For foreign policy observers, US President George Bush's human rights rhetoric strikes a chord distinctly reminiscent of the Reagan administration. First impressions, however, can be deceiving. With respect to human rights, the new policies coming out of the White House are actually far more regressive than those of the Reagan era.
The Bush administration's clearest articulation of human rights policy can be found in the National Security Strategy, a 31-page report that President Bush submitted to the US Congress at the end of September 2002. This comprehensive restatement of US foreign policy made headlines for its endorsement of pre-emptive military action and its support for unilateral US actions in place of international treaties and organizations. Equally troubling for those who support multilateral approaches to security and safeguarding justice is the document's replacement of human rights with the watery notion of "human dignity."
The National Security Strategy specifies "aspirations for human dignity" as a primary tenet of US foreign policy. "Aspirations of human dignity," however, do not go far enough. The invocation of "human dignity" instead of "human right," if accepted and repeated elsewhere, may overturn 50 years of progress in international law. The National Security Strategy is peppered with a handful of references to human rights, but human dignity has prime billing. The White House's message is clear: the United States does not seek to champion human rights, but instead promotes an abstract substitute. The international community would agree that "aspirations for human dignity" are important, but insufficient as foreign policy goals. The National Security Strategy reflects at best a misguided application of the terms "human rights" and "human dignity" and, at worst, a deliberate attempt to distort and manipulate them.
The Strategy defines the "nonnegotiable demands of human dignity" as "the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; and respect for private property." This eclectic list is wholly divorced from any that has ever appeared in international human rights treatises, serving merely as a compilation of the administration's current priorities. It omits nearly all of the human rights deemed inviolable in international human rights treaties, including the right to life, freedom from torture, and freedom from slavery. Also missing is any mention of those rights associated with civic participation and democracy, a popular nonpartisan tenet of US assistance abroad.
The National Security Strategy also weakens the enforcement potential for the rights it does include. The rights of religious and ethnic groups to nondiscrimination are reduced to mere "tolerance," a passive concept that fails to create any proactive obligations. Similarly, a woman's right to nondiscrimination is downgraded to a vague notion of "respect," another passive concept, reminiscent of the paternalism of the days when women, specifically white women, were placed on a pedestal, but denied agency to make legal and political claims. Only the right to property is elevated to a higher status than that recognized in international human rights law.
The document's definition of human dignity is a product of the Bush administration's understanding of "American values" as described in the US Constitution and the country's "experience as a great multi-ethnic democracy." While the National Security Strategy alludes to the fact that states may find guidance for their foreign policies in many places, there is no mention of any international principles to guide US foreign policy. International norms are reserved for other, lesser countries.
US foreign policy has always been caught between the competing forces of international expectations of cooperation and universal standards on the one hand and domestic expectations of US exceptionalism on the other. …