Hamburg, Germany -- The United States government has seriously violated the internationally guaranteed human rights of American citizens by using the bureaucratic machinery of the state to harass and discourage the work of citizens' groups holding critical views about the current administration. The government has also snooped on the correspondence and activities of journalists, an invasion of privacy and an affront to the principle of freedom of the press.
It is perhaps understandable that Americans tend not to see violations of their constitutional rights in terms of human rights principles and international norms. In some cases protections provided by the Bill of Rights are stronger than those Americans enjoy as a result of the country having taken on international human rights obligations.
But what deserves scrutiny is why no US or international human rights organizations have raised concerns about what the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Department of Justice have done. Where are the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, et al? Those organizations have taken a dim view of the notion of "American Exceptionalism" when it comes to human rights, and harshly criticized US administrations in the past - especially when Republicans were in charge.
President Obama denounced the politicized IRS actions, and said he had no prior knowledge about them. And concerning the surveillance of journalists' correspondence, he said he had "raised the issues" with the Attorney General, who has promised to investigate. Are the matters thus closed for human rights activists?
In global perspective, there is certainly nothing exceptional about the Obama administration's abuse of human rights and civil society in the two cases. Many governments around the world violate the freedom of association and the principle of equality before the law in order to persecute their political opponents and to enhance their own power and control. Monitoring the communications of media is also a standard human rights violation, generally justified by "security." The Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice have used playbooks that have been perfected by Russia and many other authoritarian states to stifle, intimidate and criminalize opponents.
The Bush administration's human rights infringements dominated international human rights discourse. Amnesty International called the rendition program a "Gulag," and American groups warned that the United States had squandered its capacity to lead by example because of equivocation on torture and other practices that called into question the country's commitment to human rights. The Obama administration has also been criticized for its wide use of drones to kill terror suspects without due process.
But this time, when the victims have been Tea Party and other conservative activists, the human rights community has been silent except for some words of praise for the misdeeds. A revered civil rights leader, former National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chairman Julian Bond, praised the IRS for targeting Tea Party groups, while claiming that the NAACP was itself unfairly targeted by the Bush administration. Bond said in an interview that the Tea Party organizations deserved to be scrutinized because they were "racist."
It can only be hoped that the human rights community will eschew such partisan impulses and hold the Obama administration to account. They should do so in the United Nations Human Rights Council, and make the American diplomats there squirm with embarrassment. They should do so in the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where the United States has promoted the Helsinki "Human Dimension" principles, and many times denounced the very kinds of abuses it has now committed.
If human rights groups do not engage with these issues, they will be confirming "American Exceptionalism" as regards human rights, and marring their own credibility. Political neutrality is among the most important principles of human rights practice. Civil society human rights activists should detach themselves from partisan prejudices as they evaluate the way states implement international standards; failure to do so conflates their work with that of political activists.
Nevertheless, the development of international human rights over the past several decades shows an unmistakable drift into partisanship. Since the early 1990s, human rights work has increasingly focused on promoting positive state obligations to solve problems like poverty, education and health case within the matrix of human rights, rather than on protecting core liberties. And the work of human rights has also merged with campaigns to promote tolerance and "multiculturalism," concerns that have often led to restricting fundamental freedoms, especially the freedom of expression.
Human rights activists have, correctly, defended the rights of terror suspects who have professed the most violent, anti-Semitic and misogynist views. They need now to defend those with whom they apparently disagree more--American citizens on the right.
Aaron Rhodes is a co-founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993 and 2007, and also helped found the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.