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Does it Matter if the Torturer Is Right-Handed or Left-Handed?

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 1 2011 (IPS) - Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once made the highly-debatable distinction between “friendly” right-wing “authoritarian” regimes (which were mostly U.S. and Western allies) and “unfriendly” left-wing “totalitarian” dictatorships (which the U.S. abhorred).

Among the dictators the U.S. shunned were Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Myanmar’s General Than Shwe, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and, more recently, Belarus’s President Aleksandr Lukashenko.

At the same time, successive U.S. administrations cozied up to a rash of authoritarian regimes, mostly in the Middle East, widely accused of instituting emergency laws, detaining dissidents, cracking down on the press, torturing political prisoners and rigging elections.

The United States obviously had no qualms about supporting countries openly repressive – including Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Yemen, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – either for political, economic or strategic reasons.

Kirkpatrick’s distinction between user-friendly right-wing regimes and unfriendly left-wing dictators prompted a response from her ideological foe at that time, former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who shot back: “It seems to me that if you’re on the rack (and being tortured), it doesn’t make any difference if your torturer is right handed or left-handed.”

The strongest link between the United States and some of the oppressive Middle East regimes is primarily military.

“The United States is quick to preach democracy to the rest of the world,” says one Asian diplomat. “But when there are peaceful demonstrations demanding democracy – like the one in Egypt last week – the tear gas and the water cannons used against demonstrators are invariably made in the USA or the Western world.”

More than three decades ago, Israel and Egypt reached an important peace treaty, the Camp David peace accords signed in September 1978.

“Unfortunately, one of the prices of that treaty was a U.S. agreement to supply massive amounts of military aid to both countries,” says Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, a senior fellow with the Center for Peace and Security Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

The current instability in Egypt highlights the importance of thinking about the long-term effects of arms sales, she added.

When the U.S. government sells weapons, it is making a decades-long commitment to the recipient, she pointed out.

But “far too often, recipients of U.S. weapons have been unstable, autocratic regimes that have not deserved those commitments,” Goldring told IPS.

It is disconcerting to learn that U.S.-supplied tear gas is apparently being used against the protesters. “But it’s not surprising,” she added.

Criticising the tactics of the Mubarak government, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay says that while maintaining rule and order, the Egyptian government should protect the rights to life, liberty and security.

“It has been brought to my attention that since the street protests erupted, police have confronted protestors with rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, water cannons and batons, and arrested more than 1,000 people, including political opponents,” she complained.

Since the Camp David treaty, Egypt has received over 35 billion dollars in U.S. aid, mostly outright military grants with no obligation to pay back.

For 2011, the United States has pledged 1.3 billion dollars in foreign military financing (FMF), 250,000 dollars in economic support funds and 1.4 million dollars for international military education and training.

In its latest ‘Congressional Budget Justification’ for 2011, the U.S. State Department says the United States “benefits both politically and practically from its strategic relationship with Egypt and the wide-ranging support Egypt provides for U.S. efforts to deter and counter threats to regional security.”

This includes providing logistical support of U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ironically, the United States has also pledged to continue programmes in police training to promote human rights and effective community policing practices as steps to transform law enforcement.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Pillay deplored the rising number of casualties, pointing out that unconfirmed reports suggest as many as 300 people may have been killed so far, over 3,000 injured and hundreds arrested.

She called on the Egyptian authorities to ensure police and other security forces avoid excessive use of force, and warned against arbitrary detention of people for expressing their political opinions.

“The fact that the Egyptian government has maintained an emergency law for 30 years was an indication of its disregard for human rights,” Pillay added.

She also criticised the withdrawal of the police from the streets over the weekend, which may have led to widespread looting.

Goldring told IPS the protests in Tunisia last month have now spread not only to Egypt but also to Yemen, and Jordan.

It is too early to tell whether this is the leading edge of an effort at regional transformation. But there’s certainly plenty of room in the Middle East for more democratic governments, she said.

The U.S. government’s recent agreement to sell an estimated 60 billion dollars in weapons and services to Saudi Arabia is merely the latest in a long line of open-ended U.S. arms transfers to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, she noted.

“If these regimes fall, their control over their military arsenals is also likely to vanish. That risks advanced U.S. weapons ending up in the hands of groups that are hostile to the United States,” Goldring warned.

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