Are concerns over human rights the real driver of us foreign policy?

December 15, 2012 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

At a speech in Dublin last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed the important place the advancement of human rights has in shaping the country’s foreign policy.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

USA, December 13, 2012: Delivering “Frontlines and Frontiers: Making Human Rights a Human Reality” at Dublin City University on 6 December as part of her visit to Ireland, Mrs Clinton highlighted four key areas: religious freedom, internet freedom, the role of civil society, and respecting the human rights of women and girls.

She said:

Human rights are at the centre of some of the most significant challenges to global security and stability and therefore to our national interests… It is not a coincidence that virtually every country that threatens regional and global peace is a place where human rights are in peril.

Referring to “places in the midst of transitions”, notably the Middle East and North Africa and also Burma, Mrs Clinton said:

The first frontline is religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities. Amid the uncertainty of unfolding transitions to democracy, old hatreds flare anew, particularly toward members of minority groups. And in many places in the past year, we’ve seen religious minorities become targets. In fact, members of faith communities have been under pressure for a long time and they report that the pressure is rising.

That threatens not only the religious minorities themselves, but the futures of their societies because a society can and should be judged, in part, by how it protects the rights of its minorities.

She said that the US has conveyed to countries in transition the importance of locking in protections for the human rights of religious minorities.

Commenting specifically on events in Egypt, where protestors have taken to the streets in opposition to President Mohammed Morsi’s attempts to impose a constitution drafted by an Islamist-dominated panel, Mrs Clinton said that the Egyptian people “deserve a constitution that protects the rights of all Egyptians, men and women, Muslim and Christian, and ensures that Egypt will uphold all of its international obligations”.


Barnabas Fund has been raising concerns about Christians in the region for some time and welcomes Mrs Clinton’s attention to the plight of religious minorities following the Arab Spring.

But how is this rhetoric bearing out in practice? The place of human rights in US foreign policy is a complicated issue, as Mrs Clinton acknowledged in her speech. She outlined the tension between the “idealist” view that the US should be “governed first and foremost by the end goal of advancing our values”, and the “realist” view that such ideals “are not always easily reconciled in a world where bad actors exist and bad things happen” and that shorter-term interests must therefore be given more weight.

But are the only factors affecting the advancement of human rights in US foreign policy the existence of “bad actors” and “bad things” happening?

A number of foreign policy decisions taken by the US in recent years have had a catastrophic human rights fall-out.

Iraq is perhaps the most notable and tragic example. Christians and other minority groups have suffered grievously as a result of US intervention there. Following the Gulf War in 1990-91, Christians were increasingly targeted by Muslim extremists, and then after the US-led invasion in 2003 that resulted in the downfall of Saddam Hussein, there was a huge surge in anti-Christian threats, kidnapping and murders.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians were forced to flee; the number of Christians has fallen from 1.5 million in 1990 to perhaps as low as 400,000 today.

Where was the protection for religious minorities in Iraq?


Christian areas in Syria are being targeted by opposition fighters

Christian areas in Syria are being targeted by opposition fighters

And now, a similar pattern is emerging in Syria, with the US and other Western powers backing the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad while Christians are increasingly being targeted by Islamist rebels.
As in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Christians in Syria had enjoyed considerable freedom to practise their faith under al-Assad, but many are now trying to flee the country, fearing for their prospects under what looks increasingly likely to become an Islamist-influenced regime.

Having recognised that religious minorities are under threat in the Middle East, why is US policy in the region actually working against them? Ultimately, is US foreign policy really driven by concerns over human rights or do other factors, such as economic interests, actually hold more sway?

Consider the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, an extremely wealthy and influential country with significant financial stakes in America. The US seems happy enough to “do business” with Saudi Arabia, which openly flouts international human rights law in its treatment of religious minorities and women.

America’s stance on Syria is aligned with that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been exercising considerable influence in the uprising against President Assad by supplying arms to the rebels. To what extent is Saudi investment controlling US policy in the region?

Last week, Barnabas Fund questioned why the US is continuing to refuse to designate militant Islamist group Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) when it is brazenly murdering Christians and attacking churches in Nigeria on an almost weekly basis.

Could it be anything to do with Nigeria’s vast oil reserves? It is the largest oil producer in Africa and a significant exporter of supplies to America.

The Nigerian government is also resisting the FTO designation for Boko Haram, citing economic concerns among others. Are the two countries acting to preserve their mutually beneficial interests rather than those of vulnerable Nigerian Christian civilians?

Now these are complex questions with multi-faceted answers, but it is not just the existence of “bad actors” who do “bad things”, as Mrs Clinton stated, that undermine the advancement of human rights in US foreign policy.

While the US likes to present itself as the “good guy” who would only ever do right by humanity if it weren’t for all the “bad guys” causing trouble, it would be better for it to provide a more complete assessment of its motivations.

– barnabas edit

Enter Google AdSense Code Here

Comments are closed.