Time For Some Soul Searching: Human Rights vs. Security

On 15 November, the Democratic candidates debated each other in Las Vegas.  One issue in particular caught my attention, and that was the question posed by Wolf Blitzer when he asked, “When they clash, what is more important, human rights or national security?”  The framing of this question interests me – are these mutually exclusive goals in the 21st century?  And who set the framework for this type of conjecture? 

I think the answer to the latter is obvious as we have lived through a Presidency that would propose and carry out to limit the freedoms of its own citizens in order to provide – at least on the surface – a sense of security.  From the suspension of habeas corpus to the illegal spying of American citizens to soft media control, BushCo’s answer to the terrorist question is to become like them in order to fight them. 

Of course, the irrationality of our diminished freedoms at home stems from the fact that the great call of duty all neoconservatives assume upon their shoulders is the spread of democracy abroad.  As Bill Maher, one of the patron saints of this blog, observed:

[George Bush] is gonna spread freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people if he has to kill every last one of them to do it.

So we have the neocon’s answer to the question.  What about the Democratic candidates?



If you needed more proof that Republicans continue to the frame debate, you need only listen to Blitzer’s assertion that “occassionally they could clash”, but also to Clinton’s and Dodd’s answer. 

Only Bill Richardson and Barack Obama maintained that the concepts are not mutually exclusive.  More importantly, I would maintain that if you tend to the issues of human rights, not only on a moral basis, but on an economic, social and political basis, it will make the United States safer. 

Samantha Power, Obama’s Foreign Policy Advisor, in her book A Problem from Hell, asserted the following:

… security for the Americans at home and abroad is contingent on international stability, and there is perhaps no greater source of havoc than a group of well-armed extremists bent on wiping out a people on ethnic, national, or religious grounds.

… the sad record of the last century shows that the walls of the United States tries to build around genocidal socities almost inevitably shatter.  States that murder and torment their own citizens target citizens elsewhere. 

~ Excerpt, page 513

We need only look to the lessons of the past – the lessons of Hilter who persecuted his own people and then moved across Europe, Saddam Hussein who tried to wipe out the Kurds and then waged war on Kuwait, and Molosevic spread his war from Slovenia to Bosnia and Kosovo – to see that leaders who will squelch the rights of their own citizens don’t necessarily play well with others, much less respect our borders. 

After all, the well-documented humanitarian crisis that existed under the Taliban reached our shores on September the 11th.  And we can see regimes today, like the government of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, who not only mimic the Taliban in their cruelty, but also in their disrespect for the borders of their neighbors. 

We cannot build a wall around America, but we can ensure that the grievences of citizens around the world are not played out upon our national stage.  This does not mean policing the world, but it does mean that America needs to operate globally at a diplomatic intensity where the Geneva Convention is of utmost importance.  We need a President who understands that if the people of the world have their basic human rights, there will be no need to threaten our security. 

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8 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. 1

    I’m kind of a hardliner on this one. I believe the answer is always national security. I think that’s because there’s so much security and so few rights. I’ll take my chances with rights.

    Great post! I’m really enjoying your recent run of activity.

  2. 2

    The problem with Democrats is, they want to play both sides. Sound tough on security and also talk about fundamental rights. They have not articulated this well and will keep fluffing for fear of republicans calling them soft.

  3. boo #

    Station Agent ~ Many agree with you, and it is completely understandable. I think the main thing to remember is that our foreign policy should never be built upon such a dichotomy.

    Ajaz ~ Couldn’t agree with you more. Democrats need to take control of the debate and articulate a policy devoid of fear-mongering bullshit from the Republicans.

  4. 4

    What are the Democrats affraid of and why are they always looking for certification from Republicans on national security?

    I would like to see at least one leading Democratic Presidential candidate stand up in the debate and say that I don’t need Bush Administration’s approval on security and I will do a better job than the Iraq fiasco this Administration has gotten the American nation into. That sure will win him/her some extra votes.

  5. 5

    Excellent point, Boo. Touche. So often we’re forced into the realm of the abstract with theoretical questions when in reality situations present themselves in context rather than in a vacuum. We can have both rights and security if we’re skilled enough to protect both.

  6. 6

    I think I blew a brainfart in my first comment. It was supposed to say “I believe the answer is always human rights”.

  7. bill l. #

    This whole debate is framed poorly. You can’t understand the bind we’re in without looking at the tremendously destabilizing influence the U.S. has had in the Middle East since the 50’s (the Soviets, too, just to be clear). The Revolution in Iran was a direct result of the U.S. undermining democratic elections 20+years earlier and installing the Shah. Afghanistan was the stage for a proxy war against the Soviets in the 80’s during which time we funded and armed the very people that would go on to form al-Qaeda, including everybody’s favorite extremist nutter, Osama bin Laden. Keep in mind, too, that we were the ones funding the insurgent Afghans fighting the Soviet government all the way back in 1979. Fight for us, you’re a “freedom fighter.” Fight against us, it’s “terrorist” for you. Then we went on to trade arms via Israel with Iran to both secure the release of the hostages and then to covertly fund our other destabilizing efforts in South America, specifically Nicaragua (after the rousing success in Chile, naturally). But wait, it gets better! We then funded and armed Saddam Hussein, going back as far as the early 60’s when we, again, undermined Iraq’s sovereignty much as we had with Iran previously. Hussein’s war with Iran was largely supported by the U.S. as a way to keep Iran in check (another wingnut domino theory at work). We gladly watched as he gassed Iranians and Kurds (the infamous Rumsfeld photo) and then turned our back on him when the war left his economy in shambles. It was around this time that Kuwait defied OPEC and greatly ratcheted up their oil production causing global prices to tumble. Since oil was Iraq’s main source of income (by far), the economic impact was disastrous. Hussein had already accused the Kuwaitis of “slant drilling” into Iraq to steal their oil (I don’t know if this was ever verified) and approached the U.S. about the looming probability that he would invade Kuwait. Did the U.S. say “no, don’t do that because we will be forced to intervene against you?” Why no, we said “we have no position on Arab-Arab matters.” Seriously. So Saddam invaded and we promptly crushed him. Oh, and we conveniently set up a permanent base or two in Saudi Arabia, which, as you may have heard, was considered by some to be a desecration of holy Islamic land. Which “some?” Why, as luck (bad) would have it, Osama bin Laden was extremely vocal about the matter and set about establishing just how serious he was with a succession of embassy bombings and finally the attack on the USS Cole. All of which brings us to 9/11, the “pearl harbor event” so many wingnut think tanks fervently hoped for. I don’t think there’s much point to running down the list of atrocities committed by Bushco over the last 7 years except to say that anywhere else and this crew would have been literally strung up.

    All this and I haven’t even touched on the Israel/Palestine conflict, our propping up of the Musharraf government despite their human rights violations and trade in nuclear technology to “rogue” states, the assent of North Korea to nuclear power, our decades long support for a laundry list of autocratic despots in every corner of the globe, or any of a dozen other issues like the insidious corporatization of the U.S. government.

    People who want to argue for increased security need to get out of the glass house some time.

  8. bill l. #

    BTW, I’m talking about the generally poor understanding most Americans have of recent history, not taking a poke at Station Agent, which, upon review, it kind of seems like I am.

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