Human Rights Versus Multilateralism

Human rights advocates are unhappy with the Obama administration’s foreign policy, citing three developments: (1) the failure to back the Goldstone Report; (2) the failure to pressure Sri Lanka to improve its treatment of Tamils; and (3) the willingness to deal with Sudan’s President Bashir, who was recently indicted by the International Criminal Court.  It turns out that Sudan is a useful ally in fighting terrorism and Sri Lanka is, well, complicated, and Israel is Israel.  As Julian Ku notes, coddling Bashir is hardly a way to support the ICC, which is already reeling from the decision of members of the African Union not to extradite him to The Hague if he enters their countries, in violation of their legal obligations (most of them belong to the ICC; a few have since backpedaled).  Meanwhile, the Obama administration has apparently succeeded in pressuring Spain to water down its universal jurisdiction statute, the one that the Spaniards were supposed to use to prosecute Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and David Addington.  Well, good for the Obama administration: it has implicitly repudiated campaign rhetoric that endorsed global legalism, and it didn’t take it as long as one might have thought.

The only real break from the Bush administration on the human rights front, rhetoric aside, was the decision to join the comically named Human Rights Council, which is dominated by human-rights abusing countries and almost never condemns anyone (except Israel) for violating human rights.  The Human Rights Council replaced the Human Rights Commission, which was disbanded because it was dominated by human-rights abusing countries and almost never condemned anyone (except Israel) for violating human rights.  Aside from rubber stamping anodyne periodic reviews of countries (which make for fun reading*) and condemning Israel, the Council issues resolutions promoting the values of the developing world, whose members outnumber and hence outvote the members from the developed world.  These values include: redistribution from north to south (which, if history is any guide, means redistribution to regimes, not to people); weakening property rights, especially intellectual property rights, which southern countries would like to appropriate; protecting religious and “traditional” values, which, it turns out, have little to do with what westerners normally think of as human rights, and mainly involve the subordination of women and opposition to secularism; and asserting the “right to development,” which both underlies the south’s claims for aid and excuses developing countries from complying with obligations of any sort—including obligations to respect the other human rights—that might retard economic growth.

If the Human Rights Council has any real-world effect, it is to advance these anti-western values.  This is inevitable in international legal forums which respect the principle of one-state-one vote, for the simple reason that most states reject western values and can outvote those that endorse them.  Consider this excerpt from the article linked to above:

The administration continues to assert that “the United States is not going to preach its values and not going to impose its values,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The problem is they are not American values — they are international values.”

The problem is that people like Roth continue to think (or to say they think) that international human rights are (1) universal values that (2) happen to be the same as those that have evolved in western countries since the Enlightenment—the standard list of political and civil rights plus some foggy positive rights to work, education, health care, and social security.  This is not true.  Many non-western countries are working to shift the meaning of “human rights,” which has become an essentially contested concept, so that they advance the interests and non-western values of those countries.  Sooner or later, western countries will have to repudiate the Council, just as they did in the case of the Commission.

The Goldstone report, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Spain, the Council—they all reflect the same thing: Obama has chosen multilateralism—more precisely, a kind of cautious and pragmatic realpolitik—over human rights.

*E.g.:

27. Cuba stressed that despite limited resources, Yemen has demonstrated a clear will to improve the daily life of its citizens, particularly in the areas of education, health care, food and combating poverty. Cuba welcomed measures taken in the field of health care to expand coverage and improve the quality of services. It referred to the national report containing information on measures taken to promote the rights of women and voluntary commitments.

From here.  The Council as a body does not express its views in these reports, so they are just a long list of statements from the various member states, along with responses by the state under review, and with no factual detail or documentation of human rights abuses whatsoever, nor any sort of final conclusion about the country’s human rights practices.