Breaking the code of human rights

Many countries like to think of themselves as a shining example to others but the USA seems more prone to this belief than most. Often present in its foreign policy – “Wilsonian” is a common name for the trend, “a city upon a hill” another – the tendency was given new emphasis by Carter and, since his time, an annual human rights report has been produced by the State Department. The USA is also home to many “human rights” organisations, ever quick to judge. Russia under Putin is a frequent target of these judgements. Russian elections, never mind that they are accurately predicted by numerous opinion polls over time, are always “irregular” and suspect. Although Russian reporters seem oddly free to complain and criticise, the press in Russia is always tightly controlled. Despite the largest anti-government protests for years, protest is always impossible. A Russian version of FARA is unacceptable. Russia is rated by Freedom House ever trending downwards even when it reverses actions Freedom House formerly condemned. Moscow always threatens its neighbours even though they remain independent and some are in NATO, where one would think they were well protected. And so on and on: the details change but the denunciations never do.

But, every now and again someone gives the game away.

The Executive Director of the US branch of Amnesty International when Pussy Riot was declared to be prisoners of conscience was Suzanne Nossel. In and out of US administrations and NGOs, at AI she boasted she was the author of a 2004 article in Foreign Affairs magazine entitled “Smart Power”. “Progressives now have a historic opportunity to reorient U.S. foreign policy around an ambitious agenda of their own… the great mainstay of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy: liberal internationalism… liberal internationalists see trade, diplomacy, foreign aid, and the spread of American values as equally important.” She now heads PEN American Center and still boasts of “smart power”. She evidently sees no conflict of interest advancing “human rights” inside the US government structure or outside.

Another revealing quotation appeared in April in the Washington Post in a piece on US policy in Africa, specifically Niger. The author mentions several countries in which, notwithstanding certain human rights difficulties, Washington provides the governments with substantial money and keeps silent. Propping up the governments, in fact, as this government critic understands: “There is a need for change in our country, but our government doesn’t want to do what is necessary. Having a foreign military presence protects them”. “Human rights” are not so pre-eminent in these cases. Cynics have long suspected that Washington deploys “human rights” as a tool according to the conceptions of national interest but the author of the Washington Post piece found someone who actually admitted it: “‘The countries that cooperate with us get at least a free pass,’ acknowledged a senior U.S. official who specializes in Africa but spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. ‘Whereas other countries that don’t cooperate, we ream them as best we can.’”

So, let us see what we deduce from these two statements. Nossel, who happily moves between US administrations and NGOs – the G in NGO is apparently used here in a Pickwickian sense – lets us in on the secret that “human rights” are contingent and the “senior official” tells what they are contingent on. The phrase “human rights” is a code word: follow Washington’s lead and your “human rights” score will be OK, thwart it and the score will be bad. Quite easy to understand, isn’t it? (I can’t help wondering what became of our “senior official” – I don’t think you’re supposed to be that frank.)

Let us apply what we have learned to the case of Russia. Does Russia cooperate? No it does not, or at least not as completely as it apparently should. Therefore its “human rights” performance must be condemned and all Nossel’s N“G”Os will do so. Loudly.

So, Dear Reader, the next time you read a headline, or State Department utterance, saying “Russia’s Human Rights practice is bad” you now know what it really means: “Putin isn’t cooperative”. QED.