Death of a Dictator: the wider question?
“…it is ironic to note that Guantanamo Bay, a haven of abuse in Cuba, is under US control.”
Last week Fidel Castro died. Reaction from politicians has been mixed, from Donald Trump’s declaration that Castro was a “brutal dictator” to Justin Trudeau’s much maligned words about feeling “deep sorrow” at the Communist leader’s death. However, on the whole, most have condemned Casto’s human rights record.
There is no denying that there have been grievous human rights abuses in Cuba, and certainly some reactions on the Left have been quick to gloss over this and point to Cuba’s great healthcare and education (which is certainly to Cuba’s credit). It is an important point to make, however, that good social services do not change that fact that people who live there are denied the basic rights that we take for granted in the West.
But that’s not to say that all of this criticism is completely hypocritical. Donald Trump for example has voiced his support for waterboarding and other, unknown torture methods that are “a hell of a lot worse”. Indeed the US has supported many dictatorships all over the world, especially in Latin America, that have been particularly brutal, all the while strangling the Cuban economy, supposedly on human rights grounds. And perhaps it is ironic to note that Guantanamo Bay, a haven of abuse in Cuba, is under US control.
“How, then, can we have even the faintest dream that human rights will flourish all over the world when the West — supposedly the champion of ‘freedom’ — puts out such mixed messages.”
There is a broader point to make about the foreign policy of the West; so much foreign intervention have used human rights as justification. For example, the invasion in Iraq was never simply about weapons of mass destruction. A further rationale was given, removing another “brutal dictator” who had committed a litany of crimes, including the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds. There is no denying that Saddam Hussein was an evil man, but while this was going on, the West was throwing their full support behind other such dictators.
In the same year as the invasion of Iraq, the USA began to normalise relations with Libya, lifting sanctions and reopening the US Interests Section. In 2005, two years later, Freedom House classified Libya as “Not Free”, and concerns were repeatedly raised about press freedom, enforced disappearances, and torture.
So while the US and the UK were talking about saving the Iraqis from Hussein, Gaddafi’s crimes didn’t matter. The US (and much of the Western world) cut off relations again in 2011 arguing that Gaddafi had lost the mandate of his people, yet somehow this wasn’t the case in the eight years previous.
The Western world condemns the Islamic State, rightly, for its horrific acts that have been all over the news since the group rose to prominence in 2014. But one of the West’s biggest allies in the region, Saudi Arabia, also has a terrible human rights record. The litany of human rights abuses includes public execution, sometimes crucifixion (for a variety of offenses including witchcraft and atheism), extremely limited efforts to stop human trafficking, and censorship of the press.
Israel, another major US ally, is accused of abuses towards those in the Occupied Territories, such as building settlements in the West Bank and severely restricting the movements of Palestinians. But time and time again, the US has blocked UN Security Council resolutions to put an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In recent times the story is the same for so many other Western-backed powers in the Middle East, such as in Yemen where the UK, France, and the USA have given their full support to the government-supporting Saudi-led coalition that has been accused of war crimes such as bombing civilians.
In Egypt there has been accusations of torture in prisons, mass death sentences, and the outlawing of the main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite this Egypt remains a military ally of the US, UK, and France, receiving aid and military equipment.
So it seems quite obvious that human rights only really seem to matter if the country in question has nothing to offer. One of the most nauseating examples of this was David Cameron proclaiming a “golden era” between China and the UK; despite China’s terrible record. Since China is the second largest economy in the world it would be obviously be (in a purely economic sense) unwise for Cameron to have attacked them in this manner. This doesn’t mean there aren’t double standards at play.
The West: ‘champion of freedom’?
“Currently, human rights are used as a way for Western powers to criticise countries that are not, or are no longer, useful to them.”
How, then, can we have even the faintest dream that human rights will flourish all over the world when the West, supposedly the champion of “freedom”, puts out such mixed messages. That’s not even mentioning the abuses committed by members of the armed forces in Iraq by US and UK forces; the forced extradition and torture of suspected terrorists; and the so-called “snoopers charter” in the UK (which China referenced when setting up a similar law!)
So when it comes to Cuba, post-1991 sanctions against the country, nominally in the name of building democracy, are completely insincere – although it must be mentioned that under Obama they have been eased. Trump’s posturing about re-instating them is just another event in a long line of injustices faced by the people of Cuba, especially because the sanctions don’t even have the intended effect.
Firstly they harmfully affect the most vulnerable people in the country, and also the sanctions themselves work towards limiting human rights, especially the right to health. The Personal Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has, in fact, argued that the effect of the “embargo on the economic, social and cultural rights… [has been] ‘disastrous’”. This statement is supported by an Amnesty International report.
I am certainly not the first person to say this, but the events of last week and the coverage that has followed has set the issue into sharp relief once again. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to deny that, on the occasions where Western powers have taken action against countries on the basis of human rights, there have been grave transgressions. The West has often stood against human rights abuses. However, over and over again, they have also thrown their weight behind similar or worse regimes.
Human rights are supposed to about giving every citizen of the world equal dignity and respect. Hopefully one day, denying these to the citizens of any country will be seen as a grave moral offence rather than something that can be swept under the carpet if it so suits the West. Currently, human rights are used as a way for Western powers to criticise countries that are not, or are no longer, useful to them.
So while the West, and those of us in the West, should certainly condemn the violations that have taken place in Cuba, we should also take a long look at our actions and those of our allies, because, all the while, some countries are committing these abuses without respite simply because they are powerful or allied to the powerful, and this means other countries will continue to do the same. I suspect, though, that Western powers will carry on acting the same way, because human rights weren’t ever the really the issue to begin with.