Meyer: Enforcing Human Rights – World Policy Journal – World Policy Institute


ARTICLE: Volume XVI, No3, FALL 1999

Enforcing Human Rights 
Karl E. Meyer

In the century’s surprising finale, human rights in its many guises has become a pervasive global cause, culminating in the most unusual of modern wars, the NATO intervention in Kosovo. As never before, the foreign news is seemingly dominated by demands for basic political rights and protests against internal repression. Stories involving human rights, or their absence, flow from lands of every description, ranging from the Vale of Kashmir to tiny East Timor in Asia, from every region of Africa, and from almost every ex-Soviet republic from the Baltic to the Caspian Sea. So strong is the tide that human rights offenses long past are being tried anew, either in British courts in the case of Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet, or in American films and academic treatises in the case of African slavery.

Politics and technology help explain this development. Public diplomacy abhors a void, and with the end of the Cold War, there has been a palpable hunger for a unifying doctrine. Thus, the long ignored and most blatantly flouted of international covenants, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, has assumed a robust second life. Its principles are advanced by an aggressive phalanx of nongovernmental organizations, notably Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch. With an assist from pop stars and British royals, most Westerners are now conversant with the current vocabulary of human rights: boat people, “ethnic cleansing,” Free Tibet, land mines, Live Aid, female mutilation, and that most misleading media mantra, the “international community.”  For Westerners, what happened in Kosovo was a good deal more than “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing,” as Neville Chamberlain said of Czechoslovakia in 1938 (a phrase echoed by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, speaking about Bosnia in 1993).

For non-Westerners stifled by authoritarian regimes, human rights have acquired a different resonance. They provide a weapon of opposition that can generate foreign attention and even in some cases (Kosovo, for example) trigger intervention. On its face, prospects for moving forward appear promising. Earlier debates on the alleged conflict between “Asian values” and the U.N. declaration have abated, and the consensus on universal norms seems broad and hopeful. The failure of communism has given widespread and practical luster to such democratic values as free speech, civil society, the rule of law, and electoral accountability. Propitiously, new technologies have bored holes in closed frontiers. Fax machines, cellular telephones, and the Internet now feed the agitation against the hard-line ayatollahs of Iran and the Burmese jailers of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Yet however welcome to human rights activists, these favorable developments have raised expectations that cannot plausibly be realized. The American role is critical. No forward movement is possible without Washington’s support and leadership, but the very exercise of such leadership stirs an outcry against U.S. hegemony abroad and a backlash from left and right at home. In truth, American policy has neither direction nor strategy but is a mélange of bromidic phrases. At a recent panel discussion in New York, a Peruvian human rights worker confessed he could not understand why the Clinton administration, having uttered the right sentiments about repression in his country, went on to help finance a draconian narcotics sweep by the hated security police, bent U.S. laws to sell advanced warplanes to the all-too powerful military, and gave its blessing to fiscal measures that punish the poor and undermine Peruvian democracy. Asked what he most sought from Washington, he offered a one-word answer: “Coherence.”

Wilsonian Trappings in the Real World
The rebuke is valid, but in the circumstances, inescapable. There is no “international community” in any meaningful sense, only its simulacrum in the form of an enfeebled (and insolvent) United Nations and a toothless World Court. Despite all the Wilsonian trappings, the world today substantially resembles that of 1900: one global superpower (America, in place of Britain), a dozen or so pivotal powers (Britain, Germany, France, Russia, China, Japan, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, and South Africa), and upward of 150 lesser entities, most of them poor and dependent.  Granted, the old colonial empires have melted away, but from the human rights vantage, this is not always a plus. For reasons of crass self-interest, colonial powers maintained a monopoly on the use of force, put down regional and ethnic separatists, and imposed a rough Hobbesian peace. As we have seen in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia, the “international community” has failed to devise a more acceptable, and effective, substitute.

In the nineteenth century, it is worth recalling, a “power” was defined as a country strong enough to resist foreign intervention. The distinction still holds. It is highly unlikely, putting it mildly, that the “international community” would ever intervene forcibly on human rights grounds against any of the pivotal powers. To be sure, sanctions of various degrees of severity are feasible, and can have teeth, as in the case of South Africa during the apartheid era. But this was an exception. In the post–Cold War era, pivotal powers generally get a human rights pass: consider Turkey and the Kurds, China and the Tibetans, Russia and the Chechens. Thus, harsher measures invariably apply to the weak, the poor, and the pariah (Serbia and Iraq). There is no equal justice under world law.

All this is known to policymakers. As the writer David Rieff usefully reminds us, officials reserve their lofty phrases for the public pulpit, and in private employ terms that Bismarck would have no trouble understanding.1 In that realistic spirit, one should attempt to sort out the policy choices for the United States in the coming decades. In my view, they boil down to three. Washington could dispense with cant and unilaterally proclaim a Pax Americana, dispatching Marines or cruise missiles, when necessary, to rush in humanitarian aid, prevent massacres, and punish tyrants. A second option would be to heed George Kennan’s advice: abjure interventionist meddling, address our own neglected ills, and lead by moral example. Or Washington could, for the first time, make a serious commitment to collective action, building on structures that already exist, and thereby give some meaning to the hollow phrase “international community.”

The perils of the first course were apparent in the Clinton administration’s punitive air strikes in 1998 against presumed terrorists in Afghanistan and Sudan. The suspicion that President Clinton was trying to change the subject during the impeachment proceedings against him sharpened when the Pentagon could not confirm that a factory it destroyed in Khartoum actually produced chemical weapons. To the peril of seeming cynical and incompetent when operations misfire, is added the peril of seeming a hegemonic bully when missions succeed. In any case, unilateral military adventures are easier to initiate than to end. Previous American “police actions” in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua turned into occupations that endured through six American administrations, from William Howard Taft to Franklin D. Roosevelt (who is still remembered in Latin America as the good neighbor who pulled out the Marines).

The problem with George Kennan’s prescription is its unfeasibility in a multi-ethnic democracy in which legislators play so important a role in foreign policy. One may sympathize with Kennan’s distaste for moralizing bombast from members of Congress, but that is the price of popular democracy. Indeed, examined more closely, our melting-pot diplomacy, whatever its periodic excesses, has also had its triumphs. While serving as secretary of state, Henry Kissinger deplored the Jackson-Vanik Act that attached human rights conditions to most-favored-nation trade benefits, and he was at best lukewarm about the human rights provisions in the 1975 Helsinki Accords that gave all signatories the right to inquire into and judge compliance—yet both helped to legitimize internal opposition to Soviet repression. We tend as well to forget that in enacting economic sanctions against South Africa, Congress overrode President Reagan’s veto—an instance in which a legislative measure palpably fostered peaceful change in another country. All these measures were attributable to human rights agitation and melting-pot politics, and all involved the kind of moralizing intervention that George Kennan too indiscriminately deplores.

If popular involvement in foreign policy is integral to our system, why not turn this to advantage? Why not tap the undoubted reserves of American goodwill and generosity, as evidenced in the continuing vitality of the Peace Corps? For starters, the next president could reverse course and support the 1998 Rome Statute creating an International Criminal Court, ending the need for ad hoc tribunals to try accused war criminals. Why not take the braver course—sign the statute and address its shortcomings while moving forward to full ratification? It is hard to believe that Americans lack the legal wit to safeguard U.S. troops from frivolous prosecutions—cited by the Clinton administration as a major reason for refusing to sign. Had Harry Truman heeded similar warnings from lawyers, to whom every precedent is a slippery slope, the Nuremberg Tribunal would never have been established. (Indeed, a British initiative to give the tribunal permanent status was among the sadder political casualties of the Cold War.)

Additionally, the next president could call upon the country to join with willing foreign partners, notably Canada and the Netherlands, finally to establish a voluntary standby force under the United Nations capable of responding swiftly when genocidal disasters threaten. Of the regrettable features of the NATO intervention in Kosovo, two stand out: the reliance on massive air power to avoid NATO casualties, thus all but destroying the country that was to be saved, and the use of a regional military alliance to bypass authorization by the U.N. Security Council. These were precedents far graver than any of the claimed pitfalls in the Rome Statute, and it would require courage for a presidential contender to say as much. But absent that kind of courage, it is hard to see how anything like a real “international community” will ever emerge.

