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Conservatives, Liberals, and Human Rights

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

When the american section of Amnesty International was first founded in the 1970s, William F. Buckley was one of its earliest supporters. The prime mover behind the American section, Ginetta Sagan, was a mentor to those of all political stripes, including, for example, Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, whom no one has ever accused of being a “leftist.” When George W. Bush called in his second inaugural address for the United States to affirm “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” he was issuing a call with which no human rights advocate could possibly disagree. The board of Freedom House, a prominent human rights organization, is rife with ex-Bush administration officials like William H. Taft IV and Paula J. Dobriansky, and with scholars like Ruth Wedgwood and Joshua Muravchik who are generally identified with the conservative end of the political spectrum.

And yet, despite the political diversity these instances represent, human rights are generally identified as a left-wing cause. There are many reasons for that, perhaps foremost among them the fact that human rights standards are established largely by international instruments, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (udhr), and enforced, to the extent to which they are “enforced” at all, by international institutions, such as the un Human Rights Council. Conservatives tend to resist subsuming American sovereignty to international regimens and to be suspicious of international institutions, in part because they include some member states lacking consent of the governed and basic liberties.1 As a consequence, the United States has ratified fewer key human rights treaties than the other g20 nations and, when it has ratified them, has tended to attach reservations asserting the preeminent authority of the U.S. Constitution.2

Human rights are generally identified as a left-wing cause, largely because human rights standards are established globally.

Moreover, human rights have come to be associated with a number of causes — notably opposition to the death penalty; the closure of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay; and the assertion of a right to health care — that, justifiably or not, are considered liberal causes in American political terms. The fact that conservatives have played a prominent role in other landmark human rights struggles — such as the promotion of religious freedom; an end to the second Sudanese Civil War in 2005; and the campaign to end human trafficking — has failed to redress the perception that human rights advocates, with the exception perhaps of a handful of neoconservatives, are ineluctably drawn from the left.

As human rights figures identified with different parts of the political arc, we regret this bias because it does damage to the human rights cause. Michael Ignatieff has called human rights the “lingua franca of global moral thought,” but moral thought is not the exclusive province of any one political position. Just as the standing of human rights claims declines if those claims are thought to be no more than the product of Western ideology or a so-called imperialist agenda, so too the power of human rights to influence U.S. foreign and domestic policies is diminished if human rights are perceived to be the concern of only one segment of the political community. When, on the contrary, a group of respected military leaders speak out against torture or former Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson pleads the case for marriage equality, stereotypes of what human rights advocates look like are constructively confounded. When conservative Republican Alberto Mora resigned as counsel general of the Department of the Navy over detainee policy, he did not suddenly become a liberal. The truth is that human rights champions do not come in one size that fits all, nor do they agree with one another on all issues. The late Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos, whose support for human rights was so widely recognized that the Human Rights Commission of the U.S. House of Representatives is named for him, could become irate at criticism of the United States by human rights organizations for its use of the death penalty.3

Clearly, there are many permutations to the positions broadly characterized here as liberal and conservative, and we are under no illusions that the fundamental tension between the claims and norms of international institutions and those of a powerful sovereign state like the United States can be easily resolved. To the extent that international human rights standards are at odds with current American jurisprudence or practice, as with the death penalty, or that participation in international institutions requires some compromise of American singularity, as it would with the International Criminal Court, there may long be conflict. Given that human rights are premised upon universality, which many on both left and right believe to be grounded in natural law, it hardly seems too much to hope that advancement of something as fundamental to our humanity might transcend political boundaries. And given that civil and political rights, long defended by the left, are predicated in large measure upon protecting liberty — that is, protecting the individual against an overbearing state, which is a bedrock principle of conservative political thought — human rights are hardly alien to the sensibilities found on the right.

Where the two political perspectives come into conflict, then, is often less over philosophical first principles than it is around the practical application of those principles to tough real-life conundrums. We turn to five key conundrums of this sort and corresponding suggestions for resolving them in ways that at least some who identify as liberal or conservative may consider common ground.

