Mixed Message on Human Rights, Again

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  1. By Marcela Sanchez
    Source: Washington Post

    The Bush administration has been crisscrossing the globe asking countries to sign bilateral agreements that would exempt U.S. citizens from prosecution for human rights abuses by the new International Criminal Court. At the same time, it continues to proclaim, as the United States has for a quarter-century, that human rights is a pillar of U.S. foreign policy, and that full respect for human rights is a precondition for its military aid.
    The problem with this message is obvious: It's mixed. Once again.

    No nation in the hemisphere is more affected by this contradiction than Colombia, the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the Americas and third in the world.

    Newly inaugurated President Alvaro Uribe has embarked upon an intensive military campaign against insurgencies, bolstered by increased U.S. assistance previously limited to counter drug efforts. That acceleration has heightened the concerns of human rights activists that the rule of law be respected.

    Colombia is in a vise. On the one hand, it is being pressured to reduce its armed forces' impunity to any rights violations; on the other, it is being urged to sign an accord that would leave U.S. forces immune to the international court's actions.

    Not surprisingly, then, Uribe is facing mounting internal and international opposition to signing the bilateral accord. Many feel he will feel compelled to do so, nevertheless, and in the process help to undercut the international court.

    This mixed message is only the latest mixed message. Last week's declassification of U.S. State Department documents regarding the military regime in Argentina from 1976 to 1983 brought to mind at least two other episodes.

    The first was Washington's purported "failure to impress" upon the Argentine military leaders the importance of human rights in the first months of the regime, a time during which, we now know, thousands of people were tortured and many disappeared. In one of the documents, the U.S. ambassador to Buenos Aires at the time, Robert C. Hill describes Argentine military "jubilation," comfortable that the U.S. government had "no real problem" with the human rights situation under its watch.

    That conclusion had been reached following an envoy's meeting with Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller. Hill felt compelled to register for the record a "bitter complaint" about such a circumstance that, he wrote, made "unrealistic and unbelievable" his own efforts on behalf of human rights.

    Another episode occurred a couple years later, during the Carter administration, which had made the issue a priority in U.S. foreign policy by creating the job of assistant secretary of state for human rights. In what became the first real salvo against the Argentine regime, Washington cited human rights concerns as the basis of its initial opposition in 1978 to a $270 million Export-Import Bank loan to Argentina to purchase hydro-turbines.

    The U.S. business community railed against the Carter position, saying U.S. jobs would be lost and U.S. business dealings imperiled. The administration dropped its opposition and the deal went through. What the administration knew at the time but could not say-and we now know from diplomats who worked at the U.S. embassy and the State Department then-is this: the project for which the turbines were being purchased was owned by the Argentine navy, a primary instrument of human rights abuses in the country at the time.

    U.S. human rights efforts in Argentina declined from that heyday, taking a back seat first to U.S. business interests and later to concerns about fighting terrorism, according to human rights watchers.

    The result was a series of mixed signals to Argentine military leaders of that era, some of whom still believe their actions were justified. Indeed, some thought the events of Sept. 11 were a final vindication of their efforts to fight what they considered terrorism in their own nation, according to Horacio Verbitsky, president of the Argentine human rights organization that requested release of the documents. Yet, the fact that the Bush administration declassified the incriminating documents last week must have been "a great disappointment" to their illusions, Verbitsky said, with a sense of satisfaction.

    The fact is that the United States continues to repudiate human rights abuses after Sept. 11, he added, even as other rights groups accuse it of abridging those same rights in its war against terrorism.

    That could be just another sign that Washington's message on human rights is simply never uniform, and so be it. It also could be another sign that an effort to elevate human rights above individual national interests through establishment of institutions like the international criminal court may be a necessary tool to discourage serious violations-in no uncertain terms.

    Note: Special To washingtonpost.com

    Source: Washington Post (DC)
    Author: Marcela Sanchez
    Published: Friday, August 30, 2002
    Copyright: 2002 The Washington Post Company
    Contact: letterstoed@washpost.com
    Website: http://www.washingtonpost.com

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