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A Compromised U.S. Defense of Human Rights

Needless to say, this embrace of abusive interrogation techniques—not as an indirect consequence of official policy but as a deliberate tool—has significantly weakened the U.S. government’s credibility as a defender of human rights. 

In 2005, even the exception proved the rule. An important success story in late 2004 and early 2005 was the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, where U.S. pressure for reform and support for Ukrainian civil society and political pluralism played a positive role. The United States was able to help in part because Eastern Europe is one of the few parts of the world where the United States, because of its long history of opposing Soviet domination, is still acknowledged and admired as a credible proponent of democracy and human rights. When the Ukrainian government tried to undermine support for the democratic opposition by linking it to U.S. actions, many ordinary Ukrainians paid no heed.  The same dynamic no longer obtains in many parts of the world.

In the Middle East, for example, the Bush administration stepped up efforts to engage Arab countries on a range of rights issues, something that no past U.S. administration has done. The limited pressure it brought to bear helped create more space for some dissidents and genuinely independent political and civic organizations. But its success was circumscribed by its own human rights record.

One indication of that credibility problem was that when the Bush administration tried to promote certain rights, the poverty of its own record meant it largely had to avoid the term “human rights.”  Instead, it supported “democracy” and “freedom”—important goals, but ones that do not encompass the full range of human rights protections and are notably devoid of reference to international legal standards that might inconveniently bind the United States. 

The Bush administration is not the first U.S. government to misuse such concepts. The Reagan administration, as early as 1982, trumpeted “democracy” and “freedom” in places like El Salvador.  Death squads raged at the time, but the Salvadoran government’s willingness to hold elections qualified it, in the Reagan administration’s view, for a pass on its human rights record. 

The Bush administration’s efforts in 2005 remained similarly focused mainly on the electoral realm.  In Egypt, U.S. officials raised a range of political rights issues.  The administration, for example, usefully pressed President Hosni Mubarak to allow competitive presidential elections for the first time.  When the Egyptian government imprisoned the leading opposition candidate, Ayman Nour, on trumped-up charges, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled a February visit to Egypt.  Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick warned that the administration would withhold $200 million in U.S. aid until Egypt released Nour.  President Bush at the time “embraced” President Mubarak’s decision to hold competitive elections and criticized beatings of dissidents by ruling-party vigilantes.  Secretary Rice even went so far as to urge replacement of Egypt’s decades-old emergency rule, the legal backdrop for many of Egypt’s worst abuses, with the rule of law. 

But the Bush administration’s own record of mistreating detainees forced it to limit the kind of democracy it promoted.  Other than the State Department’s legally mandated once-a-year human rights report, the administration made no public protest (and no known private protest) about the Egyptian government’s extensive and well documented use of torture.  As one State Department official told Human Rights Watch, “how can we raise it when the Bush administration’s policy is to justify torture?” 

A similar dynamic was evident with respect to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Congress conducted hearings on religious freedom in Saudi Arabia and discussed the Saudi Accountability Act, which seeks to compel compliance with anti-terrorism measures and a ban on hate speech.  But, with one notable exception, discussed below, there was rare mention of such unseemly topics as domestic repression through torture and arbitrary arrest of Saudi dissidents, let alone such matters as executions, floggings, and routine discrimination against and denial of justice to Saudi women and migrant workers. 

In Iraq, where the United States also made promotion of democracy the cornerstone of its efforts, U.S. authorities in November helped uncover and shut down an Iraqi Interior Ministry secret detention and torture center in Baghdad, but the administration’s actions won it little praise in light of its own practices in Iraq and elsewhere. 

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2006