Let no one say that the United States government doesn’t take human rights seriously. Let every dictator or human right abuser take note that the United States will not tolerate any regime that commits acts of violence and terror against their own people. On Monday an Egyptian court upheld 183 death sentences against Muslim Brotherhood members accused of the murder of 11 police officers during an attack on a police station in Kerdasa, near Cairo. This ‘outrageous’ verdict, as Amnesty International described it, brings up a grand total of 453 people who have now been sentenced to death for killing police officers by Egypt’s courts, in a series of laughable show trials.
The reaction of the Obama administration has been swift and unequivocal. On the same day the death sentences were upheld, the State Department imposed visa restrictions barring Egyptian officials and their families from entering the United States, in a clear demonstration that human rights violators and their families ‘are not welcome in the United States.’
Except that it didn’t happen quite like that. Because it wasn’t Egypt, but Venezuela that was subjected to these restrictions on Monday, when the State Department announced that Venezuelan government officials and their families implicated in human rights abuses would not be allowed into the United States. These ‘abuses’ relate to anti-government protests which took place last year, during clashes between the state security forces and right-wing opponents of President Nicolás Maduro’s government.
In the course of these protests 43 people were killed and 873 injured. The dead included members of the state security services, and opponents and supporters of the Maduro government, some of whom were killed by by protesters themselves. The Venezuelan government nevertheless carried out 197 investigations into alleged abuses carried out by the state security forces, and the Attorney General announced that ‘The behaviour of all the institutions must adhere to human rights and if it doesn’t … there are going to be punishments for those who are responsible.’
President Maduro also condemned supporters of the government who had engaged in acts of violence, declaring:
‘I want to say clearly: someone who puts on a red t-shirt with Chavez’s face and takes out a pistol to attack isn’t a Chavista or a revolutionary. I don’t accept violent groups within the camp of Chavismo and the Bolivarian revolution. If you want to have arms to fight…get out of Chavismo.’
Compare this with Egypt or Bahrain or any of the Latin American dictatorships with which the United States colluded throughout the Cold War. No one has been tried for the ruthless slaughter of more than 1,000 people by the Egyptian security forces in 2013. There has been no official investigation into the shooting of leftist demonstrators on January 24 this year, in which a young woman peacefully protesting was shot dead on camera by a member of the security forces.
Yet last year’s protests led directly to the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act, which was proposed by New Jersey senator Robert Menendez and passed by the US Congress and signed off by President Obama last December. In a statement that month, Obama’s press secretary declared. ‘We have not and will not remain silent in the face of Venezuelan government actions that violate human rights and fundamental freedoms and deviate from well-established democratic norms.’
Noble sentiments, were it not for the fact that they are empty slogans. It is easy to see Obama’s willingness to single out Venezuela and ignore Egypt as an expression of hypocrisy or double standards. It is both those things, but the US response to last year’s protests and John Kerry’s fervent denunciation of the ‘terror campaign’ allegedly waged by the Maduro government also reflects a willingness to use human rights as a strategic tool against governments that it doesn’t like and/or wants to remove.
This strategy has a long history, which can be traced right back to the Cold War, when US governments routinely denounced the human rights abuses carried out communist or leftist governments, while remaining silent or tacitly complicit in those carried out by dictatorships and national security states in Latin America, Indonesia, African and the Middle East.
Since the end of the Cold War, human rights discourse has continued to act as a kind of moral perfume that conceals the less salubrious machinations of imperial power. In some cases human rights rhetoric will be integrated into official policy in order to isolate the target country internationally and provide a justification for imposing sanctions and funding and facilitating opposition ‘civil society’ groups.
In other cases human rights may act as a justification for war and/or covert operations, according to the ‘humanitarian intervention’ argument that state sovereignty becomes when dictators carry out ‘crimes against their own people’.
Either way, this selective outrage guts the whole concept of human rights of any real meaning and transforms it into a mere instrument of propaganda, intended to invest American foreign policy with a moral purpose that it really doesn’t have.