When North Korea talks about human rights, its audience usually wears a contemptuous smile. The Hermit Kingdom is famous for its short-fused leader and his ghastly antics, ranging from befriending NBA star Dennis Rodman to blowing-up members of the government on unclear charges. Yet when its official news agency, KCNA, released, earlier this month, a human rights report chronicling the human rights abuses of the United States, pundits turned somber.
Despite being fraught with several (grammatical) errors and inaccuracies, the report did manage to take a snapshot of the issues that have marked US politics in the past years, such as the Snowden scandal, rising inequality and poverty, and the proliferation of private for-profit prisons. They are all taken as symptoms indicative of America's waning legitimacy abroad and its declining living standards at home. Poignantly, the report concluded 'the US is the world's worst human rights abuser'. Talk about being bold.
The media attention this report attracted is unprecedented given the KCNA news agency engages in US-bashing on a more than regular basis. What was so different this time round?
Ignoring the blatant hypocrisy of a North Korea handing down justice, the report was spot on. Indeed, house prices have gone up, poverty has deepened, racial discrimination is still a painful reality, and the US has the largest incarcerated population in the world with 714 prisoners per 100,000 citizens.
North Korea is just the latest country to condemn the US' human rights record and to be taken seriously. It seems that the world's sole hyperpower is running low on friends, as leaders from Europe to Asia to South America are joining in decrying either unwarranted American involvement in their perceived sphere of sovereignty or are flat out attacking Washington's policies with unprecedented audacity. Unlike previous episodes of US-condemnation, the rhetoric has evolved. Washington is no longer seen as the indispensable player on world affairs, but as the grey eminence that shapes the global stage from the shadows by exerting its indirect influence wherever it pleases.
Is US power waning or merely transforming?
Washington's retrenchment from the frontlines of foreign affairs has been compensated by an increase in the number of covert dealings in the hotspots of international order, such as the UN or the Organization of American States. Although slightly less famous, the latter is an excellent example of the metamorphosis of US might. Using its judicial arm, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Washington enforces its vision of human rights, prioritizing the political right to freedom of speech through the strategic funding of a Special Rapporteur tasked with hounding abusers. This position receives 5 times more funding than any other Rapporteur and adheres to a rather skewed vision when it comes to free speech. More than often, this has translated into supporting opposition groups and encouraging dissent towards the government, all under the guise of promoting human rights.
Naturally, multiple countries across South America have criticized what they perceive as an unwarranted intervention in their internal affairs. This is yet another example of a nanny-state type solution espoused for human rights problems: the nations of Latin America are unable to rule themselves and need guidance from above, sanctioned by Washington. By throwing its weight behind the aforementioned Special Rapporteur, the US is essentially acting as an uninvited referee that decides the moral values and standards of other societies. At the same time though, Washington has repeatedly refused calls to sign any of the human rights legally binding documents, such as the American Convention on Human Rights.
Another example of this transformation of power is found upon examining the record of American aid-giving and democracy promotion through NGOs. As Mark Varga deftly remarked in Quartz, 'political power is no longer projected using the mechanisms of yore, but has found new vehicles in the form of foreign aid'. USAID has been at the forefront of the debate, following the Cuban Twitter debacle, which severely damaged both the organizations' and the US government's reputation. But it is not the only actor playing on the stage of international aid. Several groups that were directly involved in the Arab Spring, like the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and several grass-roots activists in Yemen received social media training and financing from Washington-backed groups like The International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House.
This is certainly not a new trend. Evidence for US' passive involvement in advancing its own interests can be traced back before the Cold War, but it is the first time that the subterfuges used by the Washington administration are so extensively profiled and reported.
The most disturbing element of this never-ending series of 'revelations' and 'leaks' is how 'human rights promotion' has become the central element in American foreign policy, dismissing other ways to project influence. Essentially, the Bush-era approach of 'boots on the ground' has been replaced by Obama's more benign sounding 'values on the ground'. In the words of Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations, promoting democracy or strengthening civil society 'should be unobjectionable, but when they become euphemisms for regime change, they lose their idealistic content'.
A cold-hearted realist would argue that the US is in effect a law-abiding nation that cannot be expected to follow unsigned international law documents that call for a certain standard of human rights protection. Such a realist would, however, contend that this does not preclude Washington from the right to enforce the international order and attack others for breaking those said instruments.
Unfortunately, such honest but cold-hearted rhetoric would make a mockery out of the administration notion that the United States is a 'force of good' that is morally right to impose its own design on other nations. True fighters for human rights should understand this.