Syrian civil war | US weaponization of human rights is eroding international norms

US weaponization of human rights is eroding international norms

Christina Lin June 30, 2016 11:38 AM (UTC+8)
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The US appears to be embarking on a trend of weaponizing human rights in a practice that threatens a rules-based liberal order.[1]

The Keystone Cops effect that’s bludgeoned US interests in the Middle East promises to further undermine America’s position in the region.

In Libya, Washington used the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) cover to engineer a violent regime change. This contributed to Libya’s failure as a state that’s now overrun by ISIS. Ironically, it was Qaddafi loyalists that rescued US embassy personnel, and reportedly US-backed jihadists that murdered US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in a tragic illustration of “blowback.” [2]

Keystone-Feature2-630x310

Now, the US is attempting to use the R2P cover in Syria to create a no-fly zone that will set the stage for another regime change. On June 16, in the same week Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman visited Washington, the US media leaked a story that 51 officials from the State Department filed a dissent cable to President Obama that called for airstrikes on the Syria government. The dissidents included a deputy to former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford.

Ford strongly backs the Saudi agenda of replacing Syria’s secular government with al-Qaeda-aligned Salafi groups such as Ahrar al-Sham. In an interview with the BBC’s Hard Talk program in October 2015, he admitted, “It’s not a group I ever want my daughter to marry into … I don’t agree with their vision of society.”[3]  Yet, he supports importing Wahhabism into a secular country that has not known Shaira law and imposing it on Syrian daughters — many of whom currently serve in the Syrian army to fight the very western-backed Salafi-jihadists that would oppress them.[4]

Photo of a brother and sister in the Syrian Army
Photo of a brother and sister in the Syrian Army

Now in Eritrea, it appears the US is attempting to use the R2P cover to engineer another regime change.[5] Eritrea is a tiny nation of 6 million strategically located in the Red Sea across from Saudi Arabia. It won its independence from Ethiopia in 1991. But it has unresolved border disputes.

Despite Ethiopia occupying the border town of Badime that the UN has ruled belongs to Eritrea, the US sees Addis Ababa as a partner in the continuing “War on Terror” and has sought to appease Ethiopia in the conflict by sanctioning Eritrea for supporting terrorism. When the UN’s Somali-Eritrea Monitoring Group found no proof that Eritrea was supporting al-Shabaab, 14 out of 15 UN Security Council members indicated in 2014 that they wanted to lift sanctions.

But the US vetoed the move. It then pushed to establish the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COI) to investigate crimes against humanity and lay the groundwork for an eventual regime change.

Corrosion of international norms

This prompted Redie Bereketeab, a senior researcher and associate professor at the Nordic Africa Institute, to decry how the use of human rights issues as political weapons by big powers to serve their strategic interests risks eroding the credibility and integrity of human rights organizations and the UN itself.

Bereketeab charged that the COI’s research methodology was dubious. He says the UN commission gathered information from politically motivated and disgruntled government opponents, asylum seekers and neighboring countries that opposed Eritrea. All the sources remained anonymous and the UN had no way of verifying their testimonies. It is because of this that Bereketeab questions how individual rights can be protected if their collective security within a country and international norms of sovereignty, territorial integrity and national boundaries are violated.[6]

The systematic corrosion of these international norms with attendant disastrous consequences has been demonstrated in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia. Neo-liberal “humanitarian” invasions have resulted in failed states; empowered al-Qaeda; spawned ISIS and created “regime change refugees” that have flooded and destabilized Europe. Western countries are also reaping what they’ve sown with blowback terrorism in their homeland.[7]

Despite this, there is a rising chorus from the Beltway establishment to repeat this dysfunctional behavior and overthrow yet another government in the Middle East.[8] But as conservative commentator Pat Buchanan argued, Syria has not attacked the US and Congress has not declared war on Syria. As such, where would the war advocates obtain their authority to launch a war on Syria?[9]

Moreover, the US risks entering into a full-scale war with Russia in Syria. On June 16, US and Russian fighters came close to a dogfight over Syrian air space. Russian Su-34 bombers were conducting air strikes when US F-18 fighters intercepted them to protect US-backed al-Qaeda-laced “rebels.”

This dangerous encounter prompted Jeremy Shapiro, who served as a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff (2009-2013), to immediately rebuke the US’ current warmongering policy of “risking war with a nuclear-armed Russia in order to support al-Qaeda.” [10]

Dominating and not leading in the international community

Not only is the US administration harming American security in Syria by supporting Al-Qaeda affiliates, US officials went one step further by giving the Russians a stern tongue-lashing regarding bombing the “moderate” jihadists. One US official told the the Los Angeles Times that it was “an egregious act that must be explained.”

However, it seems the US may be the one who is conducting an egregious act that must be explained — given that it’s currently violating international law by trespassing in Syrian air space without a UN mandate or the invitation of the Syrian government.  In contrast, the Russians are there legally via the invitation of the UN-recognized government of President Bashar al Assad, a long-standing ally.

If the tables were turned and Japan invites the US to assist them in quelling insurgents in Okinawa, while uninvited Russian jets violate Japanese air space to protect Okinawan “rebels” drawn from over 80 countries, one wonders if the US would accept a tongue-lashing from the Russians for an “egregious act” in defending a long-standing ally.

