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Ironically, in light of its long-stated commitment to upholding human rights at home and in its foreign policy, the U.S. government today poses a threat to the universality of human rights. Thus, when it came to strengthening international standards and institutions, the United States repeated the 1997 diplomatic debacle of its opposition to the Mine Ban Treaty. Also by opposing the new treaty creating an International Criminal Court if it would apply to U.S. citizens, Washington revealed itself once more to be severely out of step with most of the rest of the world. It is inevitable that Washington's efforts to exempt the United States from the international system for protecting human rights will be mimicked by far less savory regimes. Moreover, the U.S. government's unwillingness to subject itself to international human-rights standards risks diminishing what should be one of the most important voices defending human rights.
On landmines, the U.S. government determined to continue using these indiscriminate weapons in Korea and elsewhere, persisted in its refusal to sign a treaty that has been endorsed by the overwhelming majority of the world's governments. Indeed, the United States stood alone with Turkey among the NATO states, Finland among the governments of the European Union, and Cuba within the entire Western Hemisphere as the only countries in these areas not to have signed the treaty. The Pentagon's refusal to countenance the abolition on humanitarian grounds of an actively used weapons system, and President Clinton's unwillingness to spend the political capital needed to overrule his generals, left the United States a bystander to one of the most important and dramatic human-rights developments of recent years.

International Criminal Court

The Clinton administration found itself just as isolated on the issue of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The United States was one of only seven governments to vote against the Rome treaty - along with China, Iraq, Libya, Israel, Qatar, and Yemen - against 120 supporters. The Rome delegates went a long way toward addressing U.S. fears of frivolous or politically motivated prosecutions. The ICC will have jurisdiction only if national courts are unable or unwilling to pursue a matter - meaning that the United States, with its strong civilian and military criminal justice systems, would be able to avoid any prosecution of its citizens by conscientiously acting on the case in question. Moreover, the definition of the crime of greatest concern to the United States - the one governing attacks that cause disproportionate harm to civilians - was rewritten to make it much harder to call an attack a crime. Indeed, to the detriment of the court, its ability to acquire jurisdiction over a crime was significantly restricted in a futile effort to placate Washington. Yet the United States still left the Rome conference vowing to reopen negotiations and "fix" the treaty.
What Washington evidently wanted, and what the Rome delegates refused to cede, was the opportunity to exempt U.S. nationals altogether from the court's reach. That demand, never stated explicitly but implicit in many of the U.S. proposals, is inconsistent with the fundamental principles that justice must apply equally to all. As the world's sole superpower, the United States may well be involved in security matters around the globe, but no one should accept that its military might gives it license to violate rights or reject international scrutiny of its conduct. As the like-minded governments assemble to sixty treaty ratifications needed to launch the ICC, they should resist further U.S. efforts to weaken this historic institution.

