Where’s the humanity? Western leaders blinkered view on human rights

In the West, our politicians often focus on the need for humanitarian interventions around the world. The plight of minority groups is paraded on news channels to evoke emotion. But Sean Mowbray believes that behind this facade of caring is the grey and shrouded world of international ‘realpolitik’.

The international stage, despite good intentions, is a world of hypocrisy and layered meaning which masks the true motivations of leaders. While purporting to support the notion of human rights, Western leaders simultaneously commit atrocities of their own all in the name of achieving foreign policy goals. This raises the question of whether these leaders actually care about human rights at all.

There is unfortunately a plethora of examples from the British government’s blatant disregard for human rights abuses. Only recently, the political kowtowing to Saudi Arabia reached new lows when leaders of the ‘democratic’ West flocked to pay tribute to the deceased Saudi King. David Cameron professed that he was ‘saddened’ by the news, while flags were lowered in controversial reverence to the Saudi Monarch who was friendly with his British counterpart. The issue of human rights has never been more prevalent today in Saudi Arabia as the case of Raif Badawi demonstrates. Badawi has been sentenced to 1000 lashes for the crime of posting a blog that supposedly defamed Islam.

©Amnesty Finland/Creative Commons License

©Amnesty Finland/Creative Commons License

In a report released in 2012, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee accused the current government of inconsistency in its use of human rights boycotts. This condemnation was released after the decision was taken not to boycott the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix after government repression of protests. So what is behind this clear and common disregard for human rights abuses?

An example may be drawn from Egypt. After the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi’s democratically elected government, political violence against his Muslim Brotherhood supporters was ramped up by the military. In a brutal show of force the armed forces massacred over 800 Brotherhood supporters at a protest in August, 2013. This prompted restrained punitive measures from the West which issued tame letters of condemnation and severed military ties to show their disapproval. Egypt’s massacre was the worst loss of human life in a protest since Tiananmen Square.

Only one year later the UK government was expressing its eagerness to work with the military regime of Abdel el-Sisi. It can be supposed that the UK government desired to see a potentially dangerous government removed as elements within the Muslim Brotherhood were driving Egypt towards becoming an Islamist and authoritarian state. This may explain the tentative response to the massacre in 2013 and the show of friendship to the newly established presidency of el-Sisi only one year later. The wider objective of restraining the spread of radical Islam muzzled the response of the UK government and of many others to flagrant abuses of internationally recognised human rights.

In the case of Egypt and other regions, by pursuing foreign policy objectives, the West has frequently degraded its own ability to question the actions of other nation states. Today, any mention of human rights abuses can only provoke active mockery and accusations of unadulterated hypocrisy. Foreign policy objectives are deemed more important as they rise above the individual rights of the global human population because western leaders no longer view those outside their domain as individuals or people at all. It is perhaps for this reason that human rights are subjected to such a low status among world leaders.

©Chris Beckett/Creative Commons License

©Chris Beckett/Creative Commons License

Look no further than the CIA torture report. The report told us little that we did not already know, apart from the more gruesome details of the torture methods that were used. But the report is more than a catalogue of barbarism, it is a powerful symbol of the US and its allies reaching a moral nadir in the fight against terrorism. By becoming deeply complicit in the rendition of individuals for purposes of undergoing ‘advanced interrogation techniques’ against suspected and confirmed terrorists, Western governments showed a blatant disregard for the rights, as agreed by the United Nations and ratified by most of the world, of those it deems to be its enemy.

What then is the solution to this problem? Citizens of other states, particularly enemy states, are considered as mere collateral damage to achieving greater political ends. In essence, their lives, which may be civilian and innocent, are of lesser importance to Westerners. This state of mind is deeply embedded in the psyche of many decision makers and even within much of the electorate of the relevant countries.

It is also clear that the West has little moral right to champion human rights as they have frequently transgressed the values that are supposedly dear to them. In order to have any influence on the actions of others it is essential to hold the assurance that actions committed are not contributing to the perpetuation of abuse. To truly achieve this there can be no more hiding behind the defence of national security. Transparency is needed to restore the image of our own government authorities.

Only then can we begin to rebuild our own national image and perhaps operate a foreign policy that reflects the values and rights of our democratic system rather than one which is disturbingly similar to those nations who would do us harm.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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