Human rights trump democracy

The USA is recasting its international dominance as a global defence of human rights.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

Some of the human rights abuses committed during a certain war on terrorism have recently come in for harsh criticism.

The US State Department says that people engaged in legitimate political and religious activities have been falsely accused of being terrorists and of having links with al-Qaeda. There was also the shocking revelation that indiscriminate air power has been used, and that schools and residential areas have been bombed.

Of course, such comments were not directed at the US-led ‘war on terror’ that is still being waged against Afghanistan and threatened against Iraq and other states. Rather, the US State Department is concerned about the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang autonomous province of China, and the Russian government’s abuses in Chechnya ‘under the guise of fighting terrorism’.

However, the USA’s military action in Afghanistan did feature heavily in the State Department’s press launch of its annual report on human rights on 4 March 2002. US secretary of state Colin Powell called the USA’s own war against terrorism ‘a triumph for human rights in 2001’. Forget concerns about indiscriminate use of air power and civilian casualties, the US campaign in Afghanistan was presented as the showpiece of 2001’s international promotion of human rights:

‘Perhaps nowhere was institutional change more significant than in Afghanistan, where five years of repressive Taliban rule came to an end…. By year’s end, members of the international community were committing themselves to the rebuilding of Afghanistan, including the formation of a broad-based, pluralist government. Among the new ministers appointed to the interim government were two women.’ (1)

The war on terror as a ‘triumph for human rights’? Surely even the most adept political spindoctor should struggle with presenting a war of aggression carried out without UN Security Council authorisation, complete with the unilateral decision to remove a foreign government from power and to handpick an alternative regime, as a triumph for international law, a triumph for international peace, a triumph for democracy?

Yet in the terms they are presented, human rights can always triumph, especially where international law and the established political framework of international society seems to have collapsed. Indeed, the more the US establishment has sought to carve out a unilateral foreign policy that breaks with the international institutions established and maintained during the Cold War, the more human rights have come to the fore. Post-11 September, there has been a reassertion of US power abroad, with America even rejecting the constraints of NATO agreements, never mind the mechanisms of the United Nations (2). Yet the one international principle that the USA can wholeheartedly support today is human rights.

Unlike the rights formally held to be paramount under domestic and international law – which derive from the principles of legal and political equality – human rights depend on the assertion of external powers of regulation and intervention, and are determined on the principle of ‘might makes right’. The rights of the less powerful are asserted and acted upon by those with the will and the power to do so. As the political and economic power of the USA is increasingly projected abroad, recasting international relations, so human rights are put above competing rights of democracy and state sovereignty.

Those keen to challenge this shift in international affairs often accuse the USA of human rights abuses of its own, and therefore of employing double standards. But it might be more effective to reassert the universal standards of democracy and self-government – in which case, it is advisable to heed the words of the US State Department itself. A powerful defence against the US government’s claims to judge and act on the behalf of others was put by assistant secretary of state Lorne Craner at the press launch, in response to criticisms of the US death penalty:

‘You know we still have the death penalty here. It is a subject of great debate, and here in a democratic society it is something that basically has been democratically decided…but the mere fact of the death penalty I would not label personally as a human rights violation.’ (3)

The USA’s power to dictate the human rights agenda is clear. But defending democracy and people’s right to make their own political choices without outside interference is still a powerful way to undercut the State Department’s spin that they have the right to send in the B52s to carpet-bomb people for their own good.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:

  • Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • And he is the editor of:

    • Protecting the Bosnian Peace: Lessons from a Decade of Nation Building (Routledge, 2004)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • Read on:

    Faking democracy in Kosovo, by David Chandler

    Ripping up the Charter, by David Chandler

    Third time wrong, by David Chandler

    (1) Afghanistan hailed ‘a triumph for human rights in 2001’, US Department of State, 5 March 2002

    (2) See Ripping up the Charter, by David Chandler

    (3) Human rights reports champion respect for freedom, US Department of State, 5 March 2002

    To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

    Topics Politics


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