“[Human] rights advocacy is typically used by the west’s establishment media … as a thinly disguised instrument for advancing nationalistic goals and, more insidiously, for their individual and collective self-affirmation. There is a huge industry of American political and foreign policy commentators who love to prance around together flamboyantly condemning the rights abuses of other people’s governments, while spending very little time and energy condemning abuses by their own.”
Readers of the American and British press over the past month have been inundated with righteous condemnations of Ecuador’s poor record on press freedoms. Is this because western media outlets have suddenly developed a new-found devotion to defending civil liberties in Latin America? Please. To pose the question is to mock it.
It’s because feigning concern for these oppressive measures is a convenient instrument for demeaning and punishing Ecuador for the supreme crime of defying the US and its western allies. The government of President Rafael Correa granted asylum to western establishmentarians’ most despised figure, Julian Assange, and Correa’s government then loudly condemned Britain’s implied threats to invade its embassy. Ecuador must therefore be publicly flogged for its impertinence, and its press freedom record is a readily available whip. As a fun bonus, denunciations of Correa’s media oppression is a cheap and easy way to deride Assange’s supposed hypocrisy.
(Apparently, activists should only seek asylum from countries with pristine human rights records, whichever countries those might be: a newly concocted standard that was conspicuously missing during the saga of blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng at the US embassy; I don’t recall any western media outlets accusing Guangcheng of hypocrisy for seeking refuge from a country that indefinitely imprisons people with no charges, attacked Iraq, assassinates its own citizens with no due process on the secret orders of the president, bombs funerals and rescuers in Pakistan, uses extreme force and mass arrests to try to obliterate the peaceful Occupy protest movement, wages an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, prosecutes its Muslim citizens for posting YouTube videos critical of US foreign policy, embraces and arms the world’s most oppressive regimes, and imprisoned Muslim journalists for years at Guantánamo and elsewhere with no charges of any kind.)
But this behavior illustrates how purported human rights concerns are cynically exploited as a weapon by western governments and, more inexcusably, by their nationalistic, self-righteous media enablers. Concern over a foreign regime’s human rights abuses are muted, often nonexistent, when those regimes dutifully adhere to US dictates, but are amplified to deafening levels when nations defy those dictates and, especially, when it’s time to wage war against them. This is why attacks on protesters by US-supported regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are typically described by western media outlets with the innocuous-sounding, both-sides-are-to-blame term “clashes with rebels”, while villain-of-the-moment regimes in Iran, Syria or Libya are said to be slaughtering their own citizens. It’s why arming Syrian rebels to enable them to defend against regime oppression is conventional wisdom, whereas arming Palestinian rebels to defend against Israeli violence is criminal.
The classic case of this dynamic is the outburst of indignation in 2003 over – all together now – Saddam’s “gassing of his own people”: something he had done 15 years earlier, in 1988, when the US was arming and funding him and had multiple interests in its relationship with Iraq, and thus evinced little care about any of that. It was only when it was time to demonize Saddam in order to justify the attack did western governments and their media outlets suddenly discover their retroactive rage over those crimes.
This exploitation of human rights concerns drives even the most seemingly straightforward cases, such as the universal condemnation among All Decent People of Russia’s obviously repellent punishment of Pussy Riot, the anti-capitalist, hardcore-leftwing punk rock band. … [Western] denunciations of Russia’s disregard for free speech are shaped far more by opportunism than anything authentic.