Washington’s Frosty Response
In George Kennan’s telling phrase, American support for human rights has been declaratory in nature, not contractual. This was so from the outset. The Truman administration was delighted when Eleanor Roosevelt gained unanimous General Assembly approval in 1948 for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (48 in favor, none opposed, two absent, and eight abstentions, mostly Soviet bloc delegates). As the first chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Mrs. Roosevelt adroitly coaxed support for language that emphasized individual rights, while it also recognized social and economic rights. Article One paraphrases Jefferson’s Declaration, sans Creator: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in the spirit of brotherhood.”

Yet when Mrs. Roosevelt, “the First Lady of the World,” pressed for ratification of implementing covenants, she met with a frosty response in Washington. As the writer Michael Ignatieff has remarked, American human rights policy is distinctive and paradoxical, “a nation with a great rights tradition that leads the world in denouncing human rights violations but which behaves like a rogue state in relation to international legal conventions.”2 The Senate has refused to approve, or has imposed demeaning reservations on, nearly every important U.N. covenant with respect to human rights. The U.S. Senate, typically enough, deliberated for nearly four decades before ratifying, with qualifying conditions, the 1948 Genocide Convention. (It needs adding that Sen. William Proxmire for three years took the floor daily to express his dismay at this shaming lassitude.)

To be sure, the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds vote for ratifying treaties gives inordinate leverage to a Senate minority. Granted as well, during the Cold War’s glacial phase, the United Nations fell so far in American esteem that a Reagan administration delegate invited the organization to sail into the sunset (a geographic impossibility from New York harbor), a sentiment seconded by Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat. Many Americans, not all of them conservatives, found it unconscionable to be lectured on human rights by members of the Soviet bloc and the Third World majority in the General Assembly. This is now history. The Soviet Union no longer exists, the General Assembly has rescinded its resolution equating Zionism with racism, most of the basic fiscal and management reforms demanded by Washington have been undertaken—yet the Clinton administration and the U.S. Congress still regard the United Nations as something like an unfriendly foreign power, unworthy of real trust, or even indeed of its $1.6 billion in treaty-mandated back dues and assessments.

The result, in the words of Brian Urquhart, is a weak, divided and under financed international system, on which the world must prayerfully count to prevent wars (internal and regional), genocide, nuclear proliferation, and environmental calamities. Urquhart, a former undersecretary general of the United Nations, offers a gloomy but accurate summary of what this means: “More than ever it is clear that there is a large hole in this ramshackle international structure—the absence of consistent and effective international authority in vital international matters. The very notion of international authority is anathema to many governments, great and small, until they are looking disaster in the face, by which time it is usually too late for useful international action.”3

The next president has a history-given opportunity to treat Americans as grown-ups, by stating plainly that this country has neither the wit nor the resources to be the world’s sheriff, that sharing global obligations makes political and fiscal sense, that a new administration wishes to work with others to clear out land mines everywhere, that it welcomes proposals for training international police, and indeed would even consider (as David Rieff suggests) some form of long-term authority in places like Kosovo, where creating stable political arrangements may take a generation.

A specific and useful proposal is already on the table: the creation of a multinational standby force that could be rapidly deployed to check genocidal massacres. No matter that such crises are infrequent: when they occur, the aftershocks endure for decades. Interestingly, when such a force was first proposed in 1992, it was endorsed by candidate Bill Clinton: “We should explore the possibility of creating a standby, voluntary U.N. rapid deployment force to deter aggression against small states and to protect humanitarian relief shipments.”

The standby proposal originated in “An Agenda for Peace,” a report to the Security Council by Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a smart, abrasive, and unpopular U.N. secretary general. As he was at pains to emphasize, he was not suggesting the formation of a U.N. army but instead asking as many nations as possible to make available troops on a standby basis, so operations could get underway in days, not months. Such a force was envisioned in Article 43 of the U.N. Charter, under which all members “undertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement…armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage, necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security.”

Fatal Timing
Boutros-Ghali’s proposal had merit, but his timing was fatal. In 1993, the untested Clinton team inherited from the Bush administration a muddled humanitarian mission in Somalia meant to feed a stricken people without taking sides in a civil war. Although nominally under U.N. auspices, Operation Restore Hope was directly controlled by the United States, which provided most of the troops. On October 3, 1993, eighteen U.S. Rangers were killed in a skirmish, a shaken President Clinton pulled back and out, and hopes for a multinational standby force died in the mean streets of Mogadishu.

