The US state department's annual human rights report got an unusual amount of criticism this year. This time the centre-left coalition government of Chile was notable in joining other countries such as Bolivia, Venezuela and China – who have had more rocky relations with Washington – in questioning the moral authority of the US government's judging other countries' human rights practices.
It's a reasonable question, and the fact that more democratic governments are asking it may signal a tipping point. Clearly a state that is responsible for such high-profile torture and abuses as took place at Abu Ghraib and Guanátnamo, that regularly killed civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq and that reserved for itself the right to kidnap people and send them to prisons in other countries to be tortured ("extraordinary rendition") has a credibility problem on human rights issues.
Although President Barack Obama has pledged to close down the prison at Guantánamo and outlaw torture by US officials, he has so far decided not to abolish the practice of "extraordinary rendition", and is escalating the war in Afghanistan. But this tipping point may go beyond any differences – and they are quite significant – between the current administration and its predecessor.
In the past, Washington was able to position itself as an important judge of human rights practices despite being complicit or directly participating in some of the worst, large-scale human rights atrocities of the post-second world war era – in Vietnam, Indonesia, Central America and other places. This makes no sense from a strictly logical point of view, but it could persist primarily because the United States was judged not on how it treated persons outside its borders but within them.
Internally, the United States has had a relatively well-developed system of the rule of law, trial by jury, an independent judiciary and other constitutional guarantees (although these did not extend to African-Americans in most of the southern United States prior to the 1960s civil rights reforms).
Washington was able to contrast these conditions with those of its main adversary during the cold war – the Soviet Union. The powerful influence of the United States over the international media helped ensure that this was the primary framework under which human rights were presented to most of the world.
The Bush administration's shredding of the constitution at home and overt support for human rights abuses abroad has fostered not only a change in image but perhaps the standards by which "the judge" will henceforth be judged.
One example may help illustrate the point: China has for several years responded to the state department's human rights report by publishing its own report on the United States. It includes a catalogue of social ills in the United States, including crime, prison and police abuse, racial and gender discrimination, poverty and inequality. But the last section is titled "On the violation of human rights in other nations".
The argument is that the abuse of people in other countries – including the more than one million people who have been killed as a result of America's illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq – must now be taken into account when evaluating the human rights record of the United States.
With this criterion included, a country such as China – which does not have a free press, democratic elections or other guarantees that western democracies treasure – can claim that it is as qualified to judge the United States on human rights as vice versa.
US-based human rights organisations will undoubtedly see the erosion of Washington's credibility on these issues as a loss – and understandably so, since the United States is still a powerful country, and they hope to use this power to pressure other countries on human rights issues. But they too should be careful to avoid the kind of politicisation that has earned notoriety for the state department's annual report – which clearly discriminates between allies and adversary countries in its evaluations.
The case of the recent Human Rights Watch report on Venezuela illustrates the dangers of this spillover of the politicisation of human rights from the US government to Washington-based non-governmental organisations. More than 100 scholars and academics wrote a letter complaining about the report, arguing that it did not meet "minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy or credibility".
For example, the report alleges that the Venezuelan government discriminates against political opponents in the provision of government services. But as evidence for this charge it provides only one alleged incident involving one person, in programmes that serve many millions of Venezuelans. Human Rights Watch responded with a defence of its report, but the exchange of letters indicates that HRW would have been better off acknowledging the report's errors and prejudice, and taking corrective measures.
Independence from Washington will be increasingly important for international human rights organisations going forward if they don't want to suffer the same loss of international legitimacy on human rights that the US government has. Amnesty International's report last month calling for an arms embargo on both Israel and Hamas following Israel's assault on Gaza – emphasising that the Obama administration should "immediately suspend US military aid to Israel" until "there is no longer a substantial risk that such equipment will be used for serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses" – is a positive example.
The report's statement that "Israel's military intervention in the Gaza Strip has been equipped to a large extent by US-supplied weapons, munitions and military equipment paid for with US taxpayers' money" undoubtedly didn't win friends in the US government. But this is the kind of independent advocacy that strengthens the international credibility of human rights groups, and it is badly needed.