TUNE IN: Taking Action on AI Today and in the Future

RSVP to join our online audience

Center for American Progress

Progressive Foreign Policy Solutions: The Challenges Ahead

Ambassador John Shattuck is a foremost expert on human rights and humanitarian intervention. In 2003 he authored, "Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response," in which he reflected upon his experience as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor from 1993 to 1998. Shattuck also served as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic from 1998 to 2000 and is currently the chief executive officer of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston. He spoke with the Center for American Progress last month.

American Progress: The people of the Darfur region of Sudan are suffering a humanitarian crisis, as government-sponsored militias battle an armed insurgency. If you could snap your fingers and do three things to address the situation in Darfur, what would they be?

Shattuck: Well, the first thing I would do is take a leadership role in pursing a resolution for intervention through the U.N. Security Council. The United Nations is waiting to be led on the Darfur issue. And I don't sense any division on the issue whatsoever.

I would also work with countries in the region and the European Union to establish a crisis resolution strategy that would provide authority for an international peacekeeping operation. A peacekeeping operation could be assembled through the African Union and involve participants from other places as well.

At the same time I would work with [U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan and the leaders of the African Union to find a more aggressive diplomatic approach to dealing with what is clearly ethnic cleansing going on in Darfur. And there has been a peace process that while not particularly effective today, was much more effective a year ago. I'd try to get that jump-started again.

I'd have the peacekeeping operation and a Security Council resolution in the pocket, so basically you have diplomacy backed by force, which is really what the effective 1990s interventions were all about.

American Progress: Can you comment on the disinclination of the United Nations to provide an aggressive Chapter VII mandate that would enable a U.N. force to forcibly challenge the militia in Sudan if necessary?

Shattuck: The good news in the field of peacekeeping is that we actually have quite a bit of experience. But the experience that we have with Chapter VI, which is the old-fashioned "white hat" peacekeeping force that basically goes in and observes, is that that kind of a peacekeeping force is hopelessly ineffective in any situation where there are any kinds of hostilities continuing.

It's an insult to the troops who are there. They're in a place where there are continued incidents of ethnic cleansing or other forms of violence. And yet the peacekeeping force lacks the authority to take appropriate measures when they observe an act of hostility, or, more importantly, when they are attacked themselves.

The one thing that really sent Rwanda into the ultimate conflagration that it became was three or four days after genocide began, ten Belgian peacekeepers were killed in a very brutal act conducted by the genocide planners. And there's a memo that was sent by the commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force, Gen. Romeo Dallaire, back to the United Nations a month before, about how an informant had said that one of the things that will be done when the genocide breaks out is that peacekeepers will be killed as a way of forcing the withdrawal of the whole peacekeeping force. It played out like a book. What happened in the bureaucracy of the United Nations to that warning? It never really reached anyone, it got stuck.

I'm totally in favor of giving Chapter VII authority when it may not even be needed. It can be a deterrent. It can actually be an element of the diplomacy. That's why I'd do it in Sudan.

American Progress: Can you comment on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva and its perceived ineffectiveness? What reforms would you like to see?

Shattuck: The Commission's government members are elected by blocks within the commission. There's a European block; there's an African block; there's a Middle East block; there's an Asian block and a Latin American block.

One of the things that happens in United Nations voting is that you don't necessarily get a good match between the countries that are on the commission and the human rights function they're trying to perform. For example, last year's Commission chair was Libya. The U.N. Human Rights Commission and Libya is the chair? That doesn't sound quite right. At the very least, the Commission often gets into gridlock.

During the Clinton period, the United States actually pursued fairly aggressive diplomacy within the Human Rights Commission. We used it as a way of focusing attention on particular human rights crises like China and Cuba. But it doesn't have any enforcement authority.

What would make it better? I have to say I'm fairly conservative on this point. I'm more in favor of the community of democracies idea. I believe in working to develop, as we did in the Clinton administration—Madeline Albright was very active in this—a coalition of democratic states who would take the lead in, among other things, humanitarian interventions and dealing with international norms on human rights.

