Is America Disinventing Human Rights?
By Professor Alemayehu G Mariam
August 19, 2013



In his 1981 farewell speech, President Jimmy Carter said, “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America.”

In a New York Times op-ed piece in June 2012, Carter cautioned, “At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”

Carter also raised a number of important questions: Has the U.S. abdicated its moral leadership in the arena of international human rights? Has the U.S. betrayed its core values by maintaining a detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and subjecting dozens of prisoners to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and leaving them without the “prospect of ever obtaining their freedom”? Does the arbitrary killing of a person suspected to be an enemy terrorist in a drone strike along with women and children who happen to be nearby comport with America’s professed commitment to the rule of law and human rights?

In 1948, the U.S. played a central leadership role in “inventing” the principal instrument which today serves as the bedrock foundation of modern human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948, set a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” in terms of equality, dignity and rights. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the committee that drafted the UDHR. Eleanor remains an unsung heroine even though she was the mother of the modern global human rights movement. Without her, there would have been no UDHR; and without the UDHR, it is doubtful that the plethora of subsequent human rights conventions and regimes would have come into existence. Remarkably, she managed to mobilize, organize and proselytize human rights even though she had no legal training, diplomatic experience or bureaucratic expertise. She used her skills as political activist and advocate in the cause of freedom, justice and civil rights to work for global human rights.

Is America disinventing human rights?

It seems the U.S. is “disinventing” human rights through the pursuit of  double (triple, quadruple) standard of human rights policy wrapped in a cover of diplocrisy.  In Africa, the U.S. has one set of standards for Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan. Mugabe and Bashir are classified as the nasty hombres of human rights in Africa. The U.S. has targeted both regimes for crippling economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. The U.S. has frozen the assets of Mugabe's family and henchmen because the “Mugabe regime rules through politically motivated violence and intimidation and has triggered the collapse of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.” 

The U.S. calls “partners” equally brutal regimes in Africa which serve as its proxies. Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yuweri Museveni of Uganda and the deceased leader of the regime in Ethiopia are lauded as the “new breed of African leaders" and crowned “partners”. Uhuru Kenyatta, recently elected president of Kenya and a suspect under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity is said to be different than Bashir who faces similar ICC charges. In  2009,  Ambassador Susan E. Rice, then-U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, demanded Bashir’s arrest and prosecution:  “The people of Sudan have suffered too much for too long, and an end to their anguish will not come easily. Those who committed atrocities in Sudan, including genocide, should be brought to justice.” No official U.S. statement on Uhuru’s ICC prosecution was issued.

The U.S. maintains excellent relations with  Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea who has been in power since 1979 because of that country’s oil reserves; but all of the oil revenues are looted by Obiang and his cronies. In 2011, the U.S. brought legal action in federal court  against Obiang’s son to seize corruptly obtained assets including a $40 million estate in Malibu, California  overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a luxury plane and a dozen super-sports cars worth millions of dollars.  The U.S. has not touched any of the other African Ali Babas and their forty dozen thieving cronies who have stolen billions and stashed their cash in U.S. and other banks.  

Despite lofty rhetoric in support of the advancement of democracy and protection of human rights in Africa, the United States continues to subsidize and coddle African dictatorships that are as bad as or even worse than Mugabe's. The U.S. currently provides substantial economic aid, loans, technical and security assistance to the repressive regimes in Ethiopia, Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda and elsewhere. None of these countries holds free elections, allow the operation of an independent press or free expression or abide by the rule of law. All of them are corrupt to the core, keep thousands of political prisoners, use torture and ruthlessly persecute their opposition. Yet they are deemed U.S. “partners”.

“Principled disengagement” as a way of reinventing an American human rights policy?

If the Obama Administration indeed has a global or African human rights policy, it must be a well-kept secret. In March 2013,  Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor   said American human rights policy is based on “principled engagement”: “We are going to go to the United Nations and join the Human Rights Council and we’re going to be part of it even though we recognize it doesn’t work… We’re going to engage with governments that are allies but we are also going to engage with governments with tough relationships and human rights are going to be  part of those discussions.” Second, the U.S. will follow “a single standard for human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it applies to all including ourselves…” Third, consistent with President “Obama’s personality”, the Administration believes “change occurs from within and so a lot of  the emphasis… [will be] on how we can help local actors, change agents, civil society, labor activists, religious leaders trying to change their societies from within and amplify their own voices and give them the support they need...”

On August 14, according to Egyptian government sources, 525 protesters, mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were killed and 3,717 injured at the hands of Egyptian military and security forces. It was an unspeakably horrifying massacre of protesters exercising their right to peaceful expression of grievances.

On August 15, President Obama criticized the heavy-handed crackdown on peaceful protesters with the usual platitudes. “The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government and security forces. We deplore violence against civilians.” His message to the Egyptian people was somewhat disconcerting in light of the massacre. “America cannot determine the future of Egypt. We do not take sides with any particular party or political figure. I know it’s tempting inside Egypt to blame the United States.”

