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Human Rights Whacked
U.S. and E.U. Undermine What They Stood For

“It will be interesting to see how long the White House can recite China’s abuses when its own moral threads are unraveling to the point that it has become the schoolmarm scolding the world in exposed lingerie.”
—Derrick Jackson, Boston Globe, March 3, 1999

“Fighting terrorism is central to the human rights cause. But using illegal tactics against alleged terrorists is both wrong and counterproductive.”
—Kenneth Ross, executive director, Human Rights Watch.

Human rights! How low you’ve fallen in the esteem of those countries that once made you their battle cry. How scorned you’ve become, how cheap, how cumbersome. The West, and the United States in particular, used to be synonymous with human rights as principles, as policies, as exports and, when it was convenient, as conditions. Sure the West had its abuses, its repressive prisons, its internment camps and Red Scares and McCarthys. But those were the exceptions rather than the rule. Western governments would once have been ashamed to smell of repression as they campaigned to crack the Soviet Bloc or free dissidents from the Chinese gulag or unmoor Cuba from Castro’s cast-irons. They might deal with repressive regimes, even sponsor them. They wouldn’t dream of aping their methods. At least not in the open, not as a matter of policy, not as a matter of fact and routine, as they do now.

And who was that American president who turned human rights into a foreign policy doctrine? The scorn conservatives love to heap on Jimmy Carter isn’t without an undercurrent of guilt repressed. He reminds them every day what America has lost, what America has scorned since the days of Ronald Reagan, what it no longer stands for. It might have been selfishly tolerable had the United States become merely indifferent to human rights, as it was during the Clinton years, when it obsessed over trade at all costs in exchange for a policy of don’t ask don’t tell regarding its partners’ human rights. But it’s not even that cynically benign anymore. The United States is now a purveyor of repression, a sponsor of torture, of arbitrary imprisonment, of methods once waxed over by the likes of East German police and Albanian thugs. It is a sponsor of state terrorism in the service of anti-terrorism, making it an example to a world of willing bandits in power.

Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2006, released on Wednesday, says it succinctly: The global defense of human rights is being undermined by the torture, mistreatment (and secret imprisonment) that has been a deliberate part of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism strategy. There it is. America as the enemy in the battle for human rights, as the insurgent. The report isn’t much kinder to the European Union, whose competitive libido has made its selective blindness to human rights positively Clintonesque in the last several years. So here we are in 2006, a world upside down: The great authors of the Declaration of Human Rights, of the Declaration of Independence, of the Constitution of 1787, reduced not only to acting like boors, but to forcefully, violently defending their thuggish tactics and unrecognizable policies. This isn’t the mighty falling. It’s the mighty locking in for the long haul—and locking and loading against doubters, and who knows what next: The words “American dissident” may not be far in this country’s language.

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