Day 1 at the SSWA: Human Rights and US Foreign Policy

UN Human Rights Day 2010 LogoThe first day of this year’s Summer Seminar on World Affairs focused on the topic of Human Rights and US Foreign Policy. Dr. Michael Goodhart from the University of Pittsburgh started things off with a presentation on the history and nature of human rights.

The obvious first question that must be asked is: What are human rights, exactly? Dr. Goodhart explained that there are three criteria. First, human rights must be moral rights: from a moral standpoint, a right that people ought to have. Second, they must be equal rights, granted equally to all people. Third, they are essential rights, those of fundamental importance to living a basically decent life. Human rights may fall into a number of categories: social and economic, civil and political, fairness, and liberty and security.

The philosophy of human rights has been developing throughout hundreds of years of history. During the Reformation, the idea that all people are equal in the eyes of God began to take root. In the 17th Century, John Locke articulated the philosophy of natural rights in his various treatises, laying the philosophical foundations for our understanding of human rights. Locke’s philosophy influenced the French and American Revolutions, notably in the Declaration of Independence’s reference to “inalienable rights.” Finally, the end of World War II ushered in the “New World Order” under the United Nations system, which in addition to creating peace and stability in the world, has human rights at the core of its philosophy.

As the philosophy around human rights evolved, these ideas manifested themselves in political events. First, in the American and French Revolutions which challenged monarchial rule. Abolition and feminism also came from the idea of fundamental human equality. Later, international institutions were established to acknowledge these principles, most notably the United Nations.

Within the UN system – and indeed within discussions of human rights in general – there is one major contradiction. On one hand, one of the UN’s fundamental pillars is the protection of state sovereignty. This means that states have the authority to rule within their borders without outside interference. On the other hand, in order to protect human rights, the UN must necessarily interfere in a country’s internal affairs. Another way to look at it is the contradiction between making a law and enforcing it. The UN can make a law mandating that countries respect the rights of their people, but in order to enforce that law, it would be required to violate the offending country’s sovereignty.

Besides sovereignty, the protection of human rights often conflicts with interests and stability. The US, for example, may choose not to intervene in a humanitarian conflict because it would oppose some other national interest that is judged more important.

Having some new insights and background on human rights, the students then broke off into six smaller groups to discuss the day’s policy scenario. For the scenario, they were asked to put themselves into the shoes of the National Security Advisor: How would you recommend that the President handle the crackdown on protests in Bahrain? In particular, how should the US balance human rights against its national interests?

After some time to discuss the scenario, everyone regrouped and shared their ideas. In response to the four questions asked, a number of common threads appeared in the responses.

First of all, they were asked to consider why the US response to Bahrain has been much less harsh than its rebuke of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and its military intervention in Libya. Many groups pointed out that the US has more at stake with Bahrain. Not only is it a strategically important country for its oil, but US involvement in the country could threaten Naval forces stationed there. Meanwhile, if Bahrain’s government is overthrown, that could create tensions between rival regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, given that the former would like to claim the country as an Iranian province.

The second question was “How does the (apparent) hypocrisy of US policy in this case affect the credibility of US foreign policy more generally?” While many agreed that countries, including the US, primarily look out for their own national interests, there was some debate on whether this is hypocritical. On one hand, the US consistently acts in its own interests and therefore is not hypocritical. Alternatively, some suggested that it doesn’t really matter if the rest of the world views us as hypocritical. On the other hand, the US does not live up to its rhetoric and ought to be a leader on human rights; however, humanitarian interventions should be balanced against practical considerations.

Third, regarding whether the US should choose stability and order over justice and human rights, there was fairly widespread agreement that stability should come first, given that stability is a prerequisite for democracy.

Finally, should the US make human rights its top priority? Most groups emphasized the importance of pragmatism. While human rights issues should be important, national interests should generally come first.

This final issue was a central topic of the discussion that followed, and many students shared their insights on how the US ought to balance human rights with its interests. Others discussed ways that the US could encourage democratization without military intervention, such as economic sanctions, a new version of the Marshall Plan or changing people’s ideologies.

Overall, Dr. Goodhart led an interesting discussion on a topic that is clearly very relevant in the world today, as the policy scenario on Bahrain demonstrates. The students’ insightful comments demonstrated an understanding of a topic which can be both complicated and controversial.

By Rebecca Somple, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern