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Global Geopolitics

U.S. Sends Mixed Signals on Rights in Eurasia

WASHINGTON, Feb 5 2013 (IPS) - The United States is applying different standards in its public criticism of the human rights record of authoritarian states of the former Soviet Union (FSU), according to a new report released here Monday by the Open Society Institute (OSI).

The key variable, according to “Human Rights and the Failings of U.S. Public Diplomacy in Eurasia”, appears to be the perceived strategic importance of the specific country.

While the Belarus government is consistently criticised harshly for suppressing dissidents, reproaches to no-less authoritarian regimes in other FSU countries whose cooperation is needed to supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan, for example, are muted, according to the report.

“No one expects U.S. rhetoric with respect to adversaries like Belarus to be identical to its rhetoric about countries with which it has a security partnership,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), after reading the report.

“But the degree to which U.S. diplomats in Central Asia sometimes seem to be apologising for U.S. policies on human rights was surprising to me. It would be a good idea if we hadn’t learned any lessons from the days of supporting dictators before the Arab Spring,” he told IPS.

Indeed, the 11-page report noted that, “U.S. officials publicly laud countries such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that are vital to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan or other key interests, while saying as little as possible about these countries’ failings in the areas of human rights and democracy,” according to the report.

It said that such double standards not only invite cynicism toward Washington and undermine its credibility on rights-related issues, but could also eventually prove counter-productive.

“The long-term danger this perception creates is amply visible in public opinion surveys of attitudes towards the United States carried out in Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak,” the report noted.

Mubarak, who resigned in the face of a popular revolt two years ago, was rarely criticised by Washington for his human rights record and manipulation of elections during his 29-year reign in major part because of his role in upholding the 1979 Camp David peace accords with Israel.

Washington’s long-time support for Mubarak, despite an 11th-hour call by President Barack Obama for him to resign, is widely blamed for the low regard in which the Egyptian public appears to hold the U.S.

Eighty-five percent of respondents in a University of Maryland survey of Egyptian opinion last May said their overall opinion of the U.S. was negative.

As indicated by the Egypt experience, the problem of double standards in U.S. human rights positions is hardly a new one.

During most of the Cold War, for example, Washington defended or only mildly criticised military dictatorships in Latin America and apartheid in South Africa for fear that harsh criticism could open the way for left-wing governments sympathetic to the Soviet Union.

The Obama administration’s more-recent reaction to the so-called “Arab Spring” has not been much different.

While repression by authoritarian regimes perceived as hostile or marginal to U.S. interests, notably Libya and Syria, were strongly denounced, the Gulf monarchies, including Bahrain where the regime has cracked down hard against the majority Shi’a population, has been handled with kid gloves. The U.S. Fifth fleet is based in Bahrain.

The OSI report recognises that “a completely uniform response to human rights is unrealistic given the many different relationships the United States has around the world.”

But, it argues, “it is imperative that U.S. public diplomacy around these issues be more consistent so that other governments take U.S. pronouncements on human rights more seriously and public opinion abroad is less cynical when the U.S. does speak out.”

In particular, the report contrasts the public treatment of abuses in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – both of which host key components of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), the land-based transport network used by the U.S. and its NATO allies to ship supplies to coalition troops their 90,000 troops in Afghanistan – with that of Belarus and Tajikistan whose strategic importance to Washington is far less, but whose governments are no more repressive.

Reviewing public statements by senior administration officials, including Obama himself, and U.S. ambassadors about bilateral relations, the report’s author, Amy McDonough, found a consistent “focus on the positive” for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as well as an emphasis on the notion that they were “key partners” with which Washington intended to “co-operate closely”.

“While democracy and human rights are sometimes mentioned as part of the bilateral dialogue, they literally take a backseat, coming farther down the list of issues addressed than those that the United States the United States deems more pressing,” the report noted.

On those relatively rare occasions – usually after a violent incident, such as last year’s labour protests in Kazakhstan, in one of the two countries – that the administration has spoken out, it has expressed concern about rights abuses. But in such cases, the emphasis has tended to be Washington’s eagerness to “work with” the countries in addressing these problems.

Similarly, while Washington has publicly stressed its support for democratic reforms and free and fair elections, it has eschewed the stronger language – such as “insisting” that such reforms be implemented as a condition of improved relations – that it has applied to Belarus.

Similarly, it has denounced specific incidents of repression in both Belarus in particularly blunt terms.

The contrast in how Washington reacted to last year’s elections in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan – both found to have been deeply flawed by observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – showed a similar double standard, according to the report.

The re-election of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev – with 96 percent of the vote – was greeted warmly by Washington, which noted only in passing “the shortcomings” detailed in the (OSCE) report but “welcome(d) Kazakhstan’s commitment to further liberalise the political environment…”

Not so the election in Tajikistan – the only one of the three Central Asian countries that is not linked to the NSN – where the U.S. embassy published a statement that cited the many irregularities found by the observers in considerable detail.

“We feel that U.S. policy towards Central Asia should have been more forceful on human rights issues,” T. Kumar, director of international advocacy at Amnesty International USA, told IPS.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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