Convenience Rather Than Humanitarianism

A refusal to accept evolving international standards also lay behind Washington's continued obstruction of international efforts to ban the use of children under 18 years of age as soldiers. The use of child soldiers - an estimated 300,000 worldwide - contributes significantly to the inhumanity of war. The children themselves risk death, physical injury, and deep psychological sears while, in light of their lack of maturity, they endanger those who encounter them. The widely ratified Convention of the Rights of the Child sets 18 as the age of maturity on most other matters, and there is a broad international consensus that this bright line should be used to define the appropriate age of soldiers. But because the Pentagon recruits 17-year-olds out of secondary school, the U.S. government refuses to join a proposed protocol barring the recruitment of anyone younger than 18. Indeed, by blocking a "consensus," the Clinton administration refuses to permit anyone else to adopt the protocol for themselves - even though 17-year-olds constitute less than ½ of 1 percent of active-duty American soldiers. Washington thus has elevated a matter of recruiting convenience over the humanitarian imperative of curbing this cruel and dangerous aspect of warfare.
There were small indications that the United States was feeling pressure for its recalcitrance on these issues. On landmines, the United States destroyed 3.3 million non-self-destructing "dumb" mines, but left itself another million mines to use in Korea. It also announced that it might sign the Mine Ban Treaty by the year 2006, but only if suitable alternatives to landmines could be developed. On child soldiers, a congressional resolution urged the administration to stop blocking negotiation of a protocol to prohibit children under 18 from serving in active combat, but it remained unclear whether this call would be heeded. On the ICC, the administration has softened the tone, though not changed the substance, of its objections. Washington's mistrust of international human-rights law extends to established standards as well.
By entering "reservations" to treaties it has ratified or simply disregarding them, the United States refuses to apply them fully - on such issues as stopping ongoing execution of juvenile offenders or providing enhanced protection from invidious discriminatory treatment. It also is consistently late and superficial in reporting on its compliance with these treaties. In addition, there are a host of major treaties that the U.S. still has not ratified - on women's rights, children's rights, labor rights, economic rights, and the protection of civilians in time of war. The Clinton administration was dismissive of a visit by one U.N. special rapporteur examining the application of the death penalty in the United States, although it was more helpful when another rapporteur came to investigate violence against women. The administration also blocked a proposed Security Council investigation into its bombing of Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant in Khartoum. The investigation might have found that the United States lacked evidence to justify making the plant an appropriate military target.
The administration has been slow to address some of the most important human-rights violations in the United States. For example, despite a four-year-old congressional mandate, the Justice Department still has not taken serious steps to document the scope of police brutality in the United States. The U.S. government continues routinely to detain asylum-seekers and to hold them in inhumane conditions, in violation of international standards on detention and asylum. Although the Justice Department has filed suits against Arizona and Michigan regarding sexual abuse of women in their prisons, it has resisted more systematic efforts to reform state prison system, such as criminalizing custodial sexual misconduct, providing a safe complaint mechanism, and tracking complaints of abuse. Women in federal custody fared better when the Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to stop housing women prisoners in men's facilities and to create en effective procedure for women to report cases of sexual abuse without risking retaliation.

Mixed Record

The Clinton administration's efforts to promote human rights around the world were subject to large blind spots. Major parts of Africa, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union never made it to the administration's human-rights agenda. As has become common in recent years, the State Department accurately reported on human-rights abuses in its annual Country Reports on Human-Rights Practices. But for many countries, this one-shot commentary was never repeated in other fora, let alone allowed to influence U.S. policy. Human-rights concerns rarely ranked with the administration's other interests.
The administration did best with the pariah countries. It maintained tough sanctions on Burma for its suppression of democratic forces. It cut off all aid to the government of Belarus, funding only the embattled civil society. It expressed outrage at rebel atrocities in Sierra Leone. It took a strong stand against abuses by the Sudanese government. It provided generous financial support to the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. It also performed well on some more pivotal countries. In Croatia, it funded the return of refugees and protested the slow pace of those returns and the government's resistance to democratization. In Malaysia, it spoke out against the mistreatment of migrants and the suppression of political opposition. In Algeria, it kept relations cool while insisting that the government allow greater transparency on human rights, particularly investigation of ongoing massacres. In Indonesia, it worked at high levels to stop attacks on ethnic Chinese.
In several countries, the administration's record was mixed. It waited far too long as Yugoslav forces battered ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo, but then marshaled NATO military pressure until Yugoslav President Milosovic agreed, at least for the time being, to stop the attacks, withdraw some troops, and permit international monitoring. In Bosnia, U.S. troops helped NATO to arrest lesser war crimes suspects, but not the leaders of the genocide, and the Clinton administration repeatedly waived legislative prohibitions on delivering financial assistance to communities that harbored indicted suspects.
In Colombia, the administration openly acknowledged the close working relationship between the army and murderous paramilitary forces, and denied a visa to a leading general implicated in atrocities. But the new U.S. ambassador has been silent on human rights. And the administration implemented half-heartedly and with no transparency a law requiring it to withhold anti-narcotics assistance from forces involved in abuse until they bring those responsible to justice.
The U.S. embassy in Uzbekistan protested repression against conservative Muslims and monitored their trails, but U.S. aid to this abusive government grew, and the U.S. Export-Import Bank approved $215 million in long-term guarantees for U.S. companies exporting industrial equipment to the country. In Cuba, while ostensibly concerned about human rights, the U.S. government pursued an embargo that itself violated the rights to freedom of expression and movement. Moreover, by adopting an all-or-nothing approach to President Fidel Castro's continuing rule, Washington provided little incentive for him to ease repression of civil society.
In China, the administration helped to enhance dialogue about human rights; to convince the government to sign a key human-rights treaty; to secure the release of a handful of prisoners; and to gain permission for President Clinton, during his visit to the country, to speak to the public about human rights. It also pushed, albeit unsuccessfully, for more systematic changes, such as review of the roughly 2,000 prisoners held for violating the since-repealed crime of "counterrevolution." But like the European Union, the administration had no plan, other than waiting for China to change on its own, for helping to move beyond promises and dialogue to systematic change. Washington gave up two powerful sources of leverage - human-rights preconditions to President Clinton's much-sought trip to China, and efforts to secure a resolution critical of China before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights - without developing any alternative way to keep the pressure on.

