Human rights first

Last week the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, spoke in Sydney. He gave a passionate, wide-ranging talk, outlined the “rules of the game” for tyrannies around the world and a West that loves to collaborate with them:

The Bush administration, for example, seems to prefer promoting a narrow conception of democracy as a softer, fuzzier alternative to the embarrassing issue of human rights. Democracy is a metric by which the United States still measures up fairly well, but talk of human rights brings up such inconvenient topics as Guantanamo, secret CIA prisons, water-boarding, rendition, military commissions, and the suspension of habeas corpus.

But by divorcing democracy from the international human rights standards that give it meaning, the administration sends the message that mere elections, regardless of the circumstances, are sufficient.

Its response in November to then-General Musharraf’s declaration of “emergency rule” in Pakistan was illustrative. Even after Musharraf’s effective coup and his detention of thousands of political opponents, President Bush said that Musharraf had somehow not “crossed the line”. Bush could hardly trumpet Musharraf’s human rights record, so he declared that Musharraf is “somebody who believes in democracy” and that Pakistan was “on the road to democracy”.

But if, unlike human rights law, “the road to democracy” permits locking up political opponents, dismissing independent judges, and silencing the independent press, it is easy to see why autocrats the world over are tempted to believe that they, too, might be eligible.

Roth is a voice of sanity.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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