Human rights organisations have faced decades of dead ends. But one strategy, in particular, has been a consistent failure: demanding that the US government "prioritise human rights." That's because the demand itself is based on a false assumption.
Insisting that Washington put human rights first is premised on the notion that governments have to balance the competing interests of human rights and national security interests and then choose (or prioritise) one or the other.
Either the United States must secure its interests by protecting the rights and security of US citizens—so the argument goes—or choose to respect the rights of citizens of other countries. This false choice is sometimes presented as a dilemma, but if the choice is framed this way, there's no contest: It's any government's primary duty to protect the security and interests of its citizens. And, as a result, demands to prioritise human rights fail out of the gate.
Of course, the US government is perfectly capable of ensuring the security of its citizens without befriending tyrants, selling arms to autocrats, and trampling on the human rights of others—but advocates rarely make this argument.
Instead, the human rights advocacy community has internalised this manufactured dilemma in its rhetoric and writing. Amnesty International "calls on Congress to prioritise human rights in National Defence Authorisation Act legislation" in a September 2021 press release, while another missive to the US government argues "no government should sacrifice people's human rights in the name of national security."
The Carnegie Endowment issued a thoughtful paper on US support for abusive governments but framed it in the context of the "democracy-security dilemma" where "confronting partner governments over their political shortcomings risks triggering hostility that would jeopardise the security benefits that such governments provide to Washington."
To the apparent surprise of some, the Biden administration has very rapidly broken its oft-repeated pledge to put human rights at the "core" of its foreign policy, inviting a tsunami of critical op-eds and letters from rights groups. But there was no reason to believe the administration would do otherwise, faced with the unquestioned "national security" interests, the sirens of lucrative arms sales, and global military domination.
US President Joe Biden's promise wasn't really about prioritising human rights against traditional rivals and enemies, where there's little to give up by doing so. Sanctions against Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, and even Russia and China (to name just a few of the at least 25 countries the US government sanctions), along with congressional resolutions and State Department condemnations, are beloved by Republican and Democratic administrations alike.
The heart of the contested sphere in the supposed rights versus interests dilemma is Washington's military and political support to brutal governments, most prominently in the Middle East (described as America's "partners," "friends," and sometimes even "allies"), that citizens are told serve US interests.
Only by challenging the validity of these claimed national interests—and the credibility and legitimacy of those championing these interests—do rights advocates stand a chance of changing dangerous and harmful US policies that wreak havoc on human rights around the globe. The advocacy community must affirmatively opt into the political debates about US security interests, military hegemony, and warmongering—and openly challenge the double-dealing government officials who direct US policy in the service of foreign and domestic lobbying interests.
The great tragedy of the foreign-policy advocacy community, particularly the human rights community, is that it has accepted the stated dilemma between rights and interests and is reluctant to challenge Washington's assumed national security interests. There's baked-in deference to, and even reverence for, the US military establishment as experts dedicated and loyal to serving America's national security interests. But given the United States' disastrous military interventions around the world, from Vietnam to Iraq to Somalia to Afghanistan, it's hard to understand why this deference to mythical national security expertise persists.
These US wars were failures not just because of bad civilian policy decisions to go to war but because of flawed military execution, command, and control. What's worse is the evidence of decades of lies from US military commanders about how badly the wars were going: lies the world heard about Iraq, including claims of weapons of mass destruction in the country by the late Gen. Colin Powell, then secretary of state and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and lies about how well things were going in Afghanistan, year in, year out, from the likes of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus.
More recently, the New York Times documented how the Pentagon dismissed evidence of civilian casualties during the war against the Islamic State in 1,300 confidential assessments of airstrikes, the vast majority of which were bogus; the evidence in these strikes revealed "patterns of failed intelligence, decision-making and execution" that the Pentagon was only too eager to brush aside.
