An American Retreat from Human Rights?

05/08/2014 08:32 am ET | Updated Jul 08, 2014

In an ideal world, we'd need no military, no war, and no violence. But we do not yet live in an ideal world, and even the most peace-minded among us would appreciate that there is a need for a military to defend the United States. But what are we doing with the military we have? Are we treating the soldiers themselves with anything resembling dignity or are we treating them like insensate property? Are we deploying the military to defend liberty or to extend more narrow interests of greed? It seems likely that it is the latter, but if we act as a unified voice of the people in a democracy, it is not too late to change course. Indeed, changing course as a people to demand that the United States amend its pursuit of misdirected militarism and to simultaneously uphold basic human rights for its own soldiers, and to do so for the rest of the world as well, is perhaps the only way that we can salvage the best of America.

David Brooks argued last week in the New York Times that the China's chafing at maritime borders and islands near (or not very near) its shores, the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and sundry developments in the Middle East are not merely deeply disturbing. They are emblems and warning signs of a coming crisis in the old evolved international order whereby States could band together to protect the smaller among them and to develop principles that were followed as not mere procedural shortcuts, but as markers of civilized international norms. It's a nice article and the point has some merit. But how does the United States measure up in this regard? Have we helped defend the principles to protect the weak and to prevent predatory nation-states from undermining those that have stumbled?

In the happy public myth, the United States fights every war to defend freedom. But the Spanish-American War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War (among others) deviate from this storyline. These wars were given public support and political cover by being cast as struggles of light against darkness, as struggles to preserve freedom and liberty. In each case, the wars involved massive and premeditated deception of the public and of information presented to it. Toppling leaders or waging wars for more selfishly oriented national reasons, the good will of the American people has been consumed like termites can consume a mansion. We are currently living in an era where there has been a campaign to whitewash the practice of torture by the United States against its enemies (both citizens and non-citizens). We have a lengthy history of assassinating foreign leaders both actively and by indirectly providing cover for action against them by others. We practice rendition and build secret prisons abroad and argue about whether or not we can suspend the Geneva Conventions or kill American citizens without judicial oversight. The American people are occasionally fed up by the nonsense, by the waste of billions upon billions of dollars, and by the loss of standing internationally. But they can't pay attention for too long, for they are teetering on the edge of their own economic insecurity. So the wars and travesties continue.

The history of the travesties of American warfare and unseemly meddling not merely in the affairs of other nations but of actively subverting international norms and principles and/or of actively deceiving the public both inside and outside of the nation? That's decently documented in many cases of the past. We gather together and shake our heads knowingly and mention the list: Watergate, Iran-Contra, the coups Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1973, the secret wars and bombing campaigns in Cambodia and Laos, and many more examples come to mind. In each case, we look at each other and reassure ourselves and each other that we wouldn't do THAT again. And yet, here we are. Do you see anyone on trial for torture, for rendition, for egregious abuses of all this nation should stand for?

The Times also reported last week that the United States Senate removed language from a pending intelligence bill that would have required that the government make an annual public report of the number of people killed using drones. It faced bitter opposition from those who claimed that it would undermine the effectiveness of the program. Did you see that? The debate over information in this country has descended to the point that the mandate to publicly provide a NUMBER of the people killed by drone attacks by the United States outside of the United States has become a liability that can result in being called soft on defense, soft on security. So ask yourself this: how can we judge the effectiveness of a program, impingements on civil liberties explicit and implicit, and do a cost-benefit analysis of whether drone warfare is an effective or ethical use of funds? How can we do that if we're not even allowed to know the number of people killed? It removes the damage from the public's knowledge and allows the Government to continue to pursue secret kill lists without even the accountability contained in a numeral.

A third article in the Times drew attention to the ten-year anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal. How quickly we have grown inured to those images that turned the stomach of the nation when first broadcast. The Fourth Circuit is hearing arguments to overturn a district judge's fairly outrageous ruling to not only deny standing to Iraqi victims who have suffered, but to hold the four Iraqis who brought suit responsible for court costs. What sort of world does this seem like? Read this against the background that claims of sexual assault in the military jumped by fifty percent over the past year. Read this against the knowledge that one in three homeless men are veterans who have served their country in the military. These are violations of human dignity that should happen to no men nor women. Do you not see that being sexually assaulted and treated as trash rather than human would be things that the inmates at Abu Ghraib experienced and also comprises a significant outcome for a large number of the veterans that serve in uniform for this nation's wars, this nation's attacks and predatory practices.

What do we do? We should support stronger funding for programs to end homelessness in the United States, and if veterans, ostensibly valued members of society, are finding themselves homeless at the rate they are, then something is broken with the way we treat the homeless, the way we treat soldiers and veterans. We should support aggressive moves to address the sexual assault crisis in the military. And then we should remember that we should support moves to address and end sexual assault crises everywhere for everyone. When talking about international standards, we claim to worry about the treatments our soldiers might face if captured by an enemy. It's funny for two reasons. It's peculiar because we've spent much of the last decade and a half arguing for exceptions to international law and standards and behaviors when it comes time to apply them to American soldiers or any part of American foreign policy. It's also bizarre that with a high risk of trauma, mental illness, homelessness, and sexual assault, our soldiers are getting a pretty raw deal right now from the United States while they are actually in active duty service and afterwards when they should be honored veterans. If we really worried about our soldiers, we'd stop using them as tools for all-too-often violations of human rights and then disposing of them after their service is complete.

What could we do to restore honor to the military? Join the International Criminal Court (ICC). Period. Universal standards of justice may seem scary to more paranoid eyes, but they are the only way forward. And concerns about the ICC make it ever more important that the United States has a place at the table of discussion. Teach the UDHR. If there were a ground-up respect for the universality of human rights in content and application taught in American schools from entry until graduation, and taught continually not as an add-on or requirement to check off, it would inculcate a cultural change. Perhaps our Legislative and Executive branches might even gain the temerity to follow the actual principles involved in universal human rights. If we gave a fraction as much attention to accountability in human rights as we did to the accounting branches of large corporate interests, we'd actually maybe make some progress.

Who knows, if that change is voiced loudly enough by you to your representatives, we might restore the glory to America's standing in the world, and America's standing to its own citizens. Write, call, or email your representatives today (see Ask them to support HRAC's call to demand greater support from the United States to respect international human rights norms. Ask them to push the conversation forward on joining the ICC. Ask them to support better protections for American soldiers during service and afterwards. We should be ashamed of the way we treat human rights standards right now and we should be ashamed at the way we treat our soldiers and veterans. We deserve better and we can do it with a united voice.