A mystical shield of sovereignty


200,000 primary school teachers and an equal amount of soldiers to ensure the teachers’ safety — this was the CIA character Peter Quinn’s solution to what he perceived as Middle Eastern ideological extremism on the popular television show Homeland.

In the context of an often violent and brutal history of American intervention, one recoils at the thought of what appears to be a proposal for long-term occupation and cultural retraining. Yet the pejorative connotation of “intervention” becomes more complicated when we consider the realities of genocide, ethnic cleansing and oppression; of violations of basic human rights and dignity that occur within the borders of states that claim the right to be left alone.

In my last column, I argued that individual apathy following heinous crimes and an inability to internalize the realities of violence threatens democracy and freedom. Today, I explore the dangers surrounding language about sovereignty and human rights.

First, we should be wary of authoritarian regimes who co-opt language denoting an ostensible right to cultural self-determination — language that rejects colonialism and imperialism — in order to justify virulent actions taken under the protection of the mystical shield of sovereignty.

The political theorist Samuel Huntington, in his famous book about The Clash of Civilizations and the New World Order gives the example of how objections to “human rights imperialism” manifested themselves in the buildup to the 1993 U.N. World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. “The Asian countries met in Bangkok and endorsed a declaration which emphasized that human rights must be considered ‘in the context… of national and religious particularities and various historical religions and cultural backgrounds,’ that human rights monitoring violated state sovereignty and that conditioning economic assistance on human rights performance was contrary to the right of development.”

Notice the buzzwords. Particularities. Backgrounds. Sovereignty. Development. Taken together, they form an appeal that is easy to swallow and appears intellectually viable. But if we dig deeper these words become an empty shell; a tool in the authoritarian kit for maintaining a semblance of legitimacy as the true representatives of people who did not vote for them.

These leaders claim unique cultures incompatible with democratic human rights ideals, but democratic traditions exist across a variety of cultures, from Islamic protection of persecuted groups in the 12th century to the Confucian philosopher Meng-Tzu preaching that “the people came first, the country second and the king third.”

These despots proclaim human rights monitoring violates state sovereignty, but as James Wilson eloquently pointed out at the Constitutional Convention: “Can we forget for whom we are forming a government? Is it for the men, or for the imaginary [being] called [a state]?” In other words, what is the value of sovereignty — defined as the “authority of a state to govern itself” — when removed from the rights of the people for whom that state is formed?

And to suggest that human rights somehow conflict with a country’s ability to develop is unfounded. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist notes that “there is no convincing evidence that authoritarian governance and the suppression of political and civil rights are really beneficial to economic development.” The free flow of information and a strong, independent media is essential to raising awareness of key economic issues. No famine, for example, has ever occurred in a democratic country.

The previous few paragraphs suggested the importance of skepticism surrounding hijacked language typically used to discuss real issues like colonialism. But there is also a danger in the opposite: rejecting rhetoric that is typically abused.

In her book A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Mass Genocide, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power details how when the Khmer Rouge — the communist regime responsible for the Cambodian genocide — began to suggest its murderous intent, “many Americans believed … that to the extent that the apocalyptic warnings of U.S. government officials were sincere, they stemmed [in part] from the Ford administration’s anti-Communist paranoia.”

Skepticism of rhetoric condemning communists is healthy when one considers historical examples like the anti-communist hysteria created by Senator Joe McCarthy during the 1950s Red Scare. But skepticism — much like belief — should never be absolute. In the case of Cambodia, the warnings and reports about the deadly potential of this communist regime were justified.

As students and as citizens, we need to be cognizant of how we evaluate rhetoric surrounding human rights and sovereignty. Presently, UN and U.S. estimates place one million Muslim Uyghurs as being held in Chinese internment camps. There are reports of gay people being purged and persecuted in the Russian region of Chechnya. Nicaragua is cracking down on anti-government protesters using a pernicious terrorism law. And these are only a few examples.

Given the dual United States history of intervening in ways that have produced substantial harm, and refusal to act when signs of ethnic cleansing or genocide abound, a closer assessment of human rights discourse could prove essential to the creation of an ethical U.S. foreign policy.


Contact Nadav Ziv at nadavziv ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Nadav Ziv (@nadavsziv) ’22 is a columnist and was a member of The Stanford Daily’s Volume 256 Editorial Board. His pieces on democracy and violence won the 2019 Woo Award for Excellence in Opinion Writing, and he has co-written pieces for The New York Times and TIME.