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By Fottrell, Deirdre | The World Today, March 2002 | Go to article overview

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Fottrell, Deirdre, The World Today


HUMAN RIGHTS AND FOREIGN POLICY

The claim that the 'war' in Afghanistan was about preserving liberty and freedom was undermined by photographs of shackled and blindfolded Al Qaeda suspects detained by the US in the legal limbo of Guantanamo Bay. Reactions inside and outside the US have been markedly different. In America, politicians invoked the events of September 11 and their apparent connection with Al Qaeda to justify their isolation and exposing them to penal conditions considerably harsher than are acceptable under the constitution or international law. Internationally, however, there were doubts about how a conflict which began with talk of the rule of law and the inherent value of human rights, could end with such a show of contempt for both.

WHEN A PRESIDENT PREACHES HUMAN rights overseas and fails to uphold them at home, he can justifiably be accused of talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. On a wider level, such behaviour raises questions about the role of human rights in foreign policy and how problematic it is for countries such as America and Britain to argue the legitimacy of international law and the application of human rights standards to other countries, while appearing not to accept them themselves.

Washington has intermittently tried to assert ownership over human rights as part of a policy of mapping out an international morality of which it views itself as guardian. Similarly, Britain has increasingly located foreign policy initiatives within an international human rights framework

Behind this vision lie two assumptions, firstly that the protection of human rights in one country is a legitimate concern of all states. Secondly that Washington and London are appropriate advocates of human rights, based on their own domestic records and participation in the United Nations' vast and varied human rights programme.

Over the five decades since the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted in 1948, the idea that human rights are a central pillar of foreign policy has taken root. Indeed, as the UN has produced a range of treaties and declarations, human rights have emerged as the universal ideology, transcending boundaries of religion, culture and politics.

Where states choose to promote rights through foreign policy, a range of moral, political and legal arguments are presented in support. The moral arguments rely on the validity of the rights project and its inherent value and importance for all individuals. Human rights, it is argued, have been universalised and internationalised and states are both obliged and entitled to comment on and intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. Our shared moral principles justify our interest and compel us to act.

Political arguments are confined to a greater degree within the traditional parameters of foreign policy, and are based on an understanding that there is potential danger for all states when a human rights crisis causes instability in just one of them. Legal discussion relies on the authority of international human rights treaties that include legal obligations for nations to guarantee rights within and beyond their borders.

UNIVERSAL VALUES

In the case of both the US and the UK, the prioritisation of human rights in foreign policy incorporates elements of all three arguments. However, the American position has also been bound up with its self-image as a state founded on the highest principles of personal liberty. There is a widely held view in the US that their legal and political framework for the protection of rights represents the ideal to which others should aspire. Thus when Washington champions human rights in foreign policy, it is engaged in an outward-looking exercise intended to export American values of freedom and individual liberty.

The idea that human rights are international and can be derived from UN documents, and thus may involve importing principles and standards into the development of law and policy in the US, is rejected.

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