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 crisis.

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 Kosovo.

... 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 foe.

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 United States.

... 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 nation.

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 endure.

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