A Single Standard for Human Rights
Amnesty International, June 9, 2000
We in the United States take pride in the thought that our
country stands for the fundamental human rights of freedom and
justice for all people - and not just for our own citizens.
Yet, today, these bedrock principles are being seriously compromised
by a consistently inconsistent foreign policy that preaches the
worth and dignity of every human being, but that in fact practices
a troubling double standard for human rights that invites contempt
across the world.
While we are all too ready to denounce "pariah"
states that we consider politically or economically unimportant
- such as Cuba, Iraq and Libya - we remain virtually silent when
nations who share our strategic interests - such as Saudi Arabia
- continue to practice long-standing policies of terror against
their own citizens.
We justify this moral contradiction on the grounds of "national
interest." We tend to hold our "friends" above
the law while we preach the sanctity of universal human rights.
It is a transparent double standard that few fail to see through.
And ultimately, we pay the price of failing to enforce the consistent
protection of human rights, without reservation.
Put simply, the world reacts to what we do as much as what
we say. When we address human rights crises selectively or only
when forced to ... when we traffic with abusers for the sake of
economic or political expedience ... we can almost invariably
predict the result. By not adhering to a single standard of human
rights applied evenhandedly, we encourage human rights outlaws
to act with impunity. And then, we inherit a whirlwind of suffering.
Just look at examples from recent times:
For almost a decade Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United
Front and other rebel forces, rampaged across Sierra Leone killing
tens of thousands of civilians, raping women, abducting thousands
of children who were forced into combat and hacking the limbs
off countless innocents. Only when confronted with the gruesome
media images of the dismembered and brutalized did the world community
finally act. But the action was short-sighted. No one was held
accountable for the crimes that ravaged Sierra Leone.
In July of 1999, Washington, London and the United Nations
brokered a flawed, peace-at-any-price agreement, in which Sankoh
and his Revolutionary United Front were granted blanket amnesty,
given four seats in the government and handed control over the
country's rich diamond mines.
This, it was claimed, was the price of peace. In return, the
rebels were supposed to disarm and "behave." Yet Sankoh
and his rebels more interested in looting a broken nation than
governing a peaceful one. And emboldened by the blanket amnesty,
they resumed their killing spree - even kidnapping U.N. forces
charged with upholding the peace. Again, the world faces a renewed
Should we have been surprised when we rewarded savagery rather
than punishing those who perpetrated it? How could the United
Nations and the United States ever agree to a power-sharing agreement
with the forces that killed, raped and maimed tens of thousands
of women, men and children? True reconciliation will not be achieved
in Sierra Leone - or anywhere else - if human rights abusers are
allowed to get away with murder and the rights of victims and
their families to truth, justice and redress are simply ignored.
Isn't it time we learned this lesson?
Russia's war to wipe out "terrorists" in Chechnya
has cost thousands of civilians their lives, resulted in the torture
of Chechen people at Russian "filtration" camps, and
driven more than a quarter of a million people from their homes.
But while the United States and its allies express shock at
Russian atrocities in Chechnya, they make it abundantly clear
that they consider other business with Russia far more pressing
and have refused to pursue the criminal prosecution of those responsible
for the Chechen catastrophe - while insisting that the killers
in East Timor be tried and punished. The result? The betrayal
of Chechens and all Russians and beleaguered human rights defenders
within Russia. And a clear message to Russia's fledgling democracy
that it will be held less accountable than other nations.
The United States and its NATO allies who bombed Belgrade
a year ago were the same countries willing to deal with the government
of Slobodan Milosevic during the break up of Yugoslavia. Even
in the shadow of Bosnia, these same governments were unwilling
to address repeated warnings about the growing human rights crisis
... In the early 1990s in Rwanda, security forces and government
supporters were allowed to act with impunity, killing and mutilating
tens of thousands of people... The United States remained indifferent,
then came Rwanda's genocidal deluge in 1994, followed by actions
which were too little and too late.
... If the motivation of the United States' government is
the protection of universal human rights, then why are we so selective
in our actions? The United States supports U.N. sanctions on Libya
and Iraq and an embargo of Cuba, for example, but vacillates when
addressing Turkey's abysmal record of human rights - a nation
that has been responsible for wholesale and systematic human rights
violations, including the destruction of 3,000 Kurdish villages
in the past few years.
These are just some examples of how the United States fails
to apply a single standard of human rights, thus putting millions
of people at risk. Their lives are trade-offs for our expediency,
our "interests" or our indifference. lt is no wonder
that the genocide in Rwanda took place, or the ethnic cleansing
of Bosnia, the fury of Kosovo or the indiscriminate rape of East
Timor and Sierra Leone. This is precisely what to expect when
world superpowers such as the United States ignore human rights
abuse when it suits them.
Eventually unspeakable human rights violations occur which
we cannot ignore. Peace is shattered. Bloodshed overflows national
borders. Regional conflicts turn into international crises. And
we spend billions in armed intervention or humanitarian assistance
to deal with a crisis that could well have been prevented.
It's time we learned that confronting human rights abuses
can not be a selective process - targeted at some nations but
not at others. When fundamental human rights are jeopardized in
one place, they are jeopardized everywhere. Our "self-interest"
ultimately demands the consistent protection of human rights and
the condemnation of those who abuse them ... whether friend or
For too long human rights policy has remained an island off
the mainland of U. S. foreign policy. While recent Administrations
have declared human rights a fundamental pillar of U. S. policy,
human rights concerns are routinely compartmentalized and rationalized
out of existence.
The Administration's $1.6 billion security assistance package
for Colombia for the next two years may dramatically exacerbate
what is already a human rights emergency. Despite Amnesty's demonstration
that in the recent past U. S. dollars paid for military equipment
that went to Colombian army units implicated in gross human rights
violations, the Administration is not heeding Amnesty's warnings
about the aid package.
... Colombia is already the third largest recipient of U.
S. aid in the world. All we have to show for it is an escalating
body count of innocent civilians. Do we really want to underwrite
continued slaughter in that country?
Similarly, the United States has a long history of supplying
arms to Turkey, another NATO member and significant strategic
ally. In recent years it was determined by the Pentagon and others
that the Turkish military used these arms to commit gross human
rights violations, particularly against the Kurdish minority.
(In October 1998, the Administration, on human rights grounds,
refused to finance a sale of military equipment ... and Amnesty
applauded this decision.)
... American helicopters [are used] to attack civilians in
Kurdish villages and to transport troops to regions where civilians
are then tortured and killed. Still, the Administration may well
grant an export license for $4 billion in attack helicopters to
Turkey! Can we not remain fast to principle? Can we not expect
that Turkey, or j other nations who receive U. S. aid, live up
to basic human rights benchmarks?
... We challenge the international community to own up to
its own responsibility in ensuring the protection of human rights.
And with the clout of more than one million vocal members worldwide,
Amnesty can make change happen - whether in the justice system
in Saudi Arabia or in the foreign policy of superpowers like the
... human rights are not something remote and out of our control.
We must show our own government that the protection of human rights
is indeed in our national interest, that it is essential to lasting
peace and stability, and that it is the best reflection of a civilized
For every Kosovo, there are numerous other human rights crises
occurring in every corner of the globe. Some have faded from the
spotlight from neglect or "battle fatigue" on the part
of a weary public, or are clouded in secrecy like the human rights
violations in Saudi Arabia. And yet individuals in these places
experience repression and horror that no person should have to