With the war in Ukraine, tensions over Taiwan, and the emergence of new alliances in the Middle East, this summer has been challenging for U.S. foreign policy. Washington has struggled with how to respond, and the issue of human rights and its role in these various hot spots is never far from the conversation.
A new brief by Aslı Bâli addresses a key question of our time: Can military action ever be justified in the name of promoting and protecting human rights? And why does the U.S. intervene in some cases, but look the other way — or fist bump — in others?
In a recent interview with RS, Bâli spoke about the problems with Washington’s current approach to human rights and why restraint is needed to preserve America’s credibility in this arena.
Bâli is a Professor at Yale Law School and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute. She previously taught at the UCLA School of Law where she served as the founding Faculty Director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights and the Director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies. Bâli’s research focuses on public international law — including human rights law — and comparative constitutional law, with a focus on the Middle East.
What is the problem with the current US approach to human rights?
Washington policy elites and the administration tend to be very unilateral in their approach to human rights policy and protection promotion. Determinations are made in Washington about which countries are engaging in adverse human rights practices or undermining democracy at home and these are filtered through a set of geopolitical or geostrategic calculations. And so allies who are engaging in human rights abuses or who are engaging in practices that undermine democracy are treated in one bucket, and adversaries are treated in another.
A second challenge of unilateralism is that the United States has historically claimed to promote and protect human rights at the very same time that it undermines the multilateral institutions that are designed to afford exactly those kinds of protections.
How does this approach play out in the U.S.’s military and economic policy?
This becomes especially acute in the smaller subset of cases where the United States is willing to resort to the use of force in the name of protecting and promoting human rights. This is almost always a context where there are mixed motives where human rights is one of a set of competing policy agendas that the United States is pursuing.
And that mix of reasons for pursuing the policy is one where human rights may be very heavily promoted to justify and defend the action, but at the end of the day, may fall to one of the lower priorities once an operation is underway.
Why does the U.S. only intervene in some cases and not in others?
Our human rights advocacy strategy tends to be focused disproportionately on countries that are our adversaries, while we fail to use a range of policies that are available to us to ameliorate practices amongst our allies —where we would actually have more leverage.
Human rights is not a register that primarily should be understood through a Manichaean lens of which is our ally, which is our adversary, where you have completely different approaches to the promotion and protection of rights in the one context, versus the other punishments, sanctions, coercion for adversaries and a blind eye and a set of excuses for allies.
On the one hand, in the Middle East, we look away from human rights. In our own hemisphere, we make it supposedly the centerpiece of our foreign policy, and it becomes the basis for excluding adversaries. What really remains consistent across the board is a logic of allies and adversaries.
What do you say to people who think we should use militarism to pursue human rights?
There's a means/ends problem intrinsic to the very idea that military force can be used for humanitarian ends. When you add the fact that geopolitical calculations drive which contexts can be intervened in and which cannot —independent of the severity of the humanitarian crisis —the likelihood that this tactic is going to actually serve meaningful humanitarian purposes diminishes dramatically.
For example, over time, U.S. operations on the ground in Afghanistan increasingly tended to be presented to the American public as human rights enhancing or intended to serve humanitarian purposes. And yet, the outcome of 20 years of operations on the ground in Afghanistan have been extraordinarily damaging to the Afghan civilian population. And that leaves U.S. credibility in question, not only amongst the populations where the U.S. purports to be engaging in human rights activities, but also in the minds of the U.S. audiences that become increasingly confused about what exactly the objectives are that are being pursued.
Can restraint be used to promote human rights?
Restraint means first relying much less on military force. Engaging in military intervention, or the use of coercive economic tools less would itself have a net positive effect for human rights globally.
Restraint also means relying more on the other tools in our arsenal around diplomacy and engagement. We have a tendency to overemphasize what can be achieved by American power and under emphasize the many other tools that are available in our toolkit. We could do a lot of good by focusing on our ability to deploy international assistance, and also by supporting multilateral institutions that provide forms of direct aid.
So what can the U.S. do to preserve and protect human rights?
To those who would like to see civilian human rights protected across the board, I would suggest that they draw their attention to the places that are genuinely generating the most severe crises, such as climate change, conflict driven migration, and the current global food crisis.
Some of the places where we see the most acute forms of socio economic deprivation —resulting in millions being on the brink of death— are places where we are directly responsible for the conditions that have produced this kind of need. There are many places where we could ameliorate human rights, short of the use of force by deploying other levers such as international assistance.
Yes, we have maybe the strongest military in the world and that may make it likely that policy elites will disproportionately rely on coercive tools. But we're also the wealthiest country in the world. We have the largest economy and the greatest capacity to address socio economic deprivation.
This interview has been edited for length. Please watch the full discussion here:
Khody Akhavi is Senior Video Producer at the Quincy Institute. Previously he was Head of Video for Al-Monitor and covered the White House for Al Jazeera English, as well as produced films for the network’s flagship investigative unit.
An Iraqi boy cries as he is questioned by U.S. soldiers during a raid, searching for illegal weapons inside his house, in Baghdad August 3, 2005. REUTERS/Andrea Comas ACO/JJ
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.