American Progress: Can you comment on the administration's presumption that you can't fight the war on terrorism through the old rules? Do you believe that the old rules, the pre-9/11 rules, are still valid?

Shattuck: Let's look at the Geneva Conventions and the interrogation of prisoners and the use of torture, or at least trying not to be subject to the various international prescriptions against torture. I think there are two levels on which the administration's claim that rules can be swept aside can be rebutted.

On one level there is very little evidence—according to all the experts, including the people who conduct the interrogations—that torture and coercive methods, systematically applied, actually produce truth and develop useful evidence.

I think the greater rebuttal, however, is the enormous danger that is presented, at the very least, to U.S. troops when it becomes clear that we are not following the Geneva conventions. Obviously no terrorist is going to follow international rules. But by and large the treatment of American troops around the world could change significantly.

There is also the larger foreign policy danger of effectively undermining our capacity to build alliances. To the extent it becomes clear that we are asserting that we and anyone who works with us are essentially above the law, it is going to be very hard for us to create alliances with other countries.

Having said that, I think the Geneva Conventions need to be updated. That's why I urge the U.S. take the lead in updating international law in this area, including developing an international treaty on terrorism.

American Progress: The Bush administration is arguing that al Qaeda terrorists and other terrorists are not criminals because they're soldiers in a war against America, so U.S. criminal law does not apply to them. But neither are they protected by the laws of war. Thus, they are in a black hole. Should we undertake an effort to create a system of laws that would guide us in this conflict?

Shattuck: It's not easy to define terrorism. But I don't think we're even trying at the moment. There are people all over the world who say as a result of cultural or religious or political differences in philosophy, what we claim is terrorism may well not be within their definition. We are avoiding that debate at our peril.

Terrorism is not a U.S. problem alone. 9/11 was a terrible event to be sure, and it wakened Americans for the first time to the crisis of terrorism globally. But terrorism is affecting the whole world. Anyone who travels knows what it's like and what people live under. The Europeans have lived with it for a long time. I define the kinds of actions that were committed in Bosnia and Rwanda and Haiti as terrorism. They were crimes against humanity, even if they weren't conducted by al Qaeda terrorists.

There is enough good will and genuine interest out there in dealing with terrorism that if the United States were to take the lead with other countries in defining it, connecting it to international law, and updating the Geneva conventions, we could provide further legitimacy for the war on terrorism and further isolate the terrorists. This is a national security issue, not just a human rights issue.

American Progress: It seems that there is a deeply entrenched sentiment of American exceptionalism, both among the general public and in high levels of government, with regard to binding the military to international norms. How can this sentiment be overcome?

Shattuck: The issue of exceptionalism, as you've described it, has been with us for a long time. It's a long tradition in American foreign policy. It's also related to isolationism, and unilateralism for that matter. Those are the three great "ism's" that are really at the heart of historical American foreign policy. They have to do with where we are geographically, and now where we are in terms of the amount of power that we have.

The International Criminal Court is a complicated topic= I would be the first to say that. But [U.S. Ambassador at large for War Crimes in the Clinton administration] David Sheffer's point, and he's right, is that we ought to be at the table. We've got some strong interests to defend, including an interest in protecting our own troops against the possibility that some other country may end up trying to take them before the International Criminal Court and undermine our capacity to do the kinds of military operations that we need to do in the world.

But there are ways in which you can build protections into the International Criminal Court. And the Court now has a basic protection that it can't even take a case until the justice system in the country in question has fallen apart. So if the United States does anything to investigate or otherwise look into an allegation, that's enough to keep it off the Court's agenda.

These things, exceptionalism and all the others, have been with us for a long time and we're going to keep battling them. But it ought to be the role of progressive leadership in a world that is now so interconnected and international to try to find arguments to push back these longstanding tendencies in American foreign policy.

American Progress: Thank you for speaking with us, Ambassador Shattuck.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.