In July 2009, in Ghana, President Obama told Africa’s “strongmen”, “History offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not…. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality… Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans [citizens and their communities driving change], and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” 

President Obama has a clear choice in Egypt between “those who use coups to stay in power” and the people of Egypt peacefully protesting in the streets. Now he says, “We don’t take sides…” By "not taking sides",  it seems he has taken sides with Egypt’s strongmen who "use coups to stay in power".  So much for “principled engagement”!

Obama reassured the Egyptian military that the U.S. does not intend to end or suspend its decades-old partnership with them. He cautioned the military that “While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual while civilians are being killed in the streets.”  He indicated his disapproval of the imposition of “martial law” but made no mention of the manifest military coup that had ousted Morsy. He obliquely referred to it as a “military intervention”. He made a gesture of  “action” cancelling a symbolic military exercise with the Egyptian army. There will be no suspension of U.S. military aid to Egypt and no other sanctions will be imposed on the Egyptian military or government.

I am not clear what Obama’s human rights policy of “principled engagement” actually means. But I have a lot of questions about it: Does it mean moral complacency and tolerance of the crimes against humanity of African dictators for the sake of the war on terror and oil? Is it a euphemism for abdication of American ideals on the altar of political expediency? Does it mean overlooking and excusing the crimes of  ruthless dictators and turning a blind eye to their bottomless  corruption? Does “principled engagement” mean  allowing dictators to suck at the teats of American taxpayers to satisfy their insatiable aid addiction while they brutalize their people?

The facts of  Obama’s “principled engagement” tell a different story. In May 2010,  after the ruling party in Ethiopia declared it had won 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament, the U.S. demonstrated its “principled engagement” by issuing a Statement expressing “concern that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments” and promised to “work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people.” There is no evidence that the U.S. did anything to “strengthen democratic institutions and open political dialogue to become a reality for the Ethiopian people.”

When two ICC indicted suspects in Kenya (Kenyatta and Ruto) won the presidency in Kenya a few months ago, the U.S. applied its “principled engagement” in the form of a robust defense of the suspects. Johnnie Carson, the former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said the ICC indictments of  Bashir and Uhuru/Ruto are different. “I don't want to make a comparison with Sudan in its totality because Sudan is a special case in many ways.” What makes Bashir and Sudan different, according to Carson, is the fact that Sudan is on the list of countries that support terrorism and Bashir and his co-defendants are under indictment for the genocide in Darfur. Since “none of that applies to Kenya,” according to Carson, it appears the U.S. will follow a different policy.

President Obama says the U.S. will maintain its traditional partnership with Egypt’s military, Egypt’s “strongmen”. At the onset of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011,  Obama and his foreign policy team froze in stunned silence, flat-footed and twiddling their thumbs and scratching their heads for days before staking out a position on that popular uprising. They could not bring themselves to use the “D” word (dictator as in Hosni Mubarak) to describe events in Egypt then. Today Obama cannot bring himself to say the “C” word (as in Egyptian military coup).

Obama is in an extraordinary historical position as a person of color to advance American ideals and values throughout the world in convincing and creative ways. But he cannot advance these ideals and values through a hollow notion of “principled engagement.”

Rather, he must adopt a policy of  “principled disengagement” with African dictators. That does not mean isolationism or a hands off approach to human rights. By “principled disengagement” I mean a policy and policy outcome that is based on measurable human rights metrics. Under a policy of “principled disengagement”, the U.S. would establish clear, attainable and measurable human rights policy objectives in its relations with African dictatorships. The policy would establish minimum conditions of human rights compliance. For instance, the U.S. could set some basic criteria for the conduct of free and fair elections, press and individual freedoms, limits on arbitrary arrests and detentions, prevention of extrajudicial punishments, etc. Using its annual human rights assessments, the U.S. could make factual determinations on the extent to which it will engage or disengage with a particular regime. “Partnership” status and the benefits that come with it will be reserved to those regimes that have good and improving records on specific human rights measures. Regimes that steal elections, win elections by 99.6 percent, engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions and other human rights violations would be denied “partnership” status and denied aid, loans and technical assistance. Persistent violators of human rights would be given a compliance timetable to improve their records and provided appropriate assistance to achieve specific human rights goals. If regimes persist in a pattern and practice of human rights violations, the U.S. could raise the stakes and impose economic and diplomatic sanctions.

The ‘‘ Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007 ’’ contained many important statutory provisions that could serve as a foundation for “principled disengagement”.

Obama’s “principled engagement” seems to be a justification for expediency at the cost of American ideals. Until he decides to stand for principle, instead of standing behind the rhetoric of “principled engagement”, he will continue to find himself on a tightrope of moral, legal and political ambiguity. The U.S. cannot “condemn” and “deplore” its way out of its human rights obligations or global leadership role. Yes, the U.S. must take sides! It must take a stand either with the victims of human rights abuses throughout the world or the human rights abusers of the world.  If Obama wants to save the world from strongmen with boots and in designer suits with briefcases full of cash, he should pursue a policy of “principled disengagement”. But he should start by reflecting on the words he spoke during his first inauguration speech:

Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.


Ethiomedia.com - An African-American news and views website.
Copyright 2013 Ethiomedia.com.
Email: editor@ethiomedia.com

HOME