TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

After Haiti
is US human rights policy confused?



Jonathan Power

March 3, 2004

LONDON - The human rights theologians are going to have a stressful week or two trying to decide whether the U.S. and France moved against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti because they defending human rights or undermining them. Perhaps it all depends on which end of the telescope you look through. Were they deposing a freely elected president and thus subverting the cause of democracy or were they attempting to end a state of affairs where an elected president had surrounded himself by street gangs, thugs and manifestly corrupt acolytes, and the rule of law on which all human rights depend had become a violence-provoking sham?

There is an unthought out belief circulating in the human rights community that under the Bush administration the U.S. stance on human rights has sharply deteriorated. There is, needless to say, much evidence of this- the Guantanamo detentions of Al Qaeda suspects and rather well substantiated reports that the White House is tolerating torture against other detainees as long as it's done by the operatives of allies on foreign soil.

But to concentrate on the obviously distasteful- and in terms of the larger goal of promoting western standards of democracy, quite counterproductive- is to oversimplify. In many areas and on many issues human rights policy is much more nuanced and depends on a complicated assessment of priorities and pressures.

This is argued in a new study published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, written by Rosemary Foot. As she points out, before September 11th Pakistan was dead in the water as far as Washington was concerned. But once President Pervez Musharraf had overnight turned his country's foreign policy from pro Taliban to pro US nearly all sanctions were cancelled. Subsequently, despite Musharraf's moves to concentrate power in his hands and a continuation of serious human rights abuses, Pakistan was given waiver after waiver by President George W. Bush.

The same happened in Indonesia. In the face of an earlier unequivocal U.S. demand for trials of those military officers accused of mass murders in the former territory of East Timor all significant pressure was shelved once the hunt for Al Qaeda personnel in Indonesia became the prime U.S. concern.

Would you be reading this now,
if it wasn't useful to you?
Get more quality articles in the future

But in Uzbekistan, also a front line state in the battle against Al Qaeda, policy has been more nuanced. After September 11th the country quickly offered its airspace and a base to the U.S.. In return the U.S. sharply increased its amount of economic aid. Nevertheless, the State Department in its 2003 report on human rights employed some of the toughest language about any country when describing the situation in Uzbekistan. The U.S. kept up the pressure for Uzbekistan to admit the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. And this was done.

China too has been an important ally in the war against terrorism. But Washington has been careful not to allow China to dress up its repression in the Muslim region of Xingjiang Uighur as an anti-terrorist campaign. The U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Clark Randt, has been outspoken on what his  position is on human rights issues. "No other single issue receives more of my personal attention", he says bluntly. The U.S., although closer to China now than it has ever been, has made it clear that it can never have a more equal relationship with China until matters improve on this front.

So what makes the difference in Washington's stance?  It seems to be very much a question of Congress' attitude. When Congress is in a compromising mode then there is no restraint on the Administration's own desire to compromise. But when Congressional opinion is firm it seems to work to straighten the spine of the administration. And this doesn't always correlate well with the left/right divide.

I recall once interviewing Jimmy Carter, who liked to think he was the "human rights president". "There is no way that Amnesty International, for all its wonderful work, can play the same role as the president of the U.S.", he told me. I thought at the time "yes, but only if he wants to". It was Carter himself who let Pakistan off the hook following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Congress allowed him to. But it was a conservative president, Ronald Reagan, who struck one of the most significant blows for human rights by winning Congress' approval for the UN Convention against Torture (without which General Augusto Pinochet would never have been arrested). Moreover, many neo-conservatives today argue vociferously for a "democratic peace" i.e. the notion that democracies do not go to war against each other. Spine on human rights can come from all sides of the political spectrum. Human rights activists have to know how to take advantage of this.

Following Aristide's overthrow once again they are being compelled to learn to recognize shades of grey in winning the battle for high standards on human rights.



I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"




Tell a friend about this article

Send to:


Message and your name






S P E C I A L S & F O R U M S

Iraq Forum

Gandhi & India

Burundi Forum

Photo galleries

Nonviolence Forum

TFF News Navigator

Become a TFF Friend

TFF Online Bookstore

Reconciliation project

EU conflict-management

Make an online donation

Foundation update and more

TFF Peace Training Network

Make a donation via bank or postal giro

Basic menu below












The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512

© TFF 1997-2004