Who is America to Judge?

After Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and extraordinary renditions, other countries now challenge America's standing on human rights

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 Guanatnamo, 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 Guantanamo 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.