights Watch website for more detailed treatment of our work on children's rights, women's rights, arms and military issues, business and human rights, HIV/AIDS and human rights, international justice, terrorism and counterterrorism, refugees and displaced people, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people's rights, and for information about our international film festivals.
Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.