In its criticism of the Bush administration, Human Rights Watch warns, “Leadership [in the field of human rights] requires more than a big stick and a thick wallet. It also requires a positive vision shared by others and conduct consistent with that vision.” The 512-page World Report for 2003, issued by the London-based organization on Jan. 14, charges that Washington “intensely opposed” enforcement of international human rights law and used “outright sabotage” in its effort to derail the International Criminal Court.

Couching the report in the language of diplomacy, its authors say this opposition reflects “a radical vision of world order” where “certain influential elements in the administration seem to view international law as an unnecessary impediment [that] might constrain the United States in unforeseeable and inconvenient ways.” They add that in fighting terrorism, Washington “has refused to be bound by human rights standards [and] seems to want an international order that places no limits on a nation’s use of power, save its own avowed good intentions.”

The report charges the U.S. government with trying to undermine important multilateral initiatives dealing with human rights, including a United Nations resolution that the war on terrorism should be fought in a manner “consistent with human rights.” All in all, it says, “Washington’s neglect of human rights was seen in its behavior in international arenas, its bilateral relations with other governments, and its own treatment of terrorist suspects.”

Pointing to the fact that the United States has refused to ratify half of the six most important international treaties dealing with human rights, the 2003 report said U.S. resistance to enforceable human rights standards “intensified” in 2002, with the U.S. government “consistently opposing” any effort to enforce human rights standards.

According to Human Rights Watch, that resistance was “on display” in several instances last year, first at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights where the U.S. opposed a resolution introduced by Mexico stressing the importance of fighting terrorism with methods consistent with human rights and again when it found itself on the wrong side of a 127-4 vote endorsing efforts to strengthen the UN Convention Against Torture.

The U.S. continued its oppositionist role during the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children where it sought to prevent any reference to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and objected to any mention of the concrete rights of children, preferring vague reference to their “well-being.” (The United States is the only country in the world not to have ratified the treaty.)

Human Rights Watch called U.S. opposition to the International Criminal Court, the “most extreme” example of U.S. opposition to enforceable human rights standards.

Human Rights Watch pointed to what it called “the numerous safeguards” that address Washington’s concern about politicized prosecutions, among them a narrow definition of the crimes that come under the court’s jurisdiction, a provision for impeachment of abusive prosecutors and oversight by independent judges.

In language seldom used when criticizing governments, World Report 2003 said the Bush administration “declared a virtual war” on the court: “It repudiated former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s signature on the ICC treaty. It threatened to shut down U.N. peacekeeping unless U.S. participants in U.N.-authorized operations were exempted from ICC jurisdiction. It threatened to cut off military aid to governments unless they agreed never to deliver American suspects to the court and President Bush signed legislation authorizing military intervention to free any American suspect held by the ICC.”

Human Rights Watch said these acts signaled that, as far as the United States is concerned, “human rights standards are at best window-dressing … Such hypocrisy only undermines these norms. It also undermines the credibility of the United States as a proponent of human rights, whether in fighting terrorism or in combating more traditional repression and abuse.”

The report lalso isted some of the positive developments in 2002: The International Criminal Court went into effect with devastating civil wars ended in Angola (after twenty-seven years) and Sierra Leone (after a decade). Steps were also taken toward ending vicious civil wars in Sri Lanka and Sudan. The Organization of American States applied the newly created Inter-American Democratic Charter to thwart a coup attempt against a freely-elected government in Venezuela and Turkey abolished the death penalty.

The report also criticized governments of industrialized countries for continued restrictions on refugees while doing far too little to provide treatment and care for the 55 million Africans who will die prematurely of AIDS between 2000 and 2020.

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Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries