President Biden’s red-carpet treatment of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is another nail in the coffin of U.S. human rights policy. Such willful blindness to India’s poor human rights record extends to the Middle East.
Indeed, human rights advocates have long criticized the U.S. government for its selective, politicized enforcement of human rights laws and policies in furtherance of one goal: to remain the sole “Great Power” in the Middle East and North Africa.
U.S. hegemony in the region has five main goals: first, to retain control over the distribution and price of oil in the global market; second, to maintain more than 50 military bases in the Middle East; third, to keep the Middle East as the largest purchaser of U.S. military equipment, accounting for 49 percent of all U.S. arms exports; fourth, unconditional support for the State of Israel as the supposed U.S. outpost in the Middle East; and finally, to ensure that all Arab leaders place U.S. geopolitical interests ahead of their own citizens.
When we examine the response (or lack thereof) of our government to human rights violations under the Great Power paradigm, the contradictions between lofty rhetoric and support for human rights-infringing nations make more sense. Condemnations of declared enemies’ human rights records stand in stark contrast with our looking the other way when allies engage in similar practices.
Egypt has imprisoned thousands of political prisoners since 2013 for offenses such as “insulting the president” or “spreading false news” after trials that lacked any semblance of due process. Saudi Arabia literally butchered dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and has conducted mass executions for political offenses such as “disrupting the social fabric and national cohesion” and “participating in and inciting sit-ins and protests.”
The United Arab Emirates convicts political dissidents in mass trials for calling for a democratic parliament or based on the mere suspicion that they are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Israel has established what some human rights-watchers call an elaborate system of apartheid that perpetuates “massive seizures of Palestinian land and property, unlawful killings, forcible transfers, drastic movement restrictions, and the denial of nationality and citizenship to Palestinians.”
Each of these allies has a record of torturing its political prisoners, through brutal violence, denial of urgent medical care, or indefinite solitary confinement. Nevertheless, our government continues to conduct trade, sell military arms and invite their rulers to the White House. And when our ally nations do not cooperate, U.S. officials fleetingly recognize the importance of human rights through mild condemnations and temporary halts on a tiny fraction of foreign aid.
When it comes to Iran and Syria, however, the U.S. takes on the mantle of global human rights defender. The State Department publicly condemns Iran for “brutal acts of violence against peaceful protestors and its ongoing repression of the Iranian people.” Congress issues resolutions “Condemning the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses against the brave women and men of Iran peacefully demonstrating in more than 133 cities.” Likewise, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) denounces “Iran’s pursuit of death sentences on religiously-grounded charges against protesters asserting their freedom of religion or belief,” notwithstanding that the United States government issued a Muslim ban with the blessing of our Supreme Court. The U.S. government sanctions the Syrian government for actions that are glossed over when our allies are the perpetrators.
These glaring inconsistencies undermine the relevance of human rights in U.S. foreign policy, demoting it to political cheap talk as opposed to an international set of norms to which all countries must be held accountable — including the United States.
This shortsighted foreign policy treats human rights as an impediment to U.S. interests in the region, when human rights law sets the minimum threshold of dignity that we all deserve regardless of the circumstances of our birth — our country, neighborhood, parents, race or religion. Failure to hold all nations accountable for human rights violations sends a clear message to autocrats: The law does not matter.
If the two decade U.S.-led global war on terror has taught us anything, it is that our own country is less safe and we are less free when national security becomes the guise under which we abandon the rule of law. Falling for the same fearmongering deployed by autocrats to justify human rights violations, we granted our government more authority to surveil, investigate and prosecute individuals on account of their Muslim identity and disagreement with our nation’s foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Israel.
The U.S. government tortured Muslims and Arabs in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and on CIA black sites, confirming that human rights are merely a geopolitical tool that Western states use against their political foes, not applied consistently as a matter of universal norms. Indeed, the Global War on Terror was a boon for autocrats across the globe who need only label political prisoners as terrorists to legitimize the murder, torture, mass expulsion or indefinite detention of individuals they deem a threat to their political power.
When the rich and powerful can abuse civilians with impunity, the response is more violence. Nonstate actors respond in kind to abusive governments that strip their citizens of their humanity. The result is a region rife with instability and conflict that cannot be contained to one country or region.
While this state of affairs may enrich the U.S. defense industry as the demand for military weaponry increases, the conflicts create fertile soil for global terrorist groups that target the United States precisely because it props up nations that systematically violate human rights and deny their citizens basic political freedoms — either with our blessing or neglect.
That our taxes go to support regimes that violate human rights should prompt us to act. For it is civilians all over the world — including us — that are the biggest losers when our shared humanity is subsumed by an outdated Great Power paradigm.
Sahar Aziz, professor of law and director of the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers Law School and author of “The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom.”