The principle of Human Rights is a core component of the modern political system. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born out of the experiences of World War II and signed into being in 1948 after two years of intense discussion and drafting. The Declaration held the world’s nations to an ethical and moral standard that is yet to be fully realized. The importance of Human Rights is growing in the international arena and has even been the cause for foreign intervention, in the case of Libya and perhaps soon with Syria. However, there is also a growing concern that Human Rights cases are being picked up or conversely ignored for political expediency, rather than a true concern for the tenets of the Declaration.
The international community is walking a dangerous line when it comes to Human Rights issues. Choosing to champion a cause because it aligns with the political strategy will only take one so far before the general hypocrisy of it is called out. However, international relations seems to be progressing along the path that Human Rights can be used as a political game card to be pulled out when and if it is strategically useful to do so, and to be ignored or dumbed-down if otherwise. This, however, would weaken the crediblity of the International regimes overtime.
The Arab Spring has thrust the issue of Human Rights back into the political and public spotlight. The Arab regimes at the center of the Arab Spring have long been accused of denying their citizens’ civil and political rights, while not adequately ensuring their cultural, social and economic rights are met either. However, this did not hinder other government having warm, even friendly relationships with these regimes. It was only when the people themselves began to protest against their governments that other governments around the world also began to enumerate the myriad human rights denied to these citizens and to call for an end to these oppressive regimes.
In Libya, the calls for change were forceful enough to prompt a military intervention under the auspices of UN Resolution 1973. The intervention lasted eight months and ended with the death of Muamar Qaddafi in late October, 2011. The Libyan intervention has been used as an example of the UN policy of the ‘responsibility to protect’ adopted in 2005. However the major criticism of this is that this ‘responsibility’ has been used only in Libya, despite the fact that at the same time as the intervention in Libya there was political turmoil and equal human rights issues in the Ivory Coast and Yemen, not to mention the myriad other human rights abuses in countries like Sudan and Uganda that have not garnered the same international political or public response.
The universality of the Declaration of Human Rights should make such picking and choosing untenable, however the reality is that some fights are more politically expedient than others. Take, for example, the fact that despite the escalation of violence in Syria far outstripping that of the Libyan government at the time of the intervention, there is widespread agreement that a military intervention is not the ‘answer’ for Syria. There are sound reasons for this being the case: the political vacuum in the region alone is more worrying for many in the international community if the Assad regime were to fall. The Syrian link to Iran is another cause for concern. The uneasiness of powerful neighbors (Saudi Arabia) at having another foreign intervention in the region is reason enough for many to find recourse to military action suddenly unpalatable, despite the evidence of gross Human Rights violations in Syria.
So does this leave the place of Human Rights in international politics as a pressure point, a bargaining chip to be played only when it is politically convenient? Yes and No. However Human Rights issues have certainly gained a lot more traction as a coercive mechanism, particularly in UN Security Council votes, where the moral and ethical high ground of Human Rights issues is used to press countries to reconsider their voting patterns. In the case of Syria the Human Rights card was used to pressure Russia and China into finally agreeing on a non-binding statement regarding Syria, calling on both sides of the conflict to agree to a ceasefire and to allow humanitarian access.
However, while the focus of Human Rights issues in Syria has been on the actions of the Assad regime, there is clear evidence that members of the rebel forces have also committed Human Rights violations, including torture, detention and execution not just against government forces but against civilian supporters of the government. This duplicity in choosing to highlight Human Rights abuses only when it suits, and choosing to ignore others has many other countries worried.
France And Armenian Genocide Bill
For example, the French Senate passed a bill known as the ‘Armenian Genocide Bill’ which accuses Turkey of committing genocide against Armenians 100 years ago, and making it a punishable crime to deny the fact. Turkey has been outraged by the bill and has retorted by accusing France of committing genocide in Algeria 60 years ago. Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian says the day the bill was passes will be written ‘in gold’ in the history of the protection of human rights. It is thought that a sizeable Armenian community in France was behind the push for the bill, with Turkey accusing French President Nicholas Sarkozy of pandering for votes from the Armenian-descent section of French society in a reelection year.
However some might argue that the bill in itself violates the human right of freedom of opinion and expression (Article 19 of the Declaration) by making it a punishable act to hold the opinion that Turkey’s actions in World War I did not constitute a genocide.
India has also apparently bowed to internal pressure on a Human Rights issue, with the recent vote in favor of a UN probe into war crimes in Sri Lanka pushed by the Indian Tamil population. Particularly the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, representing Tamils in southern India threatened to pull out of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition if India voted against the resolution, despite the fact that both Sri Lankan government and Tamil forces are accused of Human Rights abuses in the conflict.
For Pakistan, the recent US congressional hearing regarding Human Rights issues in Balochistan has raised alarm bells also. The most notable outcry over the hearing was the clear political motives that governed it and the apparent mockery it made of other Human Rights issues, such as Kashmir and Palestine, which have gone unaddressed.