Sometimes human rights unexpectedly win. For instance, last week the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a vile regime that has become an unaccountable favorite of President Donald Trump, was widely expected to win another term on the UN’s Human Rights Council.
Unexpectedly, turning its consulate into an abattoir for slicing and dicing regime critics proved disqualifying. With five states seeking four seats allotted for the Asia/Pacific, the Kingdom came in last, getting only 90 votes, down from 152 when it was elected in 2016. Even Nepal, a minor international player, received more support. Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s humiliation was on display for the entire world.
China, Cuba, and Russia still won uncontested races. But Beijing’s vote totals also fell. The overall victory was small, but worthwhile.
Of course, this fight was but a minor skirmish in a world in which governments routinely abuse peoples, both within and without national borders. Trump makes no pretense of caring about human rights – for him the issue is a weapon for use against adversaries, nothing more. In contrast, if elected Joe Biden might resurrect the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Which would mean bombing, invading, and occupying other nations to "do good." Not that there are many examples of such a policy yielding positive results.
Historically war has been the cruelest instrument, used for mostly selfish ends. Originally no one even pretended that conflict was intended for good. Imperial powers conquered their weaker neighbors because "the strong do what they can," explained the ancient historian Thucydides. Rarely was even a pretext required for the most brutal aggression.
At least in Medieval times the "game of kings" largely left populations alone. Wars were for conquest and prestige, but it mattered little to most people when their neighborhood was transferred among squabbling monarchs. British archers might slaughter French knights at Agincourt, but neither side made war on local peasants. For most civilians life was "nasty, brutish, and short," as Thomas Hobbes put it, but wars represented only a small part of the hardship. Combat mostly involved fools who fought for reasons that look awfully stupid centuries later.
Alas, the Napoleonic age transformed, professionalized, and aggrandized war. Although civilians were not the direct targets of armies, they could not help but be harmed by tens or hundreds of thousands of soldiers invading, battling, and conquering. Imperial Russia employed a scorched earth policy to defeat the fabled Grande Armee but in the process inflicted incalculable harm on its own citizens as well.
World War I generated unimaginable destruction and witnessed use of starvation as a weapon. As many as 13 million civilians died in what was originally known as the Great War. World War II multiplied the slaughter and horror with mass warfare, urban combat, terror bombing, and the atomic bomb. There also was a new factor, resurrected from ancient history: intentional brutality toward entire populations. Conquered peoples and military captives were pressed into forced labor and sexual slavery. And there was mass murder, most horrifically the Holocaust. As many as 55 million civilians died in this conflict.
The international community, whatever that frequently used term means, now agrees that mass murder is wrong. But that hasn’t prevented the large-scale killing of civilians and constant flow of "collateral" casualties in brutal conflicts, many of them intra- rather than inter-state conflict. Among the most important on a long and depressing list: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nigeria, Liberia, the Balkans, Rwanda, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Indeed, between around 1998 and 2003 the latter – formerly named Zaire – dissolved in a conflict almost unknown in America involving nine other African states and a score of armed groups. An estimated 5.4 million people died, with little concern evidenced by Western governments. Of course, Cold War support for the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, a long-time Western client known for his ostentatious corruption before he was ousted in 1997, encouraged mass amnesia, especially in Washington.
Today war has become largely an instrument of one power, the United States. All in the name of what is good and right. As the American war machine is unleashed against one small nation after another, liberal sensibilities dominate. Protecting human rights has become the new casus belli. An entire industry dedicated to "humanitarian intervention" has arisen. How the Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, and Yemenis have benefited from Washington’s tender touch! Millions more around the globe await similar liberation.
Alas, war is not a humanitarian weapon. Sometimes necessary, its short-term impact almost always is brutal and awful. Even when the fighting ends, the good is hard to find. War politics rarely delivers the local equivalents of America’s Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention. To the contrary, the results so often illustrate "why the worst get on top," as famed economist Friedrich Hayek wrote.
Yet American foreign policy practitioners remain largely oblivious to the disasters they routinely cause. For instance, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians died in the sectarian conflict unleashed by America’s invasion of Iraq; millions of people were displaced. Yet the chief architects of that war have never acknowledged their responsibility for mass death and destruction. Nearly two decades later Iraq still is confronting the consequences of Washington’s supposed act of armed charity. The future is unknowable, but Saddam Hussein, who was executed at age 69 in 2006, might have died naturally or been ousted years ago at far less human cost.
Consider the Syrian civil war and Saudi/Emirati aggression against Yemen, both of which had hideous humanitarian impacts. Notably, both were supported, avidly, by Washington, including by some of the loudest and proudest advocates of supposed humanitarian intervention. America’s role in both conflicts has been malign. In Syria the U.S. discouraged negotiation by both the Assad regime and opposition, underwrote the conflict by supporting groups including Islamic radicals, and now is trying to force Assad out of power by impeding Syrian reconstruction and impoverishing the Syrian people. In Yemen Washington backed one of the most oppressive and murderous regimes in the Middle East, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in a war of aggression against one of the poorest nations on earth. Even the State Department warned that US officials may be guilty of war crimes.