Security and liberty

Perhaps no issue has more robustly divided left and right, at least since 9/11, than the challenge of finding the right balance between security and liberty. Without re-litigating, so to speak, highly contentious decisions of the Bush administration, it is fair to say that it erred on the side of security to an extent that the Supreme Court in its historic 2004 decisions in Rasul v. Bush and Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, for example, ultimately regarded as too great. Vice President Cheney’s impassioned defense of waterboarding continues to draw rebuke from notable Republicans such as the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain, who as recently as May 2011 condemned such “enhanced interrogation techniques” as “indisputably torture” and disavowed the notion that their use had led to the discovery of Osama Bin Laden.

At the same time, critics of the Bush counterterrorism policies have sometimes acted as if the solution to dealing with terrorism suspects was easy and self-evident. But the Obama administration has found it far harder to close gitmo than it had originally imagined and has reaffirmed indefinite detention for some prisoners and the use of military tribunals rather than civilian courts for others.

There is no international definition of terrorism, and the Geneva Conventions were not designed for nonstate actors.

The dilemma derives in part from a contradiction inherent in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself and the pliability of certain human rights concepts. Article <<span class="smallcaps">3 of the udhr guarantees the “right to life, liberty and security of person.” This means that terrorist attacks are themselves profound violations of human rights and governments have every obligation to prevent them. But enforcement of the right to “security of person” can easily come into conflict with other rights articulated in the udhr, such as those to a “public trial” (Article 11), depending upon the definition of “public.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (iccpr), to which the United States is a state-party, provides that some rights, including the right not to be tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, are nonderogable. It allows for others, however, including rights surrounding criminal prosecution, to be temporarily revoked or suspended “in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation” but only “to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation” — hardly concepts that lend themselves to strict precision and, indeed, ones that provide governments potential carte blanche to do as they please. On top of all of which there is still no internationally accepted definition of “terrorism,” and the Geneva Conventions, which control for the treatment of prisoners in time of war, were designed primarily to address the behavior of states rather than nonstate actors.

What left and right ought readily to agree upon, therefore, is that, while there is no place for torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners under any circumstances, other elements of international law designed to control state actions in response to the targeting of civilians for political or religious purposes are far more ambiguous. Was the U.S.’s killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen in Yemen regarded as a terrorist leader, for instance, an example of an extrajudicial execution, as some civil libertarians claim, or was it a legitimate battlefield kill? The answer turns on interpretations of the laws of war — laws that are ill-equipped in some measure to address a world in which the very definition of war itself is subject to debate. With the secretary of defense calling the defeat of al-Qaeda “within reach,” now may be the most opportune time to consider international review of those laws. Since it is not acceptable to hold a terrorism suspect indefinitely without trial or to release an avowed terrorist into the general population without restraints, we require a third alternative. It is in the interests of both liberals and conservatives to work together to find one.

Accountable autocracies

Ever since jeane Kirkpatrick tried to distinguish between authoritarian and totalitarian governments in her 1979 Commentary essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” left and right have been arguing about when national interests trump accountability for human rights abuses. Kirkpatrick’s contention was that authoritarian regimes are more susceptible to gradual reform, and that tenet provided the rationale for the Reagan administration’s alliances with dictatorships in Guatemala, the Philippines, and Argentina. Liberals criticized those alliances and berated the notion that they were in our national interest, and in fact the Reagan administration ultimately shifted from praising Marcos in the Philippines to urging him to leave power, as it also urged South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile to democratize. But Reagan was neither the first nor last president to align the U.S. with countries whose values hardly reflect those embodied in the U.S. Constitution. All presidents have benignly toasted their Chinese counterparts, despite China’s unrelenting record of human rights violations, and the U.S.’s cooperation with Middle Eastern despots, including at one time both Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi, has often proven embarrassing.

Two realities vie for preeminence. On the one hand, human rights are but one of many factors that any president must take into consideration in foreign relations. Military security and economic interests, to take the most obvious, may sometimes trump them. But it is also the case that suborning dictators has almost always proven self-defeating in the long run, and support for human rights has proven far more congruent with the national interest than realpolitikers have thought.  As such, it can be far wiser for the U.S., if it is to make ad hoc alliances with repressive regimes, to do so honestly, citing interest-based justifications and voicing support for liberalization, rather than the current practice of calculating military and economic interests with little regard to human rights practices and only later tacking on an expression of concern about an ally’s human rights record.

How different would the U.S.’s reputation on the “street” in the Middle East be today had the Obama administration not waffled so dramatically in the early stages of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and, even better, had the United States made clear years ago that our support for the Mubarak regime, for example, was a marriage of convenience? In other words, that we were prepared to advance that alliance for strategic reasons, as we do still with Saudi Arabia, but that the regime’s values were radically at odds with ours; that there were certain red lines beyond which the regime could not go in its treatment of its citizens if it wished to retain our friendship; that we were supportive of those indigenous leaders who sought nonviolent, democratic change; and that we would help advance that change in every peaceful way we could. No doubt many Egyptian activists would still be mistrustful of the U.S., but perhaps less so, and in any case we would be in a far stronger position to argue our human rights bona fides than we are today.

And what would that mean about accountability for crimes when the regime fell, or in the far more tricky context in which a despot seeks assurances of “safe passage” in return for his departure? The notion that human rights offenders ought always to be held accountable for their crimes is obviously an appealing one and one that human rights organizations generally insist upon as a matter of course. (Kathryn Sikkink marshals the best evidence for the notion offered to date in her book The Justice Cascade.) But just as domestic prosecutors often plea bargain a defendant out of a maximum sentence in the interests of some greater community good, so autocratic rulers may sometimes justifiably be offered “retirement” as an incentive to their leaving power.

This should never be the case, however, with those accused of genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity, such as President al-Bashir of Sudan, and, as international justice mechanisms like the International Criminal Court are more legitimized (both in the U.S. and around the world), the last word about such high-order affronts to all humankind will increasingly fall to multilateral courts. Until that happens, we will need to rely on a bias in favor of accountability tempered by the recognition that those most directly affected by events on the ground, including victims and their advocates, will need to be the ones to decide the right balance between reconciliation and justice.

In the meantime perhaps both left and right can agree that crawling into bed with human rights violators is always a nasty proposition, one that ought to be resisted as fervently as possible, and that if in exceptional circumstances we do it, we do it with our eyes wide open, owning up to our decision, and looking for every opportunity to crawl out as soon as possible.  

Democracy and human rights

Inherent in the previous discussion of how the U.S. should relate to repressive regimes is the assumption that we ought to support the advancement of democracy around the world. But because the “Freedom Agenda” is closely identified with George W. Bush and because it appears to have been one rationale for the use of force in Iraq, the human rights left has been reluctant in recent years to embrace democracy promotion as a legitimate sibling cause.

In fact, this reticence long predates the George W. Bush administration. For many years Amnesty International claimed that it favored no particular form of government — only governments of whatever stripe that support human rights. And human rights leaders have repeatedly and correctly pointed out that democracy was no guarantee of respect for human rights, as witness the U.S.’s own failings over the years, notably regarding equal access to justice for African Americans.

The truth is, however, that democracy is almost inevitably a necessary, if not sufficient, requirement for the protection of human rights and, though it can certainly not be imposed on a people who are not inclined to embrace it, the world is a far better place and human rights far more healthy for its spread. Human rights cannot be enforced without accountability, and accountability is impossible without such fixtures of democracy as free elections, a free press, an independent judiciary, and fidelity to the rule of law.

