Standing Firm On Human Rights

US policy is often criticized for the sins of realpolitik — siding with oppressive governments in the name of “stability.” During the Cold War, our unofficial policy was that any regime that was opposed to the Soviet Union was an ally — meaning that we were all too willing to look the other way when regimes like the Pinochet regime or the Shah of Iran engaged in systematic violations of human rights. While these dictators were often better than the alternative, human rights groups have often pointed to these American-backed dictators as a sign that our support for human rights is only skin deep.

However, it is heartening to know that the US is willing to put human rights at the top of its list in Uzbekistan. The US, angered over the massacre of Uzbek demonstrators by the authoritarian regime of Islam Karimov, has allowed our option to use the Uzbek airstrip at Karshi-Khanabad to lapse:

The eviction notice from the Uzbek government came days before a senior US official was to travel to Tashkent for talks about Andijan, human rights and political reform, according to The New York Times.

“To say that the US leadership and the Uzbek leadership don’t see eye-to-eye with one another today is an understatement,” Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asian expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the US press.

Josh Trevino notes that K2 has been an important strategic base for operations in Afghanistan, although now that the country has been secured, Bagram can be upgraded to serve the same purposes.

The Karimov regime was outraged that the US had been using K2 to shuttle Uzbek refugees to safety, ensuring that the Karimov regime could not imprison or execute them.

The Bush Administration deserves credit for putting human rights at the top of their agenda. After the horrific actions of the Uzbek government at Andijon, the Karimov regime deserves to be treated as a pariah. Previous US policy would have likely sent nothing more than a harsh letter to Karimov regretting the incident and nothing would have been done. The Bush Administration has sacrificed some short-term advantage (although in six months Bagram should be able to handle regular C-5 Galaxy transport flights, replacing K2) in order to make a decisive stand for human rights in Central Asia.

Despite the hysterical and vitriolic condemnations of the Bush Administration, President Bush has shown a real willingness to make decisive stands for democratization and human rights. Realpolitik would have demanded that the US support “stability” for Ukraine and supported the Moscow-backed regime of Leonid Kuchma. Instead, the US gave tacit support to the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, despite the fact that Yushchenko was against the presence of Ukrainian troops in Iraq. The US is one of the few lonely voices arguing against the bloody regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. The Millennium Challenge Account is one of the first aid programs specifically designed to push countries towards more democratic and less corrupt forms of government.

Human rights groups love to blast the United States with specious charges of human rights abuses – yet at the same time, the Bush Administration has shown a true commitment to human rights, and backed up those positions with substantive actions. After September 11, the old doctrines of realpolitik faded as we realized that our national security is directly related to the progress of democracy worldwide. More can and should be done, but at least the Bush Administration has shown that it is willing to sacrifice some short-term policy gains in order to advance our long-term goal of a more democratic and peaceful world.

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