Monday, October 24, 2005

China, Saddam, and the discourse of human rights

I attended part of the American Branch of the International Law Society's annual meeting over the weekend, and learned some interesting stuff. Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China noted that China has become much more sophisticated in its approach to human rights. To deflect attention from its own atrocious record, it is now apparently using the discourse of human rights offensively, and producing detailed reports on U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

I'm not sure whether this is a positive or a negative development. On the minus side, shenanigans like this by Libya and other human rights violators stymied the UN Human Rights Commission for years. On the plus side, it means that the Chinese government is becoming better versed in the discourse of human rights, and that China is trying to appropriate the benefits of being on the right side of the human rights debates, even though it is a transparent attempt at distraction. This may have the unintended effect of helping to implant human rights norms in China. If groups like Falun Gong can point to China's denunciations of the U.S. and then show credible evidence of actions by the Chinese government that are much worse, the Chinese government will be in a more vulnerable position than if it had denied the value of human rights entirely.

This issue can be framed more generally as co-option of the discourse of human rights by governments that have previously opposed or downplayed it. In particular, the Bush administration has appropriated this discourse as no Republican administration has before. (Disclaimer: I'm not saying that U.S. conservatives have never valued human rights, only that human rights were traditionally not a top priority for the right. Neither am I saying that the Bush administration's actions are comparable in scope or severity to abuses of the Chinese government. China is much worse.)

The Saddam trial brings us to the somewhat unusual situation where the U.S. right is taking the lead in calling for tough legal prosecution of a former leader for human rights abuses. In the past, the left has been at the forefront in calling to use legal remedies against dictators like Pinochet or Milosevic.

Human rights has its roots in the Enlightenment and before, but as a modern discourse was really kick-started at Nuremberg, and was largely ignored after that by the right (except as it pertained to religious freedom), until it became instrumental as a justification for the Iraq war. Kissinger was famously dismissive of complaints of human rights violations by allies of the U.S.; for example, he supported Operation Condor in the Southern Cone and gave the green light to governments to commit massive atrocities there. Reagan turned a blind eye to heinous abuses by Central American governments because they were staunch allies in the war against communism. Reagan talked the talk of human rights, but the walk was conspicuously absent. Throughout the Cold War, the right's position on human rights violations was basically "If the communists do it, it's unconscionable. If our allies do it, it's an unfortunate but necessary effect of the greater battle to defeat evil." (Christopher Hitchens has excoriated many on the left for ignoring communist human rights abuses around the world for political reasons. There's something to that. However, Amnesty International got its start in large part by responding to Soviet abuses, and now rails against China. My premise in this post is that the human rights community has traditionally been viewed with suspicion by the U.S. right, and that the right's position on human rights has been changing since 9/11 and particularly since the invasion of Iraq.)

But now the Bush administration has jumped on the human rights train to enlist support for the Iraq war. While I regret that Saddam's record of killing and torturing his own people was used as a post hoc justification for a war that 1) should have been multilateral to be legitimate and 2) was clearly entered into for other reasons (i.e. to shake up the Middle East to be more favorably disposed to the U.S., to be seen as "doing something" about Islamist terrorism, to remove a persistent thorn in the U.S.'s side, etc.), overall, it is a good thing that the right is making arguments based on respect for human rights. We want human rights to fully enter the mainstream, as civil rights has done in the U.S. (the two are components of the same discourse, with civil rights being a specific manifestation of the more general human rights paradigm). We want both political parties in the U.S. vying to better deliver results on human rights to the American people and to people around the world.

The key for liberals is not to turn our backs on some human rights battles because they have become "tainted" by association with the Bush administration. Human rights should not be a political football. They are a fundamental component of every functioning democracy, and deserve support from both sides of the aisle. Saddam should be tried and held responsible for his crimes, as Pinochet never was. As Pol Pot never was. Ditto for Stalin, Mao, Trujillo, Somoza, Mugabe, Castro—the list goes on. We should support a full prosecution of Saddam (provided he is given a fair trial) and make sure all his dirty laundry is aired in court. This will be good for Iraq and good for the Middle East more generally, as it will show dictators there and elsewhere that there is a growing likelihood that they will be held accountable for their actions.

And we should use the rhetoric of the administration against it as it tries to cover up persistent stories of detainee abuse, as it ignores Darfur's descent into chaos, and as China trades support for the War on Terror for less noise from the U.S. on Chinese human rights abuses. Again, not for political gain, but to strengthen democracy at home and abroad. This administration has staked its reputation on being the "democracy and human rights" administration. Let's hold it to its word.

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