Skip to main content

Is There a Human Rights Double Standard? US Policy Toward Saudi Arabia, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan

Testimony by Tom Malinowski, Human Rights Watch Washington advocacy director<br><br>US House of Representatives Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight

Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, thank you for holding this hearing and for inviting me to testify.

You’ve asked a question today that unfortunately has a very simple answer. Is there a human rights double standard? Yes, there is.

There has always been a tension in American foreign policy between the belief that promoting human rights is vital to advancing long-term American interests around the world, and the tendency to forget that belief when short-term interests get in the way.

You’ve asked a question today that unfortunately has a very simple answer. Is there a human rights double standard? Yes, there is.

There has always been a tension in American foreign policy between the belief that promoting human rights is vital to advancing long-term American interests around the world, and the tendency to forget that belief when short-term interests get in the way.

The Bush administration has been no exception to this rule. Ever since 9/11, President Bush has been arguing that promoting democratic freedoms, especially in the Muslim world, is key to fighting terrorism. The president appears to be sincere in this belief. I also think he is right. The only sure way to defeat radical, violent groups like al Qaeda is to promote the emergence of moderate political forces that will drown out the radicals’ message and give citizens peaceful avenues for expressing themselves. But such forces can only thrive in politically open societies – unlike the terrorists, they need freedom of speech and assembly, free elections and the rule of law to survive.

Given this conviction on the part of President Bush, you’d think that the more central a country was to the fight against terrorism, the more vigorously the administration would promote democracy there. But more often than not, the opposite has been true. This has been the case, to some extent, with Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia. It’s also been true with a number of countries not on your list, such as Russia, Ethiopia, Jordan, and above all, today with Pakistan. The more the administration has needed another country in the short term to capture or kill individual terrorist suspects, the less eager it’s been to press that country to reform in ways that will dry up support for terrorism itself.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t expect pure and perfect consistency from our government on this or any other matter. In fact, I think that there is only one way to be perfectly consistent in life, and that is to be consistently unprincipled. Doing the wrong thing all the time is easy. Doing the right thing all the time is a lot harder. And, I’d rather have a foreign policy that’s inconsistently right than one that’s consistently wrong.

What’s more, I don’t believe that the United States should treat every human rights violator in the world in exactly the same way. The strategies the U.S. government chooses to promote human rights should indeed vary from country to country. They must take into account what will be most effective in each particular case, and respond to the needs and desires of those who are struggling for human rights and democracy on the ground.

That said, while American strategies may differ from country to country, America’s voice should not. There is no reason why the United States can’t speak honestly, clearly, and publicly about human rights to every government in the world, whether it is friend or foe. After all, engagement is not the same thing as endorsement – you can have a relationship with a country like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia without feeling you have to defend its government’s policies whenever they’re criticized. Yet far too often, this is something the U.S. government forgets. Too often, American diplomats assume that to defend America’s choice of friends in the world, they have to defend everything those friends do – or at least be silent. Again – this should be seen as utterly unnecessary. It is also profoundly harmful to America’s overall human rights message in the world.

The United States is most effective in promoting liberty and human rights when people around the world believe it is rising above narrow self interest to defend universal ideals. If, instead, the U.S. government’s rhetoric about democracy is seen as a weapon it uses only against its enemies, people around the world become cynical about everything the United States does in the name of freedom. Under such circumstances, dictators in countries like Iran or Cuba can deflect U.S. criticism by arguing that it’s selective. Dissidents in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia doubt that the United States is really on their side; they suspect it is using its freedom agenda to mask other ends, and they're less willing to be associated with U.S. democracy programs.

With that in mind, let me focus on the countries that are the subject of this hearing, and add one additional case that I believe deserves urgent attention.

With respect to Iran, I think the administration's strong public focus on human rights is entirely appropriate. The Iranian government systematically suppresses freedom of expression. It harasses and imprisons its critics. It routinely tortures and mistreats detained dissidents. It persecutes religious minorities. By speaking loudly and clearly about human rights, the United States can connect with the many Iranians – particularly young people – who are themselves angry about the injustices committed by their government and eager to live in a more open society. Their activism offers the best hope for change inside Iran, which in turn would make possible the resolution of larger security issues between the United States and Iran.

