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HVK Archives: U.S. report on rights: How objective?

U.S. report on rights: How objective? - The Hindu

Sridhar Krishnaswami ()
1 February 1997

Title : U.S. report on rights: How objective?
Author : Sridhar Krishnaswami
Publication : The Hindu
Date : February 1, 1997

The "much awaited" report of the United ' States on Human Rights is
now out; and if the recent past is any indication it will be time
to "look forward" to the next report around the same time next
year. Some will make the point that the positive aspect of the
State Department notings on the rights' record of nations, both
allies and adversaries, is that it helps to keep an administration
on its toes. Law-makers in Capitol Hill find the manual a useful
tool to push or block packages to countries.

The more cynical in the group of critics will make the point that
just because the Clinton administration has lashed out at the
regime in China for its "continued" and "well documented" human
rights abuses, this is not going to make any difference whatsoever,
either for Beijing or for Washington. To the former, it will be
business as usual unmindful of the fact that the Clinton
administration has said that by the end of 1996 there were no known
dissidents. And to the U.S. it is always in the hope of not getting
carried away by its own human rights rhetoric.

The new Secretary of State, Ms. Madeleine Albright, has said a
number of things regarding the future of American foreign policy,
especially as it related to the Asia Pacific. In the context of
China. it was made clear that Ms. Albright will be "telling it as
she sees it" as far as human rights are concerned - and this
includes the latest addition by way of Hong Kong. But t the same
time, the U.S.' relations with China is "multi-faceted" where one
issue will not be allowed to hold others hostage. But those who
have seen what has transpired in the last four years will come away
with the feeling that no matter what is put out by the State
Department on an annual basis, things will remain the same. Even
the President, Mr. Bill Clinton, admitted the other day that the
policy of engagement with Beijing did not deliver the goods on the
human rights front.

The problem with the U.S. policy on human rights is not that there
is the stated concern or a specific policy on the subject. The
problem is that there are too many policies and too many yardsticks
to measure the same. At the time of the Cold War, Washington
consciously made the distinction between left wing dictatorships
and right wing dictatorships - the bottom line being that the
latter was "okay" because many of these regimes, some of them
downright tinpot dictatorships, were supported and backed by the
U.S. But left wing dictatorships were bad because they were
espousing an ideology that was totally unacceptable in the mindset
of the U.S.

But the Clinton administration has given a different twist to how
human rights principles were going to be judged in the post-Cold
war era. And it falls into two broad categories: at the level of
the rhetoric, it would be made to sound that the U.S. is an
impartial observer in this game going to the extent of pointing out
the dismal state of affairs in Nigeria, as it is in telling Germany
that the policy of discrimination against scientology was something
that was not good. The State Department will make the point that
there is absolutely no differentiation being made and that allies
like South Korea will be hauled up in the report for violence
against women in the same fashion the Taliban has been strongly
criticised for its discriminatory practices against women: or
Russia being chided for using indiscriminate force in Chechenya.

Secondly, the Clinton administration has made it known in no
uncertain terms that the lecturing on human rights will be
different - it will be one set of lectures to China and totally
another set to countries like Cuba and Myanmar (Burma). To say
that there is no politics in this business of human rights is plain
naive. In the case of Cuba, the domestic political angle is
something to be kept in mind and in the case of Myanmar, there is
not much going around for American business houses which is one
reason why a lot of noise can be made. For all the tough talking
of Ms. Albright, it remains to be seen as to who gets the car of
the President in putting the foot down vis-a-vis China - the State
Department which has no political constituency or the big business
houses of the West Coast and elsewhere who do. The lack of
straight talking on human rights raises larger questions of
credibility of this administration.

China, to keep up the battle of rhetoric, will be making the point
that it is none of America's business as to how things turn out in
Hong Kong after reversion on midnight of June 30, 1997. This point
has been made before in more blunt terms. Perhaps Beijing - and
others will chide the U.S. for the pompous fashion in which it
judges others. But this is not going to stop the State Department
from going through what is required by law to report to Congress.

A pertinent question has been raised in mass quarters here: if the
U.S. could come out with ii blunt criticism of China, could it stay
away from sponsoring a resolution at the Human Rights Commission in
Geneva faulting Beijing's record on the subject? In some ways the
Clinton administration has put itself in a spot by over-extending
its criticism of Beijing, but this administration has a way of
getting out of such situations. It could, for Instance, proceed
with the idea of co-sponsoring the resolution knowing or hoping
that this would not pass.

But the idea of Washington even taking this step will make China
extremely uncomfortable, at a time when nearly everyone in the
foreign policy establishment is talking about finaly getting out of
the bad or rough patch and finding new plateaus in bilateral ties
that would have global and regional fallouts. The alternative would
be for the administration to speak of some "accord" or
understanding that has been worked out with China in the realm of

The administration is too aware of the potential of the lucrative
mega market of that country to let human rights stand in the way.
In fact, the point has been made that in the realm of human rights
this administration has always sought to make an exception for
countries that had either a trade or a strategic value. in the case
of China it is trade and investments; and in the case of West Asia,
the largely muted discussion of human rights violations stems from
strategic compulsions, notably oil; plus the fact that many of
these regimes are seen as vital actors in the West Asia peace

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