Tolerating Repressors

Most troubling were the vast swaths of the globe that were exempt from U.S. pressure on human rights. In South Asia, the administration condemned nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, but said little about their dismal human-rights records. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and its oil-rich or strategically useful neighbors faced no public pressure on their own records of repression. Nor did Israel, Egypt or Syria. Israeli abuses, if mentioned at all, were treated as "obstacles to peace" rather than human-rights violations. Moreover, although both Israeli and Palestinian forces routinely torture security suspects, the U.S.-orchestrated Wye Memorandum addresses only Palestinian forces' responsibility to respect human rights, and then undercuts even that duty by suggesting that it must not become a pretext for failing to implement security provisions.
The petroleum-rich states of Central Asia were also courted without reference to their repressive conduct. Typically, President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan was welcomed at the White House even though he denies his citizens virtually all civil liberties. The administration succeeded in securing the release if 10 political prisoners, but a White House press release disingenuously trumpeted Niyazov's commitment to the rule of law and political pluralism. It also rewarded him with $96 million in investments backed by the Export-Import Bank. Human rights similarly took a back seat to energy interests in Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, and Uzbekistan. In Africa, where the United States hoped to promote stability, it favored strategic alliances with new leaders rather than overtly addressing their human-rights problems. In Rwanda, where insurgents, including some guilty of the 1994 genocide, fought in the northwest, Washington continued its steady backing of the government and even considered extending it lethal military aid. Mistakenly believing that public criticism of slaughter by Rwandan troops might weaken the government, the Clinton administration remained publicly silent about most such abuses, whether in Rwanda or in Congo. In Uganda, Washington firmly supported President Museveni, whose help it needs to contain Sudan. While the administration drew attention to abuses by the Lord's Resistance Army, a Sudan-backed rebel group in Uganda that abducts and abuses children, it ignored abuses by Uganda's rebel ally in Sudan, the Sudan People's Liberation Army. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Sudanese rebel leaders in December 1997 without publicly mentioning their human-rights problems.

Good and Less Good News

There was good news on the legislative front, but also an emerging threat. Legislation introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy sought to narrow a loophole in U.S. law that in 1998 had allowed the United States to train a host of unsavory militaries, including those in Colombia, Equatorial Guinea, Indonesia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Suriname, and Turkey. New legislation also requires arms traders to register whether or not their arms flow through the United States, narrowing another loophole used to support abusive regimes. A much-contested bill to sanction governments that commit or tolerate religious repression finally became law. Although its sanctions provisions are weaker that first proposed, it otherwise corrects various shortcomings in the original legislation, which had focused on the persecution of Christians over others, exempted the most common forms of persecution faced by believers around the world in a misguided effort to protect Israel, divorced the protection of religious freedom from the broader panoply of civil and political rights with which it is inextricably linked, and privileged asylum-seekers claiming religious persecution over others.
A law funding International Monetary Fund required future study of its impact on labor rights. Meanwhile, at a time when the European Union has formally conditioned virtually all aid and preferential tariffs on respect for human rights, a business lobby working with administration and congressional allies was pushing to restrict the use of U.S. economic sanctions to promote human rights, including the denial of aid or preferential tariffs to abusive regimes. <

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