The Rights Stuff

Human rights are under pressure these days. During the cold war, they went from being the insurgent creed of dissidents and activists to something like the ruling ideology of Western governments. Like all official ideologies, it was honored more in the breach than in the observance, but still, it had a palpable impact, legitimizing the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s: in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. Now, since September 11, the creed is in trouble. The empire is at war and the imperatives of war seem to trump the imperatives of rights. Why bother with human rights in Uzbekistan as long as the government there provides bases for the war on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? Who cares about Sudan’s bloody repression of the Christian south, as long as the government shares its intelligence files on Osama bin Laden? Why criticize Russia’s war against Chechnya when Chechen jihadis are fighting America in the mountains of Afghanistan?

In the Middle East, with the Palestinian and Israeli nations in open war, how are arguments about human rights and humanitarian law even to get a hearing? Physicians for Human Rights, for example, sent a delegation of US doctors to the region to plead for observance of medical neutrality, but the Israeli military alleged that ambulances were used to transport terrorists, and Palestinian doctors hotly denied the allegation. The din of battle is drowning out all appeals by human rights and humanitarian agencies.

It’s not just that it’s difficult for human rights to get a hearing. It’s difficult to frame an argument for their being a central issue. It’s not hard to denounce rights abuses, or even to do so evenhandedly, condemning suicide bombs in Tel Aviv as well as the targeting of civilians in Jenin. It’s also easy to say that both claims to self-determination in the Middle East can only be met with a two-state solution. The problem now is that desperate refugees with nothing to lose believe that Palestinian claims can only be met by throwing Israel into the sea, while growing numbers of Israelis believe their claims to statehood can only be defended by destroying the authority that carries the hope of statehood for the Palestinians. The two-state solution is itself now very nearly in ruins. It may only survive now if it is imposed, and if it is imposed it may not stick. If it does not stick, human rights may well vanish from the moral landscape of the Middle East.

The human rights movement’s strength—and also what makes it so irritating to state leaders—has been its moral perfectionism, its refusal to allow trade-offs between principle and power, rights and expediency. So it does not matter whether Uzbekistan has gone from being an ignored Central Asian despotism to America’s strategic partner. The detention of Islamic militants there would be wrong, even when the dissenters are hostile to America’s interests. The fact that Russia has become a …

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