An Overview of Human Rights and the US Foreign Policy

Topics: Foreign Policy

Human Rights and US Foreign Policy

“We hold these truths to be self evidentconcerning, that all men are created equal” (Jefferson 576). The preceding passage from the Declaration of Independence, while seemingly clear cut, has had its share of controversy. Certain groups of people were not afforded the same freedoms and liberties as the Founders and other white men when America became an independent nation. America has a long history of citizens fighting for the freedom and equal rights that we have attained at this point in 2010, rights which are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

America prides itself on being a nation at the forefront of human rights. Yet, when it comes to foreign policy, America doesn’t always respect the free will of other countries and is inconsistent in its approach toward human rights issues around the world.

While the American people have fought to ensure our freedoms, our government has implemented foreign policies which have not always been ethical with respect to the rights and cultures of other nations.

In the same era as the Civil Rights movement, foreign policy towards the Third World was “shaped by the persistent belief that nonwhite people were politically immature and childlike and therefore incapable of self-rule” (Schmitz 10). This idea led to America supporting a dictatorial government which alsothat happened to be pro-Western to American world policies and American businesses on their soil.

When the Congo gained independence from Belgium, America viewed its new government as leaning towards Communism. Instead of leaving the Congo and its people to create their government as they saw fit, and as America did during its independence, the American government worked behind the scenes to get this new government overthrown.

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The American-picked dictator, Mobutu, was now in place. This ensured American access to Congo’s self-evident resources but proved to be a detriment to the people of the Congo when he left the country in bankruptcy. As a parent to a child, dictatorships were viewed as necessary in the eyes of American foreign policy until the people were deemed ready enough “to choose their version of what they would recognize as a democratic, open society” (Schmitz 12).

Looking at recent history from the previous decade to the present, foreign policy has not been consistent when it comes to human rights. Countries that are viewed as having human rights violations, no matter how severe, can be broken down into three groups, as far as how they have been dealt with by America this past decade. The first group consists of those countries where the government chose not to intervene, except for verbally denouncing the human rights violations. The second group consists of countries the government labeled evil and repressive, hascitieshave invaded those countries, or want to. The third group consists of countries on friendly terms with America, and whose violations are labeled necessary, unproven, mistakes, exceptions of an improving State, or are conveniently not mentioned at all (Hancock 53).has

Some of the most serious human rights violations of the previous decade have arguably occurred on the African continent. The Darfur region of Sudan has been plagued by mass rapes, mass murder of civilian populations, and the kidnapping and forcing of children to become soldiers, as part of an ongoing civil war between the Sudanese government and rebel forces. Atrocities have been committed by all sides with the civilians caught in the middle.

U.S. involvement has stopped short of having a physical presence in the region. The official American stance on the Darfur conflict is reflected in, at last count, 42 separate Resolutions and Appropriations Acts passed on the issue by Congress since 2004 (Save Darfur: Passed Legislation). The Resolutions passed are not actual laws, but rather express an opinion, intent, or recommended courses of action. Resolutions made include support for Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, support for the United Nations embargo on arms sold to Sudan, calls for peace strategies, and the urging of peacekeeping missions. The Appropriations Act provides funds for peacekeeping, disaster relief, refugee aid, and other urgent issues while prohibiting aid money from going directly to the Sudanese government.

When it comes to countries considered allies of the U.S. and are also major players in trade between us and them, the U.S. will oftentimes look the other way when it comes to human rights issues in those same countries. U.S. acknowledgment of the violations is weak at best and is rarely followed with sanctions against the offending countries. This is not in keeping with the American ideal of freedom and equal rights for all.

A case in point is China. China and the U.S. are major trade partners of each other, with the U.S. having a trade deficit financed through sales of U.S. treasury securities. As of 2007, the U.S. owed China256 billion dollarss (Margulies 107). This interdependency with China is a contributing factor to little being done on America’s part to protest human rights abuses within China’s borders. China is also a major trader of Sudan, which the U.S. has done nothing about, despite supporting sanctions against supplying the Sudanese government. China is a large supplier of arms to the Sudanese government, enabling them to continue the atrocities against the people in the Darfur region.

As with China, the U.S. maintains a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia and has done so since the 1940s when the U.S. started importing oil from the region. Many human rights concerns persist in Saudi Arabia. Women have lesser rights than men. Though Saudi women are allowed to attend school and work, little is done to stop the abuse of women. Amnesty International USA, a group that monitors and reports on human rights abuses around the world, gives a breakdown of current issues facing Saudi Arabia. Torture and mistreatment of prisoners persist, with many prisoners being held without trial. Some are political prisoners whose only crimes were publicly expressing an opinion against actions taken by the Saudi government. Yet other prisoners are held and have been executed over charges of committing sorcery. The minority Shiite population and foreign national workers face discrimination and abuse with little recourse for justice (Amnesty International USA). King Abdullah has slowly made some progress in righting wrongs occurring in his country but still has a long way to and is impeded by the hardliners of the Saudi government. Perhaps the U.S. approach of only giving a veracknowledgmentment of the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia has a lot to do with economic factors and not wanting to ruin our trade relationship with them.

When I was in the military, I witnessed firsthand a difference in how Saudis are treated amongst themselves compared to Americans. During my electronics course in tech school, Saudi officers were also attending the school. No matter how a Saudi scored on an exam, the instructors had to fudge the scores to ensure an officer never had a higher score than an officer who outranked him. If this wasn’t done, the officer would have had to endure punishment when returning to Saudi Arabia for shaming a superior officer.