If the upheavals in the Middle East have proven anything, they have proven that democracy is a more appealing vision than either terrorism or the most economically prosperous state-controlled system. It has been noted that the protestors in Tunisia and Egypt have dealt enormous blows to both al-Qaeda and China, the first by demonstrating that sclerotic governments can be overthrown without violence and the second by demanding the very thing that is most conspicuously missing from the Chinese political system: freedom. And even if what follows is at first a less far-reaching democracy with less respect for women or religious minorities than many of us would wish, the vision of that democratic, human-rights-respecting genie will never be forced back into the bottle; it will fester until it finally thrives fully.

Left and right ought to be able to agree: Democracy promotion is important to the struggle for human rights and the two ought to be proudly pursued together.

Religious freedom and religious conflict

Orlando figes, the most recent chronicler of the Crimean War, says that that war “opened up the Muslim world of the Ottoman Empire to Western armies” and “sparked an Islamic reaction against the West which continues to this day.” He goes on to observe that “If the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the rise of militant Islam have taught us anything, it is surely that religion plays a vital role in fueling wars.”4 And it has done that since long before the Crusades.

But if former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is to be believed, American diplomats have long been naïve about the role of religion in foreign affairs or even downright hostile to its consideration. As Albright told the NewsHour’s Ray Suarez, “When there was a serious [international] issue to either be studied or make some decisions about, people would say, ‘Well, this is complicated enough. Let’s not bring God and religion into it.’”5 In a little noticed internal debate in 2004, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice restrained U.S. Ambassador to the un John Danforth (a former senator and Episcopal priest) from placing a major focus on religious understanding at the un Security Council, probably making his tenure in that job all the more brief.6

Perhaps all this is one reason that the human rights left initially reacted with considerable skepticism when in 1997 the Christian evangelical community began organizing around legislation to create a special office in the State Department to monitor religious persecution. Would such an office be privileging one human rights violation or, even worse, one religion (Christianity) over others?7 Eventually the position of U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, along with a bipartisan commission, was established with the understanding that it would make recommendations regarding all instances of persecution. But even at that, the Obama administration took more than two years just to nominate a candidate for the ambassadorship, Susan Johnson Cook, who was finally confirmed in April 2011 — hardly an indication that religious freedom is a top priority.

One does not need to believe that religious freedom is the “first freedom,” in the sense of the “most important,” as its ardent supporters frequently claim, to agree that it holds a respected place in the panoply of recognized rights.8 It is intertwined with other fundamental freedoms, as aptly captured by the broad label “freedom of conscience.” Article 18 of the udhr asserts that “Everyone has the right to freedom of . . . religion,” including “freedom to change his religion . . . and . . . to manifest his religion . . . in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The frequent violation of the rights of religious minorities, be they Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea, Ba’hai in Iran, Jews in Venezuela, the Muslim Masalit in Sudan, Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, or others anywhere else, ought to be a cause that claims the support of both left and right. Similarly, the actions of the un Human Rights Council to curb free speech under the guise of combatting “defamation of religion” from 2007 to 2010 are ones that both liberals and conservatives can abhor.

Is Islam compatible with democracy? The case of Indonesia, the country with the largest population of Muslims and a demonstrable, if sometimes messy, adherence to democracy, proves that it is, and the recent elections in Tunisia appear to confirm that conviction. But there is no question that some forms of Islam are antagonistic to religious freedom and other human rights strictures as well. It is too early to know whether the enthusiasm for democracy and human rights manifest in the recent Middle East revolutions will survive into maturity, though it is a pretty safe bet that whatever follows will not mimic the American model of strict separation between church (mosque) and state.

But such a rigid separation is not necessarily indispensable for respect for human rights to occur. It is probably too much to expect young democracies steeped in religious traditions to check those traditions at the governance door, any more than the United States did in its early days — an issue that is still alive for some, as evidenced by the continuing debate about whether ours is a “Christian nation.”

