The friends we keep

George W. Bush gave a speech in November 2003 at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy at the United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. He discussed freedom and democracy in the Middle East and beyond:

“We’ve witnessed, in little over a generation, the swiftest advance of freedom in the 2,500 year story of democracy. Historians in the future will offer their own explanations for why this happened. Yet we already know some of the reasons they will cite. It is no accident that the rise of so many democracies took place in a time when the world’s most influential nation was itself a democracy.”

“The United States made military and moral commitments in Europe and Asia, which protected free nations from aggression, and created the conditions in which new democracies could flourish. As we provided security for whole nations, we also provided inspiration for oppressed peoples. In prison camps, in banned union meetings, in clandestine churches, men and women knew that the whole world was not sharing their own nightmare. They knew of at least one place – a bright and hopeful land – where freedom was valued and secure. And they prayed that America would not forget them, or forget the mission to promote liberty around the world.”

Praying for American help may be enough to convince conservative campaigners that the “world’s most influential nation” can bring democracy, but a report out this week by the New York based Arms Trade Resource Center challenges the underpinnings of such a naive assertion:

“…a majority of U.S. arms sales to the developing world go to regimes defined as undemocratic by our own State Department. Furthermore, U.S.-supplied arms are involved in a majority of the world’s active conflicts.”

Democracy for all the world’s citizens? Not quite.

“In 2003, the last year for which full information is available, the United States transferred weaponry to 18 of the 25 countries involved in active conflicts. From Angola, Chad and Ethiopia, to Colombia, Pakistan, Israel and the Philippines, transfers through the two largest U.S. arms sales programs (Foreign Military Sales and Commercial Sales) to these conflict nations totaled nearly $1 billion in 2003.”

“In 2003, more than half of the top 25 recipients of U.S. arms transfers in the developing world (13 of 25) were defined as undemocratic by the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report: in the sense that “citizens do not have the right to change their own government.” These 13 nations received over $2.7 billion in U.S. arms transfers in 2003, with the top recipients including Saudi Arabia ($1.1 billion), Egypt ($1.0 billion), Kuwait ($153 million), the United Arab Emirates ($110 million) and Uzbekistan ($33 million).”

American responses to charges of gross hypocrisy are telling. Frida Berrigan, the report’s co-author, says that the sales are, “often justified on the basis of their purported benefits, from securing access to overseas military facilities to rewarding coalition partners [but] these alleged benefits often come at a high price.”

Countries benefiting from America’s largesse are routinely engaged in human rights abuses. Extremism breeds in such a toxic environment. Recruiters for al-Qaeda are given a gift with such revelations.

We are faced once again with a realisation that American, and therefore British and Australian, definitions of democracy are only for those who deserve it, whose resources we need or whose military we can defeat.

Amnesty International’s 2005 Report paints a depressing picture of human rights abuses across the world, including America, Britain and Australia. Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty, writes in the foreward of the report:

“The US government has gone to great lengths to restrict the application of the Geneva Conventions and to “re-define” torture. It has sought to justify the use of coercive interrogation techniques, the practice of holding “ghost detainees” (people in unacknowledged incommunicado detention) and the “rendering” or handing over of prisoners to third countries known to practise torture. The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law. Trials by military commissions have made a mockery of justice and due process.”

We expect abuses in despotic countries such as Sudan, Nigeria and Uzbekistan. We are now receiving information daily that American breaches make a mockery of its claim of spreading democracy. Today’s New York Times reports: “Newly released documents show that detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, complained repeatedly to F.B.I. agents about disrespectful handling of the Koran by military personnel and, in one case in 2002, said they had flushed a Koran down a toilet.”

The only people seriously swayed by Bush’s delusional rhetoric (echoed in Australia by our foppish Foreign Minister Alexander Downer) are those so convinced by the rightness of “our” mission in the Middle East, that human rights abuses are merely dismissed as an inconvenience. We will be paying the price for such cultural arrogance in the years to come.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common