Saturday, June 13, 2009


Save Darfur, sign the petition, spread the word about Tibet, help stop the LRA. The longer I have been active in the human rights movement, the more bothersome these calls have become. Every violation of human rights disgusts me. It has always provoked that response. When I was in Elementary school and first learned about human rights violations I was so repulsed I resolved to learn as much as I could about them so I could work against them. There are still many things I know little about, but I have come to a much better and perhaps also more cynical understanding of the world.

But these campaigns still bother me. Emotion and logic are the two factors driving every action. Emotion dictates ends, logic dictates means. Emotionally, nothing has changed, I remain dedicated to the same principles, but as I have grown intellectually, I have realized that the approaches I took to these issues and approaches many others who share my concern for human rights continue to take are harming the cause they are trying to serve. This problem is exemplifies by the movements I mentioned.

To be effective human rights activists must understand two issues: what processes enable abuses, and what actions will provide the greatest disruption to those processes? I am still learning how to answer those questions, but the more I reflect the more obvious a few basic points become. Nations are naturally inclined to dwell on the crimes of their strategic competitors while either ignoring, or draping in the rhetoric of noble intent their own crimes. Focusing on the crimes of competitors is convenient, it helps to delegitimize the opponent, it redirects attention, and it gives a moral pretense to strategic actions.

Take Sudan. The crimes of Sudan's government are serious and real, but in the eyes of the west Sudan's only real crime was to discover oil and sign a contract to sell that oil in perpetuity to China. That is Sudan's crime, Darfur has nothing to do with it, Darfur is a convenient propaganda weapon. When moral and strategic considerations converge the human rights movements is embraced. But if there is any doubt which consideration takes precedent it is helpful to look what course is taken when the two diverge. When the U.S's strategic interests are served by supporting abuses the rhetoric of human rights suddenly disappears. Solidarity activists are no longer moral leaders, but pesky, naïve fools. Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, and Algeria, to name a few, are all, like Sudan rich in oil and, like Sudan, ruled by repressive regimes. Unlike Sudan, however, they export to the west and are treated as trusted partners. There are thousands of examples to illustrate the point, but one exchange stands out as a particularly illuminating. In the 1990's an interviewer confronted then U.S Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, Madeline Albright, with the statistic that U.S imposed sanctions on Iraq had starved half a million children to death, she accepted the figure, but declared "the price is worth it". The scorn that comment would have elicited if it came from a Chinese or Sudanese official never came. That is the prevalent mindset.

That is where the human rights community is needed. That is where they can impact policy; with their own government. There are scant workable solutions to Chinese crimes, but there is a very obvious solution to the ones carried out with connivance of the American government, and those are more than enough to occupy the human rights community. Denouncing the crimes of official enemies is easy and rewarding, it will never change anything. Denouncing the crimes of friends and allies is not. It comes at a price, but opposing crimes against humanity was never about personal gain. Those who have embraced the rhetoric of human rights must now decide if they will also embrace the cause of human rights.

Americans must understand they cannot save the victims of their enemies, the only victims they can save are their own government's. They cannot save Darfur, they cannot save Tibet, they cannot save Burma, but they can save Palestine, they can save Iraq, they can save the hundreds of millions of people languishing under despots armed and supported by their government in their name with their taxes.


Deontologist said...

Yes, Sudan is definitely in the American spotlight while Iraq, where the atrocities are committed by our own government, are ignored. Note that some Africa watchers believe that the American save Darfur movement was created with the intention of distracting U.S. activists from Iraq. The idea is that, if activists are busy with Darfur, they won't have time to protest the Iraq War.

Bar Kochba said...