What is important is that, whatever form those new governments take, even if their laws are based upon traditional religious norms, they provide checks and balances that offer a meaningful measure of protection for religious minorities or minority points of view. Anything less will not only lead to human rights violations but social instability and conflict as well. Upon that surely both liberals and conservatives can agree.

Civil and political vs. social and
economic rights

Conservatives have traditionally blanched at social and economic rights. Part of their distaste has been prompted by the invocation of those rights as a pretext for repression on the part of regimes hostile to civil and political rights. At the same time, the conflation of social and economic rights with “socialism” or government control is a misnomer. The recognition of social and economic rights does not require a particular type of government or economic system, nor are those rights incompatible with capitalism. How those rights are realized may take any number of different forms.

Liberals in turn have been reluctant to tie fulfillment of social and economic rights to improvements in civil and political ones, such as through the Millennium Challenge Corporation — this despite the mantra to which the human rights left subscribes that both sets of rights are “indivisible” and the evidence, China notwithstanding, that in the long run, failure to protect civil and political rights can easily undermine progress toward the realization of social and economic ones. Liberals have also failed to acknowledge sufficiently the extent to which a program such as pepfar, initiated by George W. Bush, represented a significant advance not just in the fight against aids but for social and economic rights as well.

Both sides need to rethink their posture toward such rights. Conservatives need to recognize that not only is their pursuit fully consistent with U.S. national interests (since when, after all, have widespread penury and disease ever advanced American interests?) but that many of the goals the right champions require protection of both sets of rights. Human trafficking, for example, is the child of both poverty and the absence of legal protections for marginalized groups like women, minorities, and migrants.9

At the same time, liberals need to acknowledge the demonstrable connection between good governance, an independent judiciary, a free press and other markers of civil and political rights, on the one hand, and the successful realization of social and economic rights on the other. undp’s Arab Development Reports, for example, have conclusively demonstrated the connection between respect for the rights of women and improvements in education, health care, and economic development. It is not just that democracy and respect for human rights prevent such violations of social and economic rights as human-induced famines, as Amartya Sen has so famously demonstrated; it is that they are a key factor in the reduction of poverty, illiteracy, homelessness and disease themselves.  

The stakes in the struggle to meet basic social and economic needs sufficient to realize full human dignity are too great to allow them to be undermined by ideological rigidities from any quarter.

Common ground

No doubt there are numerous other areas where common ground can be found on human rights between at least some on both the left and right. Damaging as they can be to rights at times, for example, militaries can play a critical role in their protection. As the recent intervention in Libya has demonstrated, support of such military action crosses political lines (as does opposition).

The suggestions offered here are likely to evoke dissent on both sides of the political equation. But a more unified human rights movement, even if only imperfectly sewn together, will be a far stronger force than we have today. What we need in the struggle for human rights is not dogmatism but policies that are as resilient and creative as the principles they seek to advance.

1 See, e.g., the address by Senator Jesse Helms before the United Nations Security Council on January 20, 2000.

2 William F. Schulz “The Power of Justice: Applying International Human Rights Standards to American Domestic Practices,” (Center for American Progress, June 2009).

3 An observation based upon several conversations between Lantos and William F. Schulz.

4 Quoted in Gary J. Bass, “For God and Nation,” New York Times Book Review (July 10, 2011).

5 Available at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media/jan-june06/albright_05-10.html (accessed January 4, 2012).

6 Observed by Mark P. Lagon during his work as deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.

7 For a description of these conflicts, see T. Jeremy Gunn, “A Preliminary Response to Criticisms of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998,” Brigham Young University Law Review (2000).

8 Religious freedom is referred to as the “first freedom” because it is the first right enumerated in the American Bill of Rights. But, inasmuch as human rights are established by action of the international community, that placement carries no implication of primacy.

9 See Mark P. Lagon, “Trafficking and Human Dignity,” Policy Review 152 (December 2008 & January 2009); and Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, “And Justice for All,” Foreign Affairs 89:3 (May-June 2010).