Human rights irony for the US and Arab world

Human rights irony for the US and Arab world

Since September 11th, the United States and the Arab world have traveled a treacherous road together. Where they have arrived after ten years sets them apart. In the US, the embrace of human rights as a defining value and ideal worthy of considerable sacrifice is gradually fading, while the Arab world is in the midst of a rights revolution.

Throughout US history, promoting individual rights and civil liberties has been central to how Americans defined themselves. To be American was to champion liberty and rights. These were repeatedly billed as inherently American values. Even when they encountered contradictions such as US support for brutal dictators, Americans’ faith that more often than not the United States used its power to promote its principles allowed many Americans to continue to take pride in their "America as leader of the free world" identity. In this formulation, human rights, ideals, and morality mattered, at the very least as a bar that should be met.  

But the United States’ treatment of human rights after September 11th proved hard to reconcile with its "purveyor of rights" identity. Abu Ghraib’s gripping images, Guantanamo’s indefinite detentions without due process, the outsourcing of torture to "partner" countries through renditions, CIA blacksites where Americans themselves took up torture and disappearances, and countless legal memos and euphemisms justifying torture so blatantly flew in the face of American claims to championing human rights that most found it increasingly difficult to invoke a distinct American identity based on freedom and rights.

At the same time, while arguing that the spread of democracy and freedom through military interventions in the Middle East was "America’s calling", the Bush administration embarked on a relentless campaign to persuade Americans that preserving "national security" could be justifiably pursued through any means, even what Dick Cheney termed venturing into "the dark side".

A decade later, the most daunting legacy of September 11th is that Americans have followed the Bush administration’s lead and gradually abandoned the notion that morally-based values such as human rights should define their identity and guide their behaviour.

Rewarding torturer supporters

As a result, the mainstream debate over whether the United States should torture has become one almost entirely devoid of questions of morality. Instead, for most of the post-September 11th era, it has largely been a debate over whether torture is effective or not, whether it protects American security or not. Within that debate, the Bush-Cheney argument that torture (or its euphemism, "enhanced interrogation techniques") is sometimes necessary seems to have increasingly gained currency. In fact, once he took office, the Obama administration pledged to prohibit torture and close Guantanamo, not because of public opinion but in spite of it.

Today, high-ranking government officials who approved torture are writing books in comfortable retirement, lawyers who provided legal cover for them now serve as federal judges and law professors, and CIA officials and psychologists involved in carrying out torture have largely retained their jobs, even receiving promotions. The prospect of these individuals ever being held in any way accountable for their role in human rights violations is for the time being unimaginable. Despite the presence of numerous human rights proponents within its ranks, the Obama administration has read the national sentiment and squarely refused to pursue prosecutions under the President’s mantra of "looking forward, not backward".

While in the past, American leaders resorted to presenting interest-driven policies as essentially meant to further rights and freedom in the world – a trend the political scientist John Mearsheimer referred to as "liberal talk, realist thinking" – the opposite dynamic has emerged ten years after 9/11. American politicians who want to pursue human rights agendas are compelled to present them as interest-driven. Thus, the Obama administration is forced to frame its calls for everything from closing Guantanamo, to the Libyan intervention, to its policy on genocide in national security terms. The space for invoking human rights on moral grounds alone has virtually disappeared in the United States. 
This increased American ambivalence towards human rights stands in contrast to a rise in the human rights ideas’ resonance in the Arab world since September 11th. The denials of human dignity captured in Abu Ghraib photos and Guantanamo accounts had a profound psychological impact in much of the Arab region. As they grasped for a response, many Arabs found the language of human rights gave expression to their immense sense of indignation. At the same time, activists began drawing attention to the Arab world’s own "Abu Ghraibs" and "Guantanamos".

In Egypt, bloggers began posting graphic videos of torture and sexual abuse by authorities, and the stark before-and-after pictures of 27-year old Khalid Said, who was beaten to death in Alexandria, spurred a wave of public protests in 2010. Eventually, public revulsion against the practice of torture became a major catalyst for the protests that led to Egypt’s historic revolution.  

An unprecedented embrace of the language of human rights has been an unmistakable feature of not just Egypt’s revolutionary moment, but the tide of protest and change that has swept much of the region. The Arab world is moving towards a consensus on not only the moral corruption of repressive practices like torture, wrongful imprisonment and suppression of assembly, but the urgency of acting to challenge these practices, sometimes, as in the case of Syria, in immensely dramatic form. When dictators have been successfully ousted, significant public pressure demands prosecution and accountability for rights violations.

Evidence of the new legitimacy and embrace of the human rights idea is evident almost everywhere one looks – in protest slogans, in the new prominence of human rights activists, and in the platforms of aspiring political actors of almost every persuasion. Even Islamists and religious figures like the head of Al Azhar University, the seat of Sunni Islamic learning, proclaim their commitment to upholding rights.

The picture is not entirely rosy. Even in Egypt, human rights activists told me in June that they were up against widespread views that terrorists or "thugs" sometimes needed to be roughed up. Yet these activists were optimistic that the emerging culture valuing rights provided ample openings for transforming such views.

American human rights activists, on the other hand, are much more pessimistic about the prospects of combating public support or apathy on torture and other human rights policies of the US government. 

The contrasting American and Middle Eastern dispositions are of course, fraught with irony, given that it was the United States that would supposedly support human rights in the Middle East. Perhaps in the most convoluted sense of the word, it somehow did. In the second decade after 9/11, we can only hope that when it comes to its commitment to human rights, the United States will draw some inspiration from the Arab world.

Shadi Mokhtari is Assistant Professor at the School of International Service at American University. She is the author of After Abu Gharib: Exploring Human Rights in America and the Middle East and Editor in Chief of the Muslim World Journal of Human Rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.