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Jimmy Carter & the US as ‘Global Champion of Human Rights’

Former President Jimmy Carter (Flickr Photo by {sic!}

Former US president Jimmy Carter penned a column for the New York Times that was published today. He condemns the United States’ widespread violations of human rights in the past decade. He cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in 1948 as something the US adopted, but it now violates “at least 10 of the declaration’s 30 articles including the prohibition against ‘ cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” He calls on the US to return to its role as “global champion of human rights.”

The framing for the denouncing of US government abuses of human rights is significantly flawed. The United States has never been the Global Champion of Human Rights. However, Carter strongly denounces—without naming President Barack Obama by name—the expansion of former President George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies which routinely violate human rights.

Carter denounces “revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens” as the “most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended.” Noting the “development” began after terror attacks of September 11, 2001, he adds, targeted killings have “been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.”

The column proceeds to blast Congress for the National Defense Authorization Act passed and signed by the President at the end of 2011, which “made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or ‘associated forces,’ a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress.” Highlighting a federal judge’s blocking of the law, he adds, the “law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration.”

He condemns the cancellation of “restraints” in the Foreign Surveillance Act of 1978, which now allows for “unprecedented violations” of US citizens’ rights “to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining” of electronic communications. “Popular state laws,” he adds, now “permit detaining individuals because of their appearance, where they worship or with whom they associate.” He denounces the killing of women and children by drones. And he criticizes the government for not releasing Guantanamo prisoners cleared for release or allowing evidence of torture to be admissible in military tribunal proceedings against prisoners. (For whatever reason, he doesn’t explicitly decry the fact that Guantanamo prison remains open.)

Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald wrote about this op-ed (along with another NYT op-ed by Misha Glenny on cyber warfare the US deployed along with Israel against Iran). Greenwald considers Carter’s op-ed a product of the collapse of US credibility in the world:

One can reasonably object to Carter’s Op-Ed on the ground that it romanticizes a non-existent American past (systematic human rights abuses are hardly a new development in the post-9/11 world), but what cannot be reasonably disputed is the trend he denounces. Note that the most egregious examples he cites — assassinating U.S. citizens without due process, civilian-killing drone attacks, the indefinite detention provisions of the NDAA — had some genesis under Bush but are hallmarks of Obama policy (his other example, the rapid erosion of constraints on government domestic surveillance, took place under both, with the full support of Obama). It’s a remarkably scathing denunciation of the record of his own political party and its current leader.

The president, Republican Party and Democratic Party are never specifically called out. The denunciation implicates the government that has promoted continuity of counter-terrorism policies in the face of clear violations of civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law. It acknowledges bipartisan support or acquiescence to these policies. But as Greenwald puts it, the former president does seem to “romanticize” a past in American history that is non-existent.

Human rights is and has typically been something invoked by US officials to advance national interests and justify wars of aggression or intervention. The advancement of human rights is and has been a cover for justifying military occupation. For example, Amnesty USA and its executive director Suzanne Nossel, a proponent of “smart power,” recently urged NATO to continue to “support” women’s rights in Afghanistan through military action in the region.

The renewed support came during the NATO summit in Chicago in May when Amnesty held a “Shadow Summit” during the meeting. Incidentally, it appeared to be part of an information operation aimed at serving the purpose alluded to by the CIA in a leaked special memorandum:

“Messaging that dramatizes the potential adverse consequences of an ISAF defeat for Afghan civilians could leverage French (and other European) guilt for abandoning them. The prospect of the Taliban rolling back hard-won progress on girls’ education could provoke French indignation, become a rallying point for France’s largely secular public, and give voters a reason to support a good and necessary cause despite casualties. ”

“Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission. ” Media events that feature testimonials by Afghan women would probably be most effective if broadcast on programs that have large and disproportionately female audiences.” [emphasis added]

This memo clearly demonstrates the cause of human rights is used to bully countries in the world that do not support America’s global agenda.


In March of this year, the Obama administration announced it had begun an “interagency process” to implement commitments made on human rights before the UN Human Rights Council just over a year ago. One of Obama’s least favorite groups to receive criticism from, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), put out a report on how the administration had done so far and called attention to “very serious violations” of human rights being committed.

I covered the report and highlighted how this proved Obama had, at best, a tenuous commitment to human rights. The report urged the administration to grant UN Special Rapporteurs “unimpeded access to Guantanamo Bay” and noted the “history of secrecy and abuse at Guantanamo.” It called for a “full investigation into past cases of torture” and  “end the unjustified and improper assertion of the ‘state secrets’ privilege” that has been employed to “shield government officials and corporations” from accountability. It demanded the US reduce the number of people locked up in the US immigration detention system and condemned two DHS programs that allow for racial profiling. And, with regards to criminal justice, the ACLU called upon the administration to address the problems of racism in the employment of the death penalty and end abuse that stems from solitary confinement in prisons.

Obama and Democrats in Congress have been mostly gutless when it comes to calling for policies that would uphold human rights or reverse policies entrenched in government by President George W. Bush. Though Obama signed executive orders that supposedly ended torture and closed secret CIA prisons around the world, Obama did not discontinue the use of the Immediate Reaction Force (IRF), a squad known to prisoners as the “Extreme Repression Force” because they been known to routinely brutalize prisoners. The president also included a stipulation in his executive order on closing secret prisons that ensured America was not taken out of the “rendition business.” He rewrote the definition of “detention facility” and excluded places that held people “on a short-term, transitory basis.”

No example of gutlessness is more obvious than the failure to close Guantanamo and hold Bush administration officials accountable for committing torture, a war crime. Largely a result of a decision by administration staff to not expend political capital that would make it impossible to advance changes Americans actually cared about, the administration was never willing to truly fight Republicans that challenged the administration on matters of national security, including plans to release Guantanamo prisoners, put Guantanamo prisoners on trial in civilian courts or overhaul detention policy so terror suspects were not held indefinitely (indeed, Obama wound up signing the NDAA that granted the military indefinite detention powers so it would not affect his re-election prospects).

In conclusion, all of these abuses of human rights mentioned by Carter in his op-ed have one thing in common: they each stem from the US government’s affinity for fighting a global war on terrorism. Human rights are entirely incompatible with the war on terror. Until the US is willing to address the issue of terrorism in the world in a non-militaristic and un-imperial fashion, these rampant abuses of human rights are guaranteed to occur. And civil liberties or human rights advocates are doomed to baying at the moon like wolves because, quite frankly, Obama, Democrats and Republicans have no intention of abandoning this paradigm for diplomacy and foreign policy that so greatly undermines human rights in the world, especially in the countries that have been transformed into theaters of conflict by US intervention.


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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."