A major theme disturbingly consistent throughout the 20th and 21st centuries in American policy is the overlooking of human rights in favor of perceived national interest. Former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power once wrote that “because America’s “vital national interests” were not considered imperiled by mere genocide, senior US officials did not give genocide the moral attention it warranted” and therefore, US policymakers believed that “[genocide] was tragic but created no moral imperative.”
Such was the way of things during the Rwandan genocide, when the U.S. opposed all efforts to intervene in the genocide, even going so far as to use its influence in the United Nations to mandate the withdrawal of UN forces from the region.
Another caveat that taints America’s response to human rights issues is one of political will. We could invest political, economic and military resources to intervene in and prevent this human rights emergency, but what’s in it for us? We could speak out against regimes who commit acts of atrocity against their own citizens, but what do we stand to gain?
There is an intense game of arithmetic that all world governments seem to play when deciding if their interests align with standing up for human rights.
For instance, what made the United States government decide that it was not worth taking any meaningful action against the Saudi government for the torture and murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, their actions in Yemen, or their oppressive women’s rights record?
On the campaign trail, President Biden emphasized that he would make a “pariah” of the Saudi government. The Associated Press, however, were quick to point out that Biden’s administration, once they took office, chose instead to prioritize their strategic interests with the country’s regime.
What is a human life worth to government institutions, and, moreover, what is the life of one of our citizens worth? Can we put a price tag on it?
In this particular case, the answer seems to have been the $100 billion in weapons that Saudi leader Prince Salman pays us for. This in turn funds Saudi campaigns in Yemen which have claimed the lives of approximately 12,000 civilians.
Policymakers may be wondering, if we spoke out or reacted against either, what would happen to that trade deal? Therefore, if you wanted to know what price tag the US government would put on all those human lives, I suppose there lies the answer.
But one might say, why should we be concerned if the human rights violations, which we’ve either been complicit in or failed to prevent, only occur outside our borders? But are they always?
For instance, in a presidency that campaigned on a fair and just immigration system, why would the images of border patrol brutality inflicted on Haitian refugees not prompt the Biden administration to immediately stop using Title 42, a violation of article 14 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and even this country’s own asylum laws?
It is important to recognize the complexities that lie in every policy decision governments are charged with making. The fork in the road between the protection of our universal human rights and our government’s interests, between ideals and pragmatism is an ugly one. But we must urgently advocate for human rights to be placed higher on the priority list.
In 1947, the United States collaborated with a host of other countries to pass the first legal document codifying human rights into international law. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt herself sat on that committee. This means that this human rights law is, in part, our creation. Yet never in the decades of history that followed has the full extent of this document been realized, in the United States or anywhere else.
There’s always been a “reason” that we “couldn’t.”
For example, in 1964, Republican presidential nominee and influential conservative thinker Barry Goldwater helped lead the campaign to vote against the Civil Rights Act. Goldwater believed that “civil rights must be left, by and large, to the states.” This is a prime example of one of the biggest and most enduring battles in ensuring human rights for all– the popular philosophy that using federal law to protect our human rights is “government overreach.”
But overcoming such obstacles to establish human rights for all will surely net profoundly positive outcomes for all.
The idea of human rights should be centered around, as this team of researchers put it, the “construction of the rights-holder.”
Daniel Vazquez and Domitille Delaplace’s findings tell us that “empowerment of the individual is linked to rights to equality and freedom from discrimination, to affirmative action and gender, to the identification of both vulnerable groups and the elements that generate conditions of structural oppression and the modification of those structures.”
Democratic governments worldwide should assign higher priority to promote human rights at home and abroad. If the moral imperatives associated with universal human rights are not a strong enough incentive, one can only hope that imperatives associated with cold-hard reason will be — such as the promise of stronger and more effective institutions as well as higher rates of participation in the democratic process.
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