Shining a Light on the Dark Side of America

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American flag overlayed on the world map (Image Credit: Shutterstock)

Contrary to the benevolent picture of America painted by education systems and blockbuster movies like Zero Dark Thirty, it has continually trampled on domestic human rights. For two decades, the notorious Guantanamo Bay torture facility has overseen rectal feeding, waterboarding, and forced nudity of a nature that could only be envisioned happening in history’s worst dictatorships. The US’ lax gun laws, its status as one of the four developed countries to still use capital punishment, and even its catastrophic handling of the COVID-19 pandemic have been constituted as violating the fundamental right to life. Its subpar attempt to eradicate the trinity of crime, poverty and racism has also been scrutinized by international organizations and human rights groups. Nor does it attempt to rectify its wrongdoing; none of the CIA agents responsible for establishing their secret detention camps have been prosecuted, and the only public documentation of their actions is a heavily redacted ‘Torture Report’ in 2014. Unsurprisingly, this is problematic for the world’s self-proclaimed beacon of universal values when it tries to be the global human rights policeman and win support from other nations by appealing to their sense of morality. Totalitarian states the world over refer to America’s abuses to defend themselves and deploy the word ‘Guantanamo’ as a synonym for hypocrisy, even in Geneva itself. A growing body of them contend that the US has no righteous motive when making these accusations, but only uses them as pretexts to humiliate countries it deems unfriendly.

Conversely, the resulting curtailment of the stars and stripes’ power does not uniquely stem from their domestic human rights record. Dictators could just as easily (and often do) denounce their brutal foreign policy to achieve the same effect, and are especially fond of recalling the Iraq war, which encompassed civilian bombings and mutilation of inmates at Abu Gharib. Moreover, they stop Uncle Sam from turning the page on the past by issuing merciless reminders of slavery and imperialism in the Far East. His refusal to endorse the International Criminal Court and the international landmine treaty has even resulted in scorn from his staunchest allies, including Britain and Australia, which prompted them to vote him off the Human Rights Commission in 2001. America ignores the human rights abuses of its allies as well; it habitually downplays the havoc wreaked by Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and militarily supported 73% of the world’s dictatorships in 2017. This infamously included Saudi Arabia, which Joe Biden promised to make ‘a pariah’ at the beginning of his presidency, but fist-bumped with its crown prince a year later while attempting to secure more oil, sparking a widespread perception that the United States puts its interests first, and civil liberties second.

Terrorist groups have similarly converted American domestic abuses into anti-Western propaganda, such as by putting American hostages in similar orange jumpsuits to those worn by mistreated prisoners in the US, in hopes of finding recruits and justifying its own heinous actions. Uncle Sam’s attempts to neutralize the subsequent uptick in terrorism have limited his ability to project power abroad by tying down millions of soldiers in the Middle East and costing trillions of dollars. However, insurgent leaders will always find grounds to incite hatred towards America, unreasonable as they may be, because they must eliminate the country’s presence in the region to establish a Muslim caliphate through any means. A prime example is Osama bin Laden’s manifesto, which falsely declared that the suzerain supported the oppression of Muslims worldwide, from Russia’s torment of its Chechen minority to India’s atrocities in the conflict over Kashmir.

America would also fail to impose its human rights agenda on authoritarian regimes even if it fully respected the freedoms of the world’s denizens. This is because dictatorships could utilize multitudinous other talking points to shield themselves from scrutiny, which also give countries which are not strongly aligned with the West excuses to take no action against the autocratic world. Tyrants routinely invent bogus justifications for their nefarious acts, including China’s claims that its Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang are ‘re-education centers’ and Russia postulations that its invasion of Ukraine was a retention of territorial integrity against NATO. They also cite the Westphalian idea that a state’s sovereignty supersedes its obligation to human rights, an argument which China used after its occupations of Hong Kong and Tibet. The conclusion from this is that meddling in its internal affairs is unacceptable, which resonates especially strongly with a large portion of the global community, including relatively stalwart American allies such as India and Singapore. Many recoil when Western interventions are mentioned, as they harbor anti-colonial sentiment and remember the destabilization of several polities in which the US interfered. Authoritarian states’ last defense is an audacious recharacterization of ‘human rights’, which allows them to assert that they already comply with American notions of civil liberties. Before the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, China published a white paper which argued that their one-party should be deemed democratic as ‘it produced results’, and that the idea of defining democracy was inherently undemocratic as the public should decide for themselves whether it was so. These outrageous suppositions are usually followed by observations about the drawbacks to sustaining ‘Western democracy’, such as more sluggish bureaucracy and the domination of politics by wealthy elites. Beijing has also indicated that it almost solely evaluates a human rights record on intrastate financial equality, and discards assessments of political freedoms, such as privacy and freedom of speech.

To make matters worse, providing such reasoning is occasionally even unnecessary for these autocrats, since they have hijacked America’s paramount civil rights guarantor, the United Nations (UN), and thus prevented it from investigating and punishing their human rights violations. China and Russia wield veto powers in the UN Security Council, and are not hesitant to use them, having dismissed fifteen motions since 2019 (the other three permanent assembly members have only rejected one). This duo can therefore block any resolution that targets a fellow human rights violator, from condemnations of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to parameterizations of the deployment of chemical weapons in Syria. Additionally, they can prohibit the organization from sanctioning their fellow autocrats, which could pressure them enough economically to coerce them to terminate their abuses. Only fourteen countries currently face these penalties, and these exclude frequent abusers such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. And in the limited instances where the despotic titans allow the UN to implement such penalties, China instantly relieves the ensuing duress by continuing to independently trade with the impacted states, even with those as heinous as North Korea. 

Neither is the newly founded UN Human Rights Council immune to corruption by autocrats; China has been elected to the council every year since its inception (except for 2013), and current adherents also include Qatar and Eritrea, which are contemptuous of civil liberties, to say the least. This is because any member of the UN General Assembly, including the ever-increasing bloc of despots within it, can elect their preferred candidates each year. Many council members thus oppose, or abstain from supporting, probes into human rights breaches, because concurring with the rationales which underpin these investigations would set a precedent for humiliating inquiries into their own behavior. This tragic phenomenon was epitomized by a recent decision that Amnesty International depicted as ‘a betrayal of [the council’s] core mission’: nineteen nations’ rejection of a proposal to host a debate concerning Chinese practices in Xinjiang. In short, even if America was a flawless defender of domestic human rights, it would lack the power to impose its liberal values on other states. 

It is also improbable that the allure of civil liberties shifts the calculus of the countries that are deciding whether to ally with China or the US, but the infelicitous reality is that most polities follow Zhou Enlai’s mantra: economic development should be prioritized over Westerners’ conceptions of equity.  In fact, a survey conducted by Ipsos revealed that countries did not even include upholding essential rights such as gender equality, justice, and inequality among their immediate five priorities. Therefore many nations, particularly those in the global south, would side with China, since its economic power abroad dwarfs America’s. This is because its funding is not conditional on the maintenance of a spotless human rights record and it runs the Belt and Road Initiative, which contains a Brobdingnagian $4tn worth of infrastructure in 150 countries. By contrast, the G7’s Build Back Better World has only pledged to donate $555bn by 2030, and most of the US’ existing grants are concentrated in the Middle East (the top three recipients are from this region). Moreover, states’ gravitation towards China will only strengthen as its one-man rule makes it possible to increase aid despite the political unviability of doing so, whereas American aid will likely shrink since 56% of voters favour a more inward-looking approach. 

Likewise, a minority of affluent countries will remain firmly in America’s camp irrespective of its domestic human rights record. Britain and France remarked pointedly on the stars and stripes’ inaccessible abortion procedures in a 2020 UN review, but they have never gone much further in their criticisms. These nations, which are predominantly situated in Europe and East Asia, urgently need protection in the face of the increasingly aggressive Chinese dragon and Russian bear, and view America as their supreme guardian angel. This is especially because the suzerain’s allies spend paltry sums on their own armed forces, having taken its protection for granted for decades; only eight other countries in NATO are currently spending 2% of their GDP on defence. The US also spends four times as much on its military than China does, and the former heavily finances its 750 bases overseas, whereas the latter primarily bolsters homeland security, which makes seeking protection from China an impracticable option.

In addition, violating civil rights at home has multifarious but minute costs for the US, which marginally decrease its ability to project power abroad. Direct tolls include $540m for guarding prisoners at Guantanamo and $3bn for federal executions, but the actual cost may be higher because the CIA classifies some of its expenses. Granted, the indirect tolls are drastic; racism and gun violence have cost America $16tn and $12tn respectively since 2000. But only a fraction of this deadweight loss would be taxed, of which a mere 3% would be allocated to pay for military expenditures and 1% to economic aid. When accounting for the mammoth scale of the national economy (government spending totaled $6.27tn in 2022), these figures have a diminutive impact on its influence overseas.

As deplorable as Uncle Sam’s domestic human rights record and his sanctimony may be, they are not pivotal in diminishing his power in Global Politics. Support of civil liberties will always play second fiddle to other factors when determining America’s ability to impose its principles on foreign polities, build trade relations, or project hard power. Such is the depressing reality of contemporary politics.

Written by Sean Tan

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