It's also hard to understand the persistent deference to military and security experts given the increasing corruption and conflicts of interest that compromise the trustworthiness of their advice. The influence of the military-industrial complex has been around for a long time, but the expansion of defence industry lobbying spending—totalling over $108 million in 2020 and $2.5 billion in the last two decades—is breathtaking. Around half of the ever-expanding budget for defence is spent on the very companies doing the bulk of the lobbying, a testament to their success.
At the same time, a virtually unregulated revolving door to the defence industry means US military and security officials plan future careers at Raytheon and General Dynamics while holding their budgeting pens in the Pentagon. A stunning 73% of the 663 lobbyists employed by defence companies in 2020 formerly worked for the federal government.
While that revolving door previously opened only to American defence contractors, there's now a growing group of US security officials finding more lucrative foreign government paymasters, selling their tradecraft of warfare, surveillance, spying, and sabotage to Arab monarchs and emirs, who then seek to target, harass, and even murder lawyers, journalists, and activists, even inside the United States.
Proposed amendments to the 2022 Intelligence Authorisation Act would include some limits, such as, for example, barring senior intelligence officials from working for foreign governments for 30 months after leaving their jobs and requiring they disclose their new jobs. But this will do little to curtail the bad behaviour.
The misplaced deference to the defence establishment is complemented by the advocacy community's insecurity about its own ability to assess the legitimacy of security interests. Would a US-enforced humanitarian no-fly zone effectively protect civilians in Syria? Should the United States have military bases in Saudi Arabia to protect its unelected king and his coterie of princes and princesses? Should the United States maintain troops in Iraq in perpetuity, ostensibly to fight endless terrorism? Do billions of dollars in military aid to Israel advance America's security? Are broad US sanctions an appropriate, lawful exercise of power, even aside from their humanitarian impact?
In the face of such questions, the human rights community prefers to yield to supposed military and security experts, reserving intervention only for the inevitable human rights violations that follow flawed policy decisions. But there is no reason why the advocacy community has, or should have, labour less expertise on these questions; there's no special science to the answers. Yet dodging the discussion means being perpetually absent at the decision-making table with no systemic strategy to address the country's broader policy flaws.
There's also something more profound at play in the reluctance of human rights groups to fundamentally question purported US national security interests. When the collective starting point is a realpolitik acquiescence to global US military supremacy in a world of superpower rivalry, it's hard to dispute an arguable national security interest in any dark alley of the planet. When no organisations question why the United States has troops in 159 countries around the world as part of their human rights advocacy, there's little space to challenge the conflicts those troops precipitate and prolong, the local political and cultural destabilisation they incite, or even the security harms they create by endangering US soldiers.
If the US military carries out a particularly egregious abuse against civilians, human rights organisations will certainly condemn it, like the recent drone attack on a car full of children in Afghanistan, but there will be no questioning of the justification for the presence of US drones there in the first place.
There's a parallel dereliction of duty when it comes to addressing the corrosive influence of lobbying for foreign government interests in the US political system. The pro-Israel community funds elected officials across the country, both Republicans and Democrats, at the state and federal levels. Meanwhile, former senior US government officials now serve as Egyptian government lobbyists. And there is persistent petrodollar lobbying and elections infiltration from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of Washington's top weapons clients.
Alongside the defence industry, these countries' official lobbyists and their unofficial allies manufacture the notion that billions of dollars in military support to these abusive governments and entanglement in their costly and destabilising conflicts—even going so far as to propose a defence pact with the UAE late last year—is somehow in the United States' national security interest.
But the human rights community looks away from these systemic issues, inexplicably deeming them outside its mandate, keeping its attention focused narrowly on where the bombs drop and how many civilians are killed and injured, year in, year out, with no discernible impact beyond the passing headlines and no questioning of why the planes and bombs were there, to begin with, and whether they should have been.