This is admittedly a hypothetical scenario. But resentment towards the US use of military prowess to dominate the world is real. Okinawans are currently clamoring to kick US troops out of their territory after multiple cases of rape and murder by American servicemen over the years, with some protesting that “we are still a colony…when a serious crime happens, that’s when our real feelings come out.”[11]

Mass Okinawan protests against US bases
Mass Okinawan protest against US bases

Fellow NATO members Germany and Bulgaria likewise rebuked the US for recent “warmongering” against Russia, with Bulgaria refusing to join a Black Sea Naval Task Force to bring a war to its own backyard.[12] This US tendency to dominate with military power rather than leading by example so alarmed Germany that its Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference Amb Wolfgang Ischinger, and former Chairman of the NATO Military Committee General Harald Kujat all publicly protested against these military provocations.[13]

With increasing international acrimony over Washington’s conduct, US foreign policy is in desperate need of a reset. A 2014 Economist article perhaps summed it up best: “Why the sheriff should follow the law.”[14]  Despite America touting its role as a guardian of global laws and norms, it has set multiple precedents for flouting international law. The numerous examples include the 2003 invasion of Iraq, not joining the International Criminal Court or ratifying UNCLOS, and weaponizing human rights to overthrow foreign governments. Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that the US is now “having trouble mustering the credibility to get the rest of the world to go along” in upholding international norms.

[1] Chase Madar, “Samantha Power and the Weaponization of Human Rights”, Counter punch, 6 June 2013,

[2] Alex Pfeiffer, “Gaddafi Loyalists—Not The Libyan Government Or U.S. Aligned Rebels—Rescued Americans In Benghzai”, The Daily Caller, 28 June 2016, http://dailycaller.com/2016/06/28/gaddafi-loyalists-not-the-libyan-government-or-u-s-aligned-rebels-rescued-americans-in-benghazi/ ; http://www.businessinsider.com/us-syria-heavy-weapons-jihadists-2012-10; Edwin Mora, “Exclusive–Benghazi Witness: U.S. Provided Arms to Jihadists Who Killed Americans in 9/11 Attack” Breitbart, 27 August 2015, “http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2015/08/27/exclusive-benghazi-witness-u-s-provided-arms-to-jihadists-who-killed-americans-in-911-attack/

[3] http://www.activistpost.com/2016/01/robert-fords-shameful-support-of-terrorism-in-syria-and-the-moderate-rebel-myth.html; Robert Ford and Ali El Yassir, “Yes, Talk to Syria’s Ahrar al –Sham”, Middle East Institute, 15 July 2015, http://www.mei.edu/content/at/yes-talk-syria’s-ahrar-al-sham.

[4] “Our country needs us now”: Syrian army’s female soldiers”, Reuters, 19 March 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHBD1DfV2r0

[5] Redie Bereketeab, “Eritrea’s Refugee Crisis and the Role of International Community”, CSS ETH Zurich/Nordic Africa Institute, 12 April 2016, http://www.css.ethz.ch/en/services/digital-library/articles/article.html/196509;; http://www.globalresearch.ca/u-s-sets-stage-for-libya-like-regime-change-in-eritrea-africas-cuba-2/5531735; http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/24/opinion/its-bad-in-eritrea-but-not-that-bad.html?_r=0

[6] http://www.css.ethz.ch/en/services/digital-library/articles/article.html/196509

[7] Thalif Deen, “Europe Invaded Mostly by “Regime Change” Refugees”, Inter Press Service News Agency, 3 September 2015, http://www.css.ethz.ch/en/services/digital-library/articles/article.html/196509.

[8] Ron Paul, “Why Does it Look Like the U.S. is Rescuing ISIS?” Ron Paul Liberty Report, 20 June 2016, http://www.ronpaullibertyreport.com/archives/why-does-it-look-like-the-us-is-rescuing-isis

[9] Patrick Buchanan, “Our Impulsive Foreign Policy Establishment”, The American Conservative, 21 June 2016, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/buchanan/our-impulsive-foreign-policy-establishment-nato-russia-syria-assad-putin/

[10] Jeremy Shapiro, “Speaking Nonsense to Power: Misadventures in Dissent Over Syria”, War on the Rocks, 16 June 2016, http://warontherocks.com/2016/06/speaking-nonsense-to-power-misadventures-in-dissent-over-syria/

[11] Jonathan Soble, “Okinawa Murder Case Heightens Outcry Over U.S. Military’s Presence”, The New York Times, 4 June 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/05/world/asia/okinawa-murder-case-heightens-outcry-over-us-militarys-presence.html?_r=0 ; “At Okinawa Protest, Thousands Call for Removal of U.S. Bases”, New York Times, 19 June 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/20/world/asia/japan-okinawa-protest-united-states-military.html

[12]  “Germany slams Nato’s ‘warmongering’ on Russia”, Times of India, 18 June 2016, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/europe/Germany-slams-Natos-warmongering-on-Russia/articleshow/52813474.cms; Tyler Durden, “I don’t Need a War in the Black Sea”—Another NATO Member Folds as Bulgaria Refuses to Join Naval Task Force”, Zero Hedge, 19 June 2016, http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-06-19/i-dont-need-war-black-sea”-another-nato-member-folds-bulgaria-refuses-join-naval-tas; http://www.eurasianet.org/node/79286

[13] http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/nato-und-russland-wolfgang-ischinger-warnt-vor-kriegsgefahr-a-1099341.html

[14] “Why the sheriff should follow the law”, The Economist, 23 May 2014, http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2014/05/america-and-international-law

Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University where she specializes in China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations, and a research consultant for Jane’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Intelligence Centre at IHS Jane’s.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

Christina Lin
Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University where she specializes in China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations, and a research consultant for Jane’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Intelligence Centre at IHS Jane’s.
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