Aleppo sold out by the ‘human rights’ community’s moral hypocrisy

“Are you incapable of shame?” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, asked her Syrian, Russian, and Iranian counterparts on Dec. 13, noting the slaughter accompanying Aleppo’s fall to government forces. In France, authorities extinguished the lights of the Eiffel Tower in support of the people of Aleppo. Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that war crimes probably occurred.

Rumors continue to swirl about summary executions, and mass rapes and, outside of Aleppo, chemical weapons strikes. Aleppo — not only the largest city in Syria but the 13th largest city in the Middle East and larger than Chicago — lies in ruin.

In Washington, the political blame game is inevitable: Pundits and policymakers debate whether President Obama was prudent or callous to keep U.S. forces at bay. Debates about strategy and responsibility fill cable news panels, but only until a new crisis pushes that discussion aside.

{mosads}For the human rights community, Aleppo’s legacy can’t be so easily forgotten.


What the world now witnesses in Aleppo was never supposed to happen.

The 1994 Rwanda slaughter and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre were black marks highlighting indifference diplomats swore would not be repeated in the new century. Power’s moral standing rested upon her Pulitzer-prize winning “Problem from Hell,” which castigated policymakers for rationalizing inaction in the face of genocide.

When she crafted an Atrocity Prevention Board at the National Security Council or rose to the UN post, few expected she might star as a case study in her book’s sequel.

If Aleppo’s legacy was simply to expose personal hypocrisy, that would be bad enough, but its true legacy will be to bring to the forefront the long-simmering crisis of relevance for the human rights community. Human rights groups and activists can condemn, castigate, and tweet, but if abusers don’t stop and politicians don’t care, what good does it do?

The human rights community has no one to blame but itself.

During the Cold War, moral clarity guided advocacy. “We always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses,” Robert L. Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch, explained in a 2009 New York Times op-ed:

“but we saw that they have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform. That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights.”

That line blurred as activists embraced moral equivalence and confused politics with principle.

Rather than live up to the Quaker ideal of peace-making, for example, the American Friends Service Committee shilled for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

In recent years, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International incorporated reporting critical of pro-Western regimes which originated with a self-described human rights group founded by a U.S. Treasury-designated Al Qaeda financier.

Nowhere is the human rights’ community moral inversion more blatant than at the United Nations, where China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia sit on the Human Rights Council.

Over the past decade, that body has condemned Israel almost four times as much as Syria and almost than eight times as much as North Korea. No wonder dictators don’t take human rights advocacy seriously.


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Anti-Americanism and anti-militarism infuse human rights groups. Leftist thinkers like Noam Chomsky argue that America and not Iran, Venezuela, or Zimbabwe is the real rogue.

But with President-elect Donald Trump favoring stability over intervention, activists may soon realize how crucial U.S. might is for defense of human rights worldwide.

True, there was never consistency to U.S. policy, but dictators understood that slaughtering civilians risked reaction. For every leader like Assad or Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir who got away with murder, would-be human rights violators would remember Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milošević or Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, who ended up in prison or dead.

No longer. Abusers now have a green light. Neither Europe nor the United Nations has the ability to act and Washington no longer has the will.

Human rights activists can chide from the sidelines but, as Aleppo highlights, with no bite to their bark, they become self-parodies.

It’s unclear whether human rights groups can restore their relevance but, until they eschew moral equivalence and recognize that U.S. force projection had more value than grandstanding and finger-wagging, the world will be a dark place.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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