The least plausible, sometimes comic, justifications the lobbyists gin up, dutifully echoed by Washington's foreign-government-funded think tanks, are often accepted without challenge. Washington needs to give Egypt billions of dollars because it's "in a tough neighbourhood" and played an "effective" role in the last Gaza cease-fire. Billions of dollars in weapons to Saudi Arabia's reckless and murderous crown prince will counter Iran's influence, maintain US leverage over the Yemen war, and keep oil prices down. The UAE is vital because it helped resettle many Afghans and is a vital partner in regional stability.
Israel tends to escape the national security rationale entirely; there, the explanation is that Americans supposedly share Israel's values despite its apartheid rule over millions of Palestinians, endless theft of their land and resources, and relentless bombardment of their communities, but Washington's commitment is "unbreakable," "sacrosanct," and "unquestionable."
Put aside for the moment that these exact arguments could be used to justify a close alliance with any country in the world, whether Iran (which is also in a "tough neighbourhood," has housed millions of Afghan refugees for decades, and has oil), or Venezuela (which has oil and gas), or Cuba (with its unrealised trade and tourism potential). But since the human rights community never questions the proffered security interests, all that's left is a futile plea to "prioritise" human rights over interests.
Some human rights advocates justify avoiding a debate about security interests, alliances, and US military hegemony by claiming they are fundamentally political questions based on subjective criteria, while human rights, including the laws of war, are clear-cut, legally based doctrines derived from objective, universally agreed standards. Black letter treaties and instruments—for example restricting the use of certain weapons, attacks on civilians, or torture—provide a much firmer ground for advocacy, they argue.
In fact, though some advocates pretend otherwise, human rights and humanitarian law deliberately grant plenty of room for flexible, politically motivated interpretations. There is extensive scholarship on how the laws of war were drafted effectively to protect the ability of powerful states to wage war as they see fit, with little beyond victor's justice for accountability. There's also no paucity of laws that purport to restrict the transfers of weapons to abusive governments or limit the US government's ability to wage war, which rights groups rarely invoke.
Furthermore, human rights groups could demand "objective" laws to regulate lobbyists and legislators, which would impose constraints on their work if it harms human rights. In the end, the reason that even clear-cut human rights treaties and laws of war are often ignored by governments, including in the United States, is precisely due to the broader political questions that advocates imagine they can avoid.
The idea that human rights advocacy is free from politics is far-fetched. The idea that advocates can ever win on the law without addressing the political questions that underlie national security calculations is pure fantasy.
A better strategy would recognise, and argue, that promoting rights-respecting policies and national security interests are not separate buckets of competing priorities, but fundamentally interlinked. Human rights groups can't take on the human rights harms the United States causes without challenging the supposed security interests used to justify these harms.
The American people will forever be entrapped in wars that butcher civilians abroad and wound the country's soldiers so long as Washington remains allied to aggressive rulers who seek to dominate and destroy threats to their unjust rule. It will never be enough to argue that the US government should merely conduct its wars humanely. Americans will remain complicit in the brutality of rulers who rely on both US weapons and political protection to avoid accountability for their misdeeds. There is no leverage to be had with rulers who will sooner burn their bridges with America than undertake what will always be zero-sum reforms that threaten their rule.
So long as human rights advocates allow US government officials to sell their support and eventually their labor to the highest bidder, no one should ever expect them to prioritise the interests of the American people, much less the human rights of people impacted abroad. Reforming lobbying laws, conflict of interest laws, and revolving door laws are more essential to US national security and the human rights of billions of people abroad than advocating for any new human rights treaty.
The human rights community can continue to opt-out of these so-called political discussions—but they should then be prepared to see continued failure when it comes to their pleas to "prioritise" human rights. The costs of this failure—by way of US-sponsored death, destruction, and terror—are borne primarily by millions of people abroad who have little say at all in the debate, but they are also borne by millions of Americans whose government has surrendered to rampant corruption.
Sarah Leah Whitson is the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). She was formerly the executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. Twitter: @sarahleah1
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.