May 25, 2004 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Human Rights Hypocrisy

We don't know yet the full extent of the damage to America's international reputation thanks to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. But one thing we do know: The world's dictatorships are exploiting this scandal: They're using it to deflect criticism of their own records of repression and murder.

Take Sudan, ruled by a radical Islamic government notorious for acts of genocide during a 20-year civil war. This same Sudan gave America a tongue-lashing over Abu Ghraib at the most recent meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

Yet the Khartoum government has been charged with ethnic cleansing, widespread rape, and massacres by government militias. A U.N. high commissioner has denounced the regime for waging a "reign of terror" against its civilian population. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and nearly 1 million displaced in the latest round of violence.

And where is the focus of international attention? All eyes are on Abu Ghraib. Meanwhile, some of the world's most repressive governments-including Burma, China, Nigeria, and Syria-continue to escape criticism.

In the United States, election-year politics is making matters worse. Some Republicans have shrugged off the prison abuses as fraternity house antics. They dismiss Administration critics as America bashers. Shame on them. This scandal is a deep stain on the United States, on the military, and on its democracy-building agenda in Iraq.

But liberal Democrats such as Senator Ted Kennedy are recklessy inflating the scandal. Kennedy complains that the wretched prison system of Saddam Hussein has simply come under new management. The editors of the New Republic demand that all of America's prisons be thrown open to global inspection. By obsessing over the Iraq violations, these critics are undermining U.S. credibility abroad. They're making it harder for America to mobilize international pressure against truly heinous regimes.

Where is the indignation over the treatment of prisoners-especially women-who are brutalized and raped throughout the Arab world? While the American abuses are the result of negligence and incompetence, the torture and executions occurring in states like Sudan or North Korea are a matter of government policy. Those who pretend otherwise are handing America's enemies a potent propaganda weapon.

It was to prevent these horrors that America helped establish the U.N. Human Rights Commission after World War II. Communist officials tried to stonewall the organization by invoking America's racial problems as proof that it had no business defending freedom of speech or religion or the right to assemble.

Eleanor Roosevelt, head of the commission, acknowledged America's faults, but knew the evils occurring in the Soviet Union were altogether different. She invited their delegates to tour the United States, as long as U.S. officials could go to Russia. The Soviets declined, and America secured support for a widely acclaimed international bill of rights.

We need a full account of what happened in Iraq's prisons. American democracy owes much of its success to its commitment to the rule of law-a rule that was shattered at Abu Ghraib. Yet it is a moral perversion to blur the distinction between America's imperfect democracy and genocidal dictatorships. That tactic might score cheap political points, but it will further weaken America's standing and influence in the world.

The irony is that overblowing the abuses in Iraq will set back the cause of human rights. That process, in fact, already has begun.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and editor of the forthcoming book, The End of Illusions: America's Churches and Hitler's Gathering Storm.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

First appeared on NPR's "All Things Considered"