Events

Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy: A Bait and Switch?

September 14, 2004 // 12:30pm2:00pm

In an era where national security dominates U.S. foreign policy debates, how should we understand the role of human rights? How has U.S. foreign policy been used to advance as well as undermine human rights, particularly since September 11th? This meeting discussed the legacy of U.S. human rights policy and the current debate over the legitimacy of human rights norms as it relates to the treatment of detainees in the "war on terror" and in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay.

Julie Mertus, a leading humans rights expert, discussed her new book Bait and Switch: Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy. Based on extensive interviews with leading foreign policymakers, military officials, and human rights advocates, Mertus told the story of how America's attempts to promote human rights abroad have, paradoxically, undermined those rights in other countries. She focused her remarks on the struggle of human rights advocates in the age of American exceptionalism. Noting that this is not a new challenge, she said several factors have made human rights practice extremely difficult since September 11. The first is American military and economic supremacy and its willingness to use such power unilaterally; the second is American disregard for international institutions and international norms if they clash with U.S. interests and values; and finally the co-option of human rights to serve narrow state interests. To counter this ambivalence, Mertus suggested creating a human rights culture in which, "human rights is the lens through which public policy is refracted," she said. "America has a human rights talk without a human rights culture, and because of this missing piece, United States policy has often fallen short in terms of implementing human rights concerns."

The inconsistency of American human rights policy is entirely understandable based on competing foreign policy interests in various capitals and media coverage to name a few, said Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch. However promoting human rights is central to defeating the war on terror, in particular the development of moderate, democratic movements as a counter-balance to repressive regimes. The subversion of those rights in the name of fighting the war on terror is somewhat troubling, he said. Malinowski took exception with Mertus's analogy of America as a used car salesmen, saying that he did not believe that U.S. human rights policymakers were scheming to deceive other countries on human rights issues. "The international community worked together to advance human rights for solidarity, against Apartheid, in the Balkans, and Central America, to positive results," Malinowski said. "The challenge is how you show the advantages of advancing human rights interests as serving the benefit of the world."

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