US support for human rights abroad: The case of Saudi Arabia

Interests rather than principles remain the focus.

Bob Strong
Up to 84 US-made F-15s like this one will be flying high over Saudi Arabia.

The disconnect between the US government's rhetoric of steadfast support for human rights and its tendency to turn a blind eye to misbehavior by friends and allies hardly needs to be pointed out.

While the annual country reports on human rights from the State Department, mandated by Congress, are thorough and honest looks at almost every member of the UN, in the case of favored countries, they are then set aside to metaphorically gather dust, with ambassadors and other diplomats in embassies around the world generally hoping they stay there (since their jobs are ultimately about building and maintaining good relations with foreign powers, not antagonizing them).

But the apparent hypocrisy (witness ongoing deliveries of advanced US weapons to Egypt since its military coup) undercuts the message and I often wonder if it would be better for the US to tone down its rhetoric, or abandon it completely, if the nation's leaders aren't really willing to follow through.

Adam Coogle from Human Rights Watch takes on this issue in a piece about Saudi Arabia in Foreign Policy today.

Saudi activists, many who have been imprisoned, often ask me why representatives of the U.S. government, who have good relations with members of the Saudi ruling elite, don't publically raise their cases and press Saudi authorities to respect the human rights of Saudi citizens. As National Security Advisor Susan Rice admitted in a December speech: "Let's be honest: At times, as a result, we do business with governments that do not respect the rights we hold most dear. We make tough choices." It appears U.S. officials have weighed the economic and geostrategic aspects of the relationship with the kingdom, and effectively told Saudi activists to go to the back of the line.

He recounts the Kingdom's dozens of executions last year, the practice of granting male family members power over whether women can travel, become educated, the effective ban on women driving, the jailing of human rights activists, and the use of pliable statutes against "sowing discord" and "inciting public opinion against the state" to silence internal critics.

Mr. Coogle writes:

When asked about their silence on these issues, U.S. officials often shrug off the question, or suggest that public criticism would do no good. But without any sign that the issue is being raised in private -- and that private expressions of concern are having an impact -- it may well be time to turn toward the public sphere.

Policy makers might argue that failings and limitations in one country shouldn't stand in the way of doing the right thing in another, and they'd have a point. But the gap between rhetoric and reality could not be more clear. In 2011 the US Congress approved a $30 billion sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia and a $6.8 billion sale of missiles and bombs made by Raytheon and Boeing is currently pending congressional approval.

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