“Human Rights” – Often an Excuse for Intervention in Foreign Policy

Jimmy Carter – 39th President of the United States – on 20th January, 1977 proclaimed in his inauguration speech from the Capitol steps, “Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere…Our commitment to human rights must be absolute”. This was the first time that the term “human rights” gained immense momentum across every level of government and society as they anticipated a foreign policy based on the principles of human rights. Although, the phrase “human rights” was already coined in the 1940s by another US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which ultimately paved way to the United Nations sponsored Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Yet, for human rights to be incorporated into the foreign policy of a state and that too of the great power – the United States – as announced by Jimmy Carter, was quiet novel.


Ever since, the United States’ foreign policy have been revolving around the intervention in other sovereign states on the account of said human rights “violations” there. George W. Bush, for example, could be found pursuing the existing long-established notion to invoke human rights in the Middle East and beyond in order to broaden his vision of transforming the region – at the point of a gun, if required. Nevertheless, the pioneer of integrating human rights in foreign policy might be a US president, but various other liberal states have also actively interfered in the sovereignty of other states in view of them mastering the human rights principles.


Human Rights in International Relations

Influenced by David P. Forsythe’s book, “Human Rights in International Relations”, this is to analyze whether human rights really hold influence/impact over foreign policy of states with the example of United States and other liberal democracies by evidencing their intervention in other states with the outright excuse to preserve human rights there. However, thorough analysis of some incidents rationalizes that mostly “human rights intervention” is only used as a conventional card for IGOs – like the United Nations – or the public to recognize the legality and morality of the intervention. In reality, national and security interests are the core reasons for foreign policy decisions of interventions, enveloped in “human rights”, as such interference in other sovereign states have predominantly resulted in more human rights’ violations than preserving them.


Different Types of Human Rights’ Intervention

In order to understand the foreign policy of human rights’ intervention, it is important to note that the intervention does not always incorporate military measures. According to David Forsythe, instead of suing each other in the International Court of Justice, states prefer to implement three eminent mechanisms to regulate other another government’s human rights’ policies: diplomatic, economic and military. Diplomatic mechanism includes holding confidential dialogues, away from public scrutiny, also known as “quiet diplomacy”. Economic channel could be pursued through “smart sanctions” by closing off elite bank accounts or restricting travelling. However, governments may be diffident to put economic sanctions on other states due to their adverse effect on them as well. Last, military mechanism involves a mean of coercive military action, which might prove to be controversial if not attempted with UN Security Council’s approval. A more acceptable approach may incorporate states providing military support for a UN Security Council resolution to diminish human rights sufferings instead of direct unauthorized military action.


America and its Particularism

The comparative analysis of human rights and foreign policy cannot be recognized without taking into account American Exceptionalism. In the US Bill of Rights, human rights is linked to personal freedom; not exactly withstanding the International Bill of Rights. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush Administrations rigorously promoted American conception of human rights in order to advance US policies, therefore eluded many international rights standards and implementing agencies. A worthy example of American exceptionalism would be of the eventualities in Serbian Kosovo. As the US portrayed it as a moral obligation to combat the expulsion of ethnic Albanians, it could also be a response to Serbian policy that challenged NATO’s hegemony and posed a threat of sabotaging other European states.


Another example could be of America’s foreign policy regarding Libya in 2011 when Obama declared American exceptionalism by stating that the US could not stand aside while Gaddafi committed atrocities. Although the real goal was in alignment with America’s national or “security” interest of a regime change, playing the “human rights’ card” was the only way for a legal and moral mandate of military intervention approved by the UN. Though, it could be argued that the power does not solely rest with the presidents but it’s the Congress that assert influence on such policies. Taking into account Bush administration, they promoted the notion of “democracy” and “Champion Aspirations for Human Dignity” at one side, and simultaneously keeping good relations with autocrats like Hosni Mobarak of Egypt. Therefore, there is a highly qualified support, by the US, for international standards. The USA limits itself to practice national particularism, even though it shows great fervor in supporting universal human rights.


Liberal Democracies

Other liberal democracies’ vision on human rights and foreign policy could be explained through the examples of The Netherlands, Britain, Japan, Hungary, Russia, France, Ukraine and India. Just like the US, the Dutch have found it tough to maintain an upstanding and compatible policies on human rights abroad because of their foreign policy inclined toward acquiring conflicting “public goods” – mostly in economic in terms. One such difficult incident arose for the Dutch in its relations with Suriname after coup in that former South American colony. Another notable event is the Srebrenica massacre in the former Yugoslavia in July 1995, in which the Dutch played a major role and it demonstrated a national trauma. Britain, on the other hand, became more vocal about international human rights after its colonial rule ended. Unlike the USA, British governments have taken considerable policies for certain situations ultimately accepting full International Bill of Rights. While the Europeans did take substantial measures of quiet diplomacy or economic diplomacy in Indonesia, Chile, Uganda, South Africa etc., they have yet also avoided to speak up, like the US, against states like Saudia Arabia which provides them with paramount arms sales. Moreover, Japan, Russian and France now represent themselves as the universal model for human rights, although they have a history of supporting corrupt and authoritarian rulers. Similarly, the most populous democracy – India – is extremely low-key and defensive about human rights while committing inhumane actions against Kashmiris in the disputed region. The only liberal state that could be substantially praised for its humanitarian actions is Canada, which has a long record of UN peacekeeping – comprising of complex peacekeeping that includes human rights dimensions.


Exploitation of the Universal Human Rights?

Therefore, states incorporate nationalism, character, self-image, national history, and security and national interests in addition to universal liberal principles when addressing human rights intervention. Along with the aforementioned factors and the USA and other liberal democracies’ patterns, their definition of national interests enables states to tilt their stances and emphasis when making foreign policy decisions based on so-called human rights. Would it be wrong to conclude that the conception of universal human rights has often been exploited in the past and continues to be exploited in the name of “preserving” them elsewhere through the mechanism of intervention? Conclusively, “universal” human rights are often used as an excuse by the powerful to covertly or overtly intrude in the considerably fragile states when the latter are threatening the hierarchy of the former.

Published in  Global Affairs June Edition of 2022

Share this:
Beenish Ayub Orakzai

Written by Beenish Ayub Orakzai

Beenish Ayub Orakzai is an undergraduate student of International Relations at National Defence University, Islamabad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Kashmir Files: Facts Vs Fiction

Climate Change – Is it really the fault of Developing Countries?