Second in cruelty only to war is use of embargoes, bans, sanctions, blockades, and other forms of economic warfare. The impact usually is serious hardship for and sometimes even starvation of civilians. In World War I the United Kingdom violated international law and instituted a blockade of Europe. Estimates of the number of dead German civilians ranged between 424,000 and 763,000.
America’s faux humanitarian president, Woodrow Wilson, protested little against the British economic assault on German and European civilians while turning Berlin’s response, submarine warfare, into the justification for America’s entry into Europe’s imperial killfest. (He nonsensically claimed that the mere presence of US citizens on board should immunize from attack British reserve cruisers carrying munitions through a warzone, like the Lusitania, which sank from a secondary explosion of its military cargo.)
Today the US government is enthusiastically starving the populations of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela in the name of humanity. Well-fed American policymakers cry crocodile tears about terrible oppression suffered by these and other peoples around the world. Of course, the respective governments are responsible for the harm caused by their policies, both political oppression and economic dirigisme. However, that misgovernment is a given. American policy greatly exacerbates the resulting hardship.
After six decades of an embargo and steadily enhanced sanctions, who imagines that Cuba’s Communists will yield power if Washington adds a few more economic restrictions, striking additional blows mostly against private entrepreneurs, whose existence in fact undermines regime authority? Does anyone expect North Korea’s ruling dynasty, which presided over hundreds of thousands of deaths due to famine in the late 1990s to be moved to abandon nuclear weapons to forestall another tightening of U.S. sanctions on the North’s civilian population?
Nicolas Maduro has presided over the continuing collapse of his nation’s socialist economy. Why would he yield power now just because Washington ensures that desperate and malnourished people are even more desperate and malnourished? Having initiated a policy of "maximum pressure" which has shifted political power toward Iranian hardliners, why does the Trump administration imagine the regime now will surrender its policy sovereignty, as demanded by Washington? And does anyone outside of a psychiatric facility believe that targeting already suffering Syrian citizens will cause the Assad government to yield after it fought and won a nearly decade-long civil war?
Where is the humanitarianism in any of these policies?
In response to such criticism the U.S. has turned to narrowly targeted sanctions, typically applied against officials and political supporters. Any symbolic value is undercut by Washington’s rampant hypocrisy. The president decried the Iranian leadership for its domestic repression and foreign aggression. After he danced with Saudi leaders, celebrating their multi-billion dollar munition purchases used to slaughter Yemeni citizens and totalitarian assault on their own citizens’ political and religious liberties. Who honestly believes his administration gives even one fig about human rights?
Moreover, the policy is a practical bust. For instance, the State Department recently imposed sanctions on a couple of Iranian judges allegedly "responsible for certain gross violations of human rights." No doubt they are cretins, but who imagines this will achieve anything practical? That, say, the prospect of not visiting Disneyland will cause them to reverse their judgments? (Even if that would bring back a defendant who was executed.) Let alone convince them to become exponents of liberty and justice in the future.
Similar has been the flurry of personal penalties imposed on Chinese officials involved in repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. One of those targeted was the party chief in the latter, Chen Quanguo, who previously brutalized Tibetans with his misrule. He is a thug who deserves to occupy a lower rung in Hell. But does the White House imagine his inability to open an American bank account will cause him to fly to Beijing and insist that President Xi Jinping free the Uyghur people? And that Xi will do so?
Actually, targeted sanctions are largely intended to allow legislators and presidents alike to preen for the cameras, acting like they are doing something when they are not.
What should a new, more competent and principled administration do after it takes office? Or a new, better variant of the current administration do if it succeeds the current model?
End stupid, unnecessary wars. Which means most of them. They inevitably destroy human life as well as human rights.
End stupid, unnecessary sanctions. They hurt the most vulnerable in already fractured, oppressed, impoverished societies.
End stupid, unnecessary support for regimes which murder, brutalize, repress, and mistreat their peoples. Sometimes reality requires tough compromises. But not often in today’s world. There is no need for Washington officials to treat professional dictators in Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and aspiring autocrats like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, among others, as if they matter more to America than America matters to them. In any case, cooperation does not require cringing servility and ostentatious sycophancy, like the Trump administration has shown to Riyadh. As well as lavish weapons on states which invade and brutalize their neighbors.
Use the bully pulpit. Limit hypocrisy. Address America’s shortcomings. Encourage private activism.
That’s an extensive enough agenda for any administration. When it comes to human rights, and most other international issues, humility might be the most important requirement. U.S. policymakers should realize their limitations and act accordingly. Adopting the Hippocratic Oath and first doing no harm would always be a good place to start.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.