America's human rights message resonates with ordinary Iranians; what undermines it is the administration's saber rattling – the military exercises in the Persian Gulf, and implicit threats of military force over the nuclear issue. Such threats unite the Iranian people with their leaders; they provide a pretext for greater political repression; indeed, they give the current Iranian government a longer lease on life than it might otherwise have if it couldn't use tensions with America to distract its people from domestic problems.

Something else that doesn't help: the administration's constant public assertions that it is providing assistance to those who are struggling for democracy inside Iran. Just last week, the State Department spokesman put out a fact sheet claiming that current U.S. funding "supports those inside Iran who desire basic civil liberties." In fact, no U.S. aid money is actually reaching dissidents inside the country – and they wouldn't accept it even if they could. Most of the funding is going for broadcasting to Iran, and is obviously not being spent inside the country. But the Iranian government has used these announcements to accuse dissidents – falsely – of taking U.S. money and has persecuted them for it. These dissidents have begged the administration to stop making these claims; it is long past time for the administration to heed them.

With respect to Uzbekistan, the story is a bit more complicated. Uzbekistan became a close U.S. ally after 9/11, when it agreed to host U.S. forces engaged in the fight in Afghanistan in exchange for greater U.S. assistance. At first, the administration muted its criticism of this new ally's human rights record. And that record was (and remains) abysmal. Uzbekistan is an absolute dictatorship in the Soviet mold. Its government brooks no dissent. It has imprisoned thousands of people for their political and religious beliefs. It locks up dissidents in psychiatric institutions. It practices torture systematically. Its ruthless policies have focused particularly on people who practice their Muslim faith independent of state-controlled institutions, driving believers underground, and potentially increasing support for violent radicalism.

America's association with this government was thus profoundly counterproductive. The administration was using Uzbekistan as a staging ground for battles fought elsewhere, when it should have been using it as a proving ground for principles on which an effective battle against terrorism depends.

But that policy did evolve. In 2003, Congress tied aid to the Uzbek government to progress on human rights. The administration stepped up its criticism of Uzbekistan and, ultimately, aid was withheld. Then, in May of 2005, Uzbek security forces massacred hundreds of civilians who were protesting government policies in the city of Andijan, and launched a brutal crackdown on civil society throughout the country. The administration condemned the massacre, insisted on an independent international investigation, and, against furious Uzbek government objections, airlifted to safety hundreds of refugees who had fled Andijan for neighboring Kyrgyzstan. As a result of these U.S. actions, the Uzbek government expelled U.S. forces from their base in southern Uzbekistan. To its credit, the administration did not mute its concerns about human rights to keep this base.

Nevertheless, the administration did not follow up by imposing sanctions on the Uzbek government, as the European Union did in the wake of the Andijan killings. There was an internal debate on this issue within the administration. The Pentagon, which did not want to lose the limited overflight and drive-through rights the U.S. military retained in Uzbekistan, objected to any measures that might further alienate the Uzbek leadership. The result has been a policy stalemate and diminished focus on Uzbekistan – in effect, the United States withdrew its attention when it withdrew its troops. Having done the right thing immediately after the Andijan events, the administration has done nothing since. Its strategy appears to amount to little more than waiting for Uzbekistan's ruler, Islam Karimov, to pass from the scene. A much more proactive policy is needed, one that combines support for what is left of Uzbek civil society, increasing the flow of information into the country, and targeted sanctions against the leadership. Legislation to impose sanctions has been introduced in the Senate by Senators McCain and Biden; I hope similar legislation will be considered and approved by the House.

A more obvious double standard exists in U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia. For years, of course, the U.S. government simply exempted Saudi Arabia from its global democracy promotion efforts. That changed very slightly after 9/11, and, to be fair, quiet U.S. pressure has contributed to the very modest beginnings of an internal reform process in the Saudi Kingdom. But the key word here is quiet. The administration has been far more reluctant to speak publicly about Saudi Arabia's problems than it has been about any other close ally in the Arab world, including Egypt.

In 2005, the United States initiated a Strategic Dialogue with Saudi Arabia, which includes working groups on a number of issues, but none formally designated to deal with human rights. State Department officials have traveled to Saudi Arabia to raise human rights issues, but these discussions are held very much behind the scenes and it is unclear how much progress, if any, has been made. The State Department's Office of Religious Freedom has worked hard on Saudi cases, and helped persuade Saudi Arabia to make a commitment to respect the right of private worship. But it has not demanded effective enforcement of this commitment and has been silent about recent breaches, including the Saudi government’s January deportation of South Asian Ahmadi Muslims solely because of their faith.

For the past three years, the State Department has condemned Saudi Arabia for its policies on human trafficking, placing it in the category of most serious violators, or Tier 3 under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. But the administration has consistently waived sanctions against Saudi Arabia that are supposed to be triggered by that designation, arguing that a full waiver needs to be given to allow military sales to Saudi Arabia "to advance the goals of the Global War on Terror and U.S. commercial interests."

There is a concern that speaking too loudly about issues like women's rights and religious freedom in Saudi Arabia could backfire, causing these issues to be perceived as exclusively Western attacks against a pristine Islamic culture. Care indeed needs to be taken in choosing how to speak to Saudis about human rights. But silence is not a wise alternative. Silence creates the perception not just among Saudis but among a much wider audience in the Middle East that the United States doesn't really care about human rights in the region. After all, people understandably reason, if the United States really cared, it would be criticizing its allies as well as the Syrians and Iranians. The result is a loss of credibility, and effectiveness, for all U.S. efforts to promote reform in the region.

It is certainly possible for the United States to speak out in ways that resonate with the growing number of Saudi citizens who themselves are concerned about such issues as the fair application of justice in Saudi courts, the highhanded policies of the religious police, the protected privileges of the elite, and the ability of women to manage their affairs. Indeed, by taking a principled and consistent stand on these issues in the right tone, the United States would be aligning itself with the overwhelming majority of Saudis who believe there are problems in their society that need to be publicly discussed and fixed. The administration should not keep buying the Saudi leadership's line that they cannot move faster than their people on reform. The Saudi government has, in fact, been moving slower than its people. And the United States would lose nothing by saying so.

Mr. Chairman, let me close by adding one additional country to the mix here, and that is Pakistan. I believe that Pakistan represents the most egregious, and harmful, example of a human rights double standard in American foreign policy today. Pakistan appears to have little place in President Bush's "freedom agenda." On the contrary, President Bush has repeatedly come to the defense of his friend President Musharraf against anyone who criticizes his continued dictatorial rule over Pakistan.

In recent weeks, a growing movement of Pakistanis, led by the country's lawyers, has been peacefully demanding a return to democratic government in the country. Last week, President Bush responded by praising Pakistani “democracy” and referring to the growing protests against General Musharraf as “posturing.”

These statements appear to align the United States behind one man against virtually every decent segment of Pakistani society – against the very people in that country who are most likely to be America's friends and to support a moderate, modern course for Pakistan. This kind of approach will reinforce all of General Musharraf’s bad tendencies – not just his authoritarian crackdown, but his policy of marginalizing moderate, secular forces in the country, his political reliance on Islamists, and his consequent refusal to prevent Taliban elements from killing American troops, Afghan civilians, and opponents in Pakistan’s tribal areas. It is a classic case of muting human rights concerns to protect a security relationship. But it is in fact just as contrary to U.S. security interests as it is to America's commitment to democracy. And it is killing America’s image with the next generation of, hopefully, democratic Pakistani leaders.

I raise this, Mr. Chairman, because it is truly an urgent example of the problem you are focusing on today, and one that requires immediate attention. We desperately need, in the coming days, clear, public statements from both the administration and the Congress urging full respect for the rule of law and judicial independence in Pakistan, the release of political detainees, media freedom, and a swift return to civilian, democratic rule. This shouldn’t be about whether the United States supports or opposes a particular leader – but it needs to be, clearly and unequivocally, about U.S. support for the institutions of democracy and law.

Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to testify. I look forward to answering any questions the committee may have.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.