Another country in the Middle East, with cities and an economy with very similar human rights issues to Saudi Arabia, is Iran. Yet, the U.S. takes a very different approach towards Iran, going so far as to label it as one of the “axes of evil”. Prisoners in Iran oftentimes face torture and, as in Saudi Arabia, many are political prisoners. Women and ethnic minorities have lesser rights and are given little recourse for justice when crimes are committed against them. Unfair trials and harsh sentences give Iran the title of performing the second largest number of executions in the world, right behind China (Amnesty International USA). Because of not having to rely on Iranian oil, the U.S. has little to lose with its policy toward Iran. Trade sanctions have been set against Iran, with exceptions made for medical and food products which American businesses are allowed to export to Iran. Imports from Iran are also allowed, with food and textiles making up the bulk. Saudi Arabia and Iran are similar, yet Iran’s rights issues are judged more harshly than our ally Saudi Arabia. If Iran was on the same scale as China or Saudi Arabia in regards to trade with the U.S. and how much cities’ economy is dependent on them, the U.S. stance towards Iran would probably be very different.

Inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy have not gone unnoticed around the world. “The American people need to take a look at why so many people in the First and Third World are angry at U.S. foreign policy. American support for repressive governments throughout the world … has fueled hostility toward the United States. In turn, many of the world’s oppressed view the

cited cities as an accomplice to their governments’ gross human rights violations” (Nassar 110). Verbally denouncing an ally, while taking no action, is akin to standing on a street corner and just watching instead of seeking help to stop a crime in progress. When the people of these countries endure injustices, America’s continuing support of their governments is almost as if America is guilty by association. The continuing U.S. lip service denouncing human rights violations makes it that much more obvious when it doesn’t follow through in its actions.

The treatment of prisoners detained by the U.S. during the “War on Terror” has served to further shake the confidence of many around the world when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. The rules laid out in the Geneva Conventions expressly forbid torture. Torture as part of war is considered a war crime. During the Bush administration, the U.S. tried to get around this in more than one way. By creating a narrow definition of torture, the policy was made which gave a justification for waterboarding and other interrogative techniques which normally would not have been allowed. One way the U.S. attempted to deny prisoner of war status to some prisoners was by claiming they weren’t soldiers, but terrorists. This, in effect, would keep them from being protected by the Geneva Conventions. Detaining prisoners in other countries, so they were not on U.S. soil, and therefore, not subject to U.S laws on human rights, gave even more leeway in treating prisoners poorly. Handing prisoners over to the custody of certain other countries subjected prisoners to torture that America didn’t even allow in its new narrow definition of torture.

Torture is of concern not only because of inhumane treatment but also because some detained prisoners have been proven to be innocent of the allegations against them. While not every prisoner detained during the “War on Terror” experienced inhumane treatment, enough did happen to stain the view many of the world h have in America. With this issue made public, and the public outcry which ensued, it is up to the government and citizens to make sure no more abuses are taking place. The legislation signed by Obama to end the inhumane treatment of these prisoners is a start in the right direction. During the Gulf War, a large number of Iraqi soldiers surrendered because they knew they would be treated well as prisoners of war. It may take a while to get back to the world’s view of America being a country that treats all people humanely, whether they are American or not.

Ethical actions towards other countries would be to go back to President Carter’s view of foreign policy, which he worked on during his administration. That is, by promoting human rights, self-determination, and nonintervention (Schmitz 144). This view is more in line with the democratic ideals of America and respects other cultures in their ability to govern themselves. In some cases, the intervention of America and others may be the better choice, as may be in the case of genocide or other atrocities. When it comes to forms of government, other countries should be left to choose for themselves, even if doesn’t fall in line with the democracy and capitalism of America.

While the founding fathers did not create a nation where freedom and equal right were guaranteed to all, the social change helped create the rights we know today. With the current issues of human rights around the world, I am confident they will have a positive ending as did the rights Americans fought for in the past. America is learning from its mistakes on the home front as well as its dealings with other nations, which have not always been ethical. American needs to learn when to help and when to let a country and its people solve their problems. A consistent approach will go a long way in gaining and regaining the respect of America in the world. Someday, all men (and women) are created equal, which will mean just that.


  1. Amnesty International USA. Amnesty International USA, 2010. Web. 26 July 2010.
  2. Hancock, Jan. Human Rights, and US Foreign Policy. London: New York Taylor & Francis Routledge, 2007. NetLibrary. Web. 20 July 2010.
  3. Jefferson, Thomas. “The Declaration of Independence”. Patterns for College Writing: A Rhetorical Reader and Guide. 11th ed. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. New York: Bedford, 2010. 575-78. Print.
  4. Margulies, Phillip. America’s Role in the World. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009.
  5. Netlibrary. Web. 26 July 2010.
  6. Nassar, Jamal R. Globalization & Terrorism: The Migration of Dreams and Nightmares. 2nd: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2010. Netlibrary. Web. 26 July 2010.
  7. “Save Darfur: Passed Legislation.” Save Darfur. Save Darfur Coalition, 2010. Web. 26 July 2010.
  8. Schmitz, David F. The United States, and Right-wing Dictatorships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. NetLibrary. Web. 20 July 2010.

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An Overview of Human Rights and the US Foreign Policy. (2022, Jun 16). Retrieved from

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