Standing Up for Human Rights
Anti-Pinochet demonstrators carry placards with his image behind bars as they march through central Madrid. Slogan on top of signs translate, "Help us to do justice."

Today is the 55th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the war on terrorism unfolds, this is a day, and an anniversary, that warrants our attention.

The defense of human rights is neither a soft issue nor one that can be divorced from the use of military force to defeat terrorists, for it is by defending human rights that the United States can expand the circle of security and prosperity and, with it, the international stability that is central to our national security.

On Human Rights Day last year, President Bush pegged the war on terrorism to the defense of human rights when he said, “We are leading a coalition of more than 90 nations to defeat terror and to secure liberty and opportunity for people throughout the world. Our fight against oppression demonstrates our nation's dedication to a future of hope and understanding for all people.”

But America is today sending mixed signals, defending human rights in some parts of the world while ignoring the abrogation of those rights in others.

• At this year’s annual session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the Bush administration broke with recent tradition and chose not to sponsor a resolution condemning human rights abuses in China; the administration also decided against supporting a resolution condemning Russian abuses in Chechnya.

• The administration has not used its leadership to ensure that the imperatives of the “war against terrorism” are not manipulated by repressive regimes as the rationale for repression. Human Rights Watch reports that many countries have passed regressive anti-terrorism laws that threaten basic rights. According to Amnesty International’s 2003 Annual Report, “Exploiting the international climate favouring ‘counter-terrorism’, many governments reinforced and renewed their crack-down on political opponents and others whose loyalty they doubt, such as trade unionists, journalists, religious and racial minorities, and human rights defenders.”

• President Bush recently said, “Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.” However, the president approved the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich West African nation led by a man with a stunning record of torture and abuse who recently won a third, seven-year term by securing nearly 100 percent of the vote. According to government-run radio, “He can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell because it is God himself.”

• The administration’s singular focus on Iraq has allowed other human rights challenges to fall off the radar screen. The U.S. is seemingly turning a blind eye towards human rights violations in Russia, where a crackdown on political dissent, the independent media and civil society organizations was recently followed by flawed parliamentary elections that the Financial Times describes as a “serious defeat” for “the cause of political freedom in Russia.” In a side trip to Azerbaijan, Donald Rumsfeld discussed counterterrorism cooperation but, according to the Washington Post, “dodged questions about October’s disputed election,” which was followed by a violent crackdown on opposition forces.

• At home the handling of the enemy combatants, the treatment of immigrants, and USA Patriot Act include measures that fail to honor our traditions of due process and respect for the law, and undermine individual rights guaranteed in the Universal Declaration and other international agreements to which the United States is a party.

The Bush administration has done an impressive job of showing the world what we’re against, but has been far less adept at showing the world what we’re for. Protecting and defending America’s security cannot be just about fighting evil or killing our enemies. It must also be about protecting and defending fundamental rights.

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