The need for such a force was underscored with horrific finality in April 1994, with the outbreak of ethnic massacres in Rwanda. A small U.N. force of 2,500 troops was instantly withdrawn from the Rwandan capital, Kigali, and Washington blocked Security Council authorization for a stronger force, among the gravest foreign affairs mistakes by the Clinton White House. Around 800,000 Rwandans were slain; the slaughter was followed by the exodus of 2.5 million refugees and a cycle of violence in Central Africa whose end is not in sight. In his memoirs, Boutros-Ghali recalls a White House meeting in May 1994 at which, to his surprise, the president all but shrugged off Rwanda to discuss the appointment of an inspector general at the United Nations and the naming of his candidate as the director of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). (Years later, it should be noted, President Clinton more creditably acknowledged American culpability in failing to respond to the Rwanda genocide.)

The Canadian commander of the U.N. force in Kigali, Gen. Romeo Dallaire, asserts that even with two or three thousand troops he could have substantially limited the killings—a judgment supported by Scott R. Fell in a report to the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict. Fell estimates that a trained force of 5,000 soldiers, deployed in April 1994, could have significantly reduced the toll.4

In its indifference to the United Nations, the Clinton administration expressed Washington’s abiding bipartisan distaste for multilateral operations in any form, unless there is clear demonstration of American national interest (for example, the Desert Storm operation against Iraq) or an American is in charge (as at the World Bank and UNICEF). Even so, the case for a standby force has gained converts in Washington. In 1998, the Department of Defense quietly won approval for providing $200,000 as seed money for a fund to finance a rapid deployment mission headquarters under Bernard Miyet, the undersecretary general for peacekeeping.

The fund grows out of a Canadian proposal in 1995 for the establishment of such a force, a suggestion strongly seconded by the Dutch. Interestingly, as of July 1999, 85 countries, ranging from Argentina to Zambia, have officially expressed willingness to participate in standby arrangements. The French and the British have offered to make available 5,000 and 10,000 troops respectively. Participants would be obliged to train and pay costs while the forces remained on standby, with the U.N. providing reimbursements after the deployed troops left their country. Of the 85 volunteers, 24 states have already signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations, 14 have provided planning data, 23 (including the United States) have listed their capabilities, and 24 have expressed a willingness to take part. Adding the first three groups together, the United Nations on paper could mobilize 84,000 reserves, 56,700 support troops, 1,600 military observers, and 2,050 civilian police.

This is not a standing U.N. army. Its American equivalent is a trained volunteer fire department, able to respond quickly in emergencies. Deployment would be subject to approval of the Security Council, whose five permanent members—the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France—each wield a veto. Even so, given America’s resistance to multilateral operations, winning approval for such a volunteer standby army would require a fair measure of presidential imagination, persuasiveness, and courage.

How refreshing it would be if the next chief executive reported to Americans on the world as it really is, warned human rights activists that frustration and disappointments were unavoidable, acknowledged that double standards exist and that the “international community” has yet to be created, added that the most likely threats to peace and human rights will arise from civil strife within sovereign frontiers, that to deal with this threat the world needed both regional and international standby reserves, that Washington would do what it could to help, and that as a first step he or she would seek to persuade Americans that it was in their interest to pay the dues owed an organization inspired by American ideals and located in the world’s most ethnically diverse city. How refreshing, and how necessary.


1. See David Rieff, “A New Age of Liberal Imperialism?” World Policy Journal, vol. 16 (summer 1999).

2. Michael Ignatieff, “Human Rights: The Mid-life Crisis,” New York Review of Books, May 20, 1999.

3. Brian Urquhart, “Looking for the Sheriff,” New York Review of Books, July 16, 1998.

4. See Preventing Genocide: How the Early Use of Force Might Have Succeeded in Rwanda, which is available, along with the Carnegie Commission’s final report on Rwanda, at For Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s version of the U.S. response to Rwanda, see his memoir, Unvanquished: A United States-United Nations Saga (New York: Random House, 1999). For the pros and cons of the Rome Statute, see the monograph, Toward an International Court (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1999).


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