“We look forward to President Mubarak coming as soon as his schedule would permit. I had a wonderful time with him this morning. I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.”
“Our pressing on (human rights in China and Tibet) can’t interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.”
“We do business with a lot of countries whose economic systems or political systems are not ones we would design or choose to live under. We encourage consistently, both publicly and privately, reform and the protection of human rights. But we don’t walk away from dealing with China because we think they have a deplorable human-rights record. We don’t walk away from Saudi Arabia.”
These are all statements made by Hillary Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State. I mention them now as the speech she gave to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday regarding gay rights has gone viral, with a gratitude bordering on the hysterical that she has deigned to say some nice things about gay people deserving human rights. Thanks Hil!
Now, I don’t wish to sound dismissive. I of course support human rights. If the initiative Clinton spoke of helped people around the world, it would be churlish to complain. I hope it does help people.
However (you knew there was a however), there are troubling aspects to this speech and the reaction to it. Firstly, there is the idea that America has any moral authority from which to lecture the world on human rights. Someone with even a cursory knowledge of America’s history of intervention in the post-war period would find this utterly perverse. America was a prime mover in the overthrow of the democratically-elected governments in Guatemala and Chile. In both cases the government was replaced by military juntas who had scant regard for ‘human rights’ and killed hundreds of thousands of their own citizens. The Nicaraguan Contras, actively supported and funded by America, were described as using violent human rights abuses as “their principal means of waging war”. America (and the UK) orchestrated the overthrow of the elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. He was replaced by the monarch who ruled as a dictator with America’s assistance until his overthrow in 1979 and replacement by Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran then became an ‘enemy’ of America, leading to US support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war (which there is evidence that America pushed for). It is surely well-known now that America trained and funded Osama Bin Laden during the Soviet-Afghanistan war. America engineered the 1949 coup against the elected government in Syria, the first military coup in its history and one which lead to decades of instability and brutal crackdowns on its citizens. As we can see from Clinton’s statements above, America is more than happy to conduct a relationship of equals with countries with awful human rights records when it suits – China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia. The American-led excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan spoke the language of liberation, holding human rights up as a totem, while killing thousands, engaging in torture and doing little to advance human rights on the ground.
America is not just a country that has engaged in ‘realpolitik’ with its interests in other countries, it has a dubious (to put it politely) record on human rights with its own citizens. The death penalty is still widespread while it locks up more of its citizens than any other country. Millions of its citizens remain without access to healthcare as a matter of course. It has some of the worst employment rights in the developed world. Amnesty International has frequently reported on police brutality in America and the refusal of its government to engage on this issue. American has consistently refused to ratify the International Criminal Court, set up to pursue crimes against humanity. Then there is the ‘War on Terror’ which has been used to suspend many basic rights and bypass international law, allowing detention without trial, torture, prisoner abuse, rendition, extrajudicial killings and the grotesque, Kafkaesque spectacle of Guantanamo Bay. Even this year, the American Senate passed the National Defence Authorisation Act which places ‘domestic terror investigations’ in the hands of the military and paves the way for explicit, indefinite detention without trial for American citizens on American soil.
Then there is the issue it is now lecturing the world about – gay rights. The act of gay sex only became nationally legal in America in 2003! Laws covering discrimination based on sexuality are still piecemeal, varying from state to state, as are laws covering same-sex unions, family law and housing discrimination laws. It only became legal for gay people to openly serve in the military less than 3 months ago. Some states have brought in laws explicitly prohibiting gay marriage. President Obama himself has still not supported gay marriage. To be fair, Clinton acknowledges that America has some way to go – but isn’t putting your own house in order one of the basic requirements before you deign to lecture others on an issue?
I find it absurd that anyone could seriously believe a narrative that paints America as a tireless defender of human rights. Yet if you look at the detail of the initiative on gay rights, what does it actually add up to? Clinton says that America already uses its relationships with countries to ‘advance’ human rights. She also claims that they already use American aid to promote human rights. Now they are going to use this to promote gay rights (which are human rights but apparently not covered until now…still with me?) However, they are “not cutting or tying” aid to gay rights. This is a good thing but begs the question of what it all actually means in practice, especially given America’s history of tolerating extreme human rights abuses. I acknowledge aforementioned ‘realpolitik’ restrictions but Clinton made clear in this speech that human rights transcend “personal, political, cultural and religious beliefs”. Presumably this means they should be foremost. Anyone with eyes can see that they are clearly not.
(There is a side issue which I won’t go into in too much detail here, but the imperialist subtext of this initiative is very clear and actually has the potential to make things more difficult for gay people around the world. It certainly makes it easier for tin-pot dictators to demonize gay people as a ‘Western phenomenon’ responsible for the ills of their particular societies – not least because it seems that if you are a rich/nuclear country, you can do what you want. Any engagement with human rights around the world surely has to be at the level of engaging with the people and bodies already working towards these aims there. Perhaps it will be, if and when more details are announced. A story that some representatives of Arab nations walked out of Clinton’s speech did the rounds last night – it has turned out to be false, but the narrative of ‘uncivilized nations vs America’ is clear.)
This smacks of positioning for an administration entering an election year, shoring up a liberal base that has been hugely disillusioned in recent years by making the right noises. I don’t mean to downplay the cultural importance of such a speech within America itself – I acknowledge and welcome this, but we shouldn’t rejoice at crumbs from the table. Which brings me to the other thing that troubles me about this speech – the reaction.
The big theme of the speech is that ‘human rights are gay rights are human rights’. Great – we can all get behind that. Yet it has gone viral in a way that no other speech or footage concerning human rights has done in recent memory. It is being shared by many, many people who seem completely allergic to politics and have absolutely nothing to say about human rights abuses – unless they involve gay people. The reaction seems to reinforce the idea that gay rights are seen as ‘above politics’ but the human rights of people at, for example, Guantanamo Bay or in Afghanistan are problematic and compromised by circumstance. If we are truly supporting the message, all human rights should be equal and should be fundamental. The politics of this speech lies in the knowledge that in making these noises about gay rights, all other human rights violations which the administration is involved in, even actively conducting itself, immediately become invisible to large swathes of the population. They become a ‘liberal’ government, regardless of the facts.
If we truly believe in human rights, then we do not elevate the rights of certain people as totemic of liberalness. It means we must support the human rights of ‘enemies’ in war. It means we support the human rights of rioters and criminals and Daily Mail columnists and homophobes and Muslims. I of course want to support governments that promote human rights but it is a messy business and actions speak infinitely louder than words. We must never allow rhetoric around gay rights to be allowed to obscure other human rights violations or render criticism mute.