Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Obama, Human Rights, and America's Image

The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States has given hope to all those who believe the administration of George W. Bush has sullied the good name of America. Obama is going to close Guantanamo Bay, end the use of torture, sign the unsigned international treaties, rebuild America's partnerships and alliances, stop climate change, and end the war in Iraq. Just today, Obama promised to "reboot" America's image abroad. No one expresses this belief more clearly than does former President Jimmy Carter in an op-ed in today's Washington Post:

while Americans continue to espouse freedom and democracy, our government's abusive practices have undermined struggles for freedom in many parts of the world. As the gross abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay were revealed, the United States lost its mantle as a champion of human rights, eliminating our national ability to speak credibly on the subject, let alone restrain or gain concessions from oppressors. Tragically, a global backlash against democracy and rights activists, who are now the targets of abuse, has followed.

...

With a new administration and a new vision coming to the White House, we have the opportunity to move boldly to restore the moral authority behind the worldwide human rights movement. But the first steps must be taken at home.

President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and end torture, which can be accomplished by executive orders to close the prison and by enforcing existing prohibitions against torture by any U.S. representative, including FBI and CIA agents. The detention of people secretly or indefinitely and without due process must cease, and their cases should be transferred to our courts, which have proved their competence in trying those accused of terrorism. Further, a nonpartisan expert commission should be named to conduct a thorough review of U.S. practices related to unwarranted arrest, torture, secret detention, extraordinary rendition, abandonment of habeas corpus and related matters. Acknowledging to the world that the United States also has made mistakes will give credence to our becoming "a more perfect union" -- a message that would resonate worldwide. Together, these actions will help us restore our nation's principles and embolden others abroad who want higher moral standards for their own societies.

By putting its house in order, the United States would reclaim its moral authority and wield not only the political capital but also the credibility needed to engage in frank but respectful bilateral dialogues on the protection of human rights as central to world peace and prosperity.
To a degree, I agree with Carter. Bush most definitely has done damage to the moral reputation of the United States. However, I'm not so sure Obama will be able to do as much to fix that reputation as Carter and his ilk hope.

First, as Carter is well aware, the job of president is vastly different than the job of critic of the president. Being president means assuming responsibility for the security of the nation and the well-being of its citizens; sometimes those responsibilities demand actions that run counter to personal moral sentiments. Carter knows this first hand: He entered the White House on a "human rights first" platform, pledging to end US support of dictators simply because they weren't communist and promising to tie US foreign aid to human rights standards. He quickly learned that such a moral approach to foreign policy risked compromising strategic interests and strengthening the Soviet Union. Very quickly, Carter reversed this policy. Nonetheless, many analysts believe that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was, to some degree, prompted by Soviet perceptions of American weakness.

Second, rebuilding America's moral reputation may, paradoxically, require sullying it. Carter and many other human rights activists lodge their hopes for global moral improvement with the United Nations. To some degree, this makes sense. The UN is the closest thing the world has to a world parliament in which all the countries of the world can express their collective opinion. The UN has produced some of the broadest statements on human rights, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention.

But that's where things get murky. While the UN may be able to produce broad statements about human rights, it is unable to do much to advance that noble cause. As Joseph Locante points out:

More than half of the 47 members of the Human Rights Council, the principal U.N. body charged with promoting human rights, fail to uphold basic democratic freedoms in their own countries. Using the canards of anti-colonialism and anti-Americanism, they block resolutions that might embarrass them on the world stage. Thus, some of the most egregious offenders of human rights--including China, Cuba, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe--typically evade censure. Last week, for example, the Human Rights Council approved a resolution praising the Kinshasa government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose military stands accused of mass rape and murder.

Meanwhile, U.N. preparations for a world conference against racism, a follow-up to a controversial 2001 event in Durban, carry the familiar stigmata of moral cynicism. The U.N. planning committee includes nations such as Libya, Iran, Pakistan, and Cuba. What exactly can Iran--which defends policies that criminalize and brutalize its gay community--teach the world about combating racism? Safely inoculated against self-examination, the U.N. committee has produced a draft declaration suggesting that the United States, Western Europe and other liberal democracies are discriminatory against Islam and fundamentally racist.

The problem is, as I have written about many times here, the UN fundamentally privileges sovereign equality over liberal values. Thus, the UN finds itself forced to place North Korea and Zimbabwe on the UN Commission for Sustainable Development but unable to condemn either country for their brutality towards their citizens.

Law represents an aggregation of individual interest backed by an enforcement power. Without either of these factors, law cannot exist. If it has no ability to be enforced, it is empty; if it does not represent collective interest, it is meaningless. International law often fails on both grounds. But most importantly, because its highest principle is sovereignty, it can't truly represent collective interest. Why should anything the UN be considered legitimate simply because it represents the expressed will of illiberal regimes?

Truly advancing the cause of human rights, then, will require that the US look outside and beyond the framework of the United Nations. Just as NATO chose to intervene in Kosovo without the legal authorization of the UN because it was the right thing to do, advancing the cause of human rights demands action in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and North Korea, just to name the worst. And when the procedural rules of the UN, committed to the preservation of sovereignty as they are, get in the way, those rules must be ignored in order adhere to the true law of liberalism. Such actions will be illegal, and unpopular with many states. But to deny, as Carter and his ilk often do, that such actions are what is required to really promote human rights is disingenous.

The US need not take such actions alone. Here, Carter is correct to point to the need for allies and reputation. What makes Kosovo a legitimate violation of international law was the broad spectrum of states, and the institutional process, that authorized the intervention when the UN would not. President Obama will have to reach out to the US's ideological kin. But he will also have to violate international law. Let us be clear that such violations are necessary, and may in fact harm the US's reputation. But such harms are the price of liberalism. International law must be recognized for what it is and what it is not. It is not the tool to uplift the downtrodden; it is not the tool to bring freedom to the world's oppressed. If and when President Obama takes action to advance human rights and freedom around the world, let us not blame him when those actions break the "law."

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"...the UN fundamentally privileges sovereign equality over liberal values."

I guess I knew this, but you've stated it in a very insightful way. I tweeted it to find out what others make of it.

Tony
twitter: worldfederalist

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