The consciousness of and efforts to protect human rights grew exponentially during the twentieth century. The Charter of the League of Nations declared many rights later enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was the revelations of the Holocaust, Red Army mass-rapes in Poland and Germany, and Japanese atrocities toward civilians and prisoners, as well as the Allied firebombing of Dresden and the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that led to widespread recognition that society must protect civilians even if it could not outlaw war — as Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg and French foreign minister Aristide Briand so proudly declared they had.
While the Clinton administration coined the notion of the ‘rogue regime’ in terms of a state that refused to adhere to the norms of diplomacy, for example, by seizing embassies, sponsoring terrorism, or proliferating nuclear weaponry, the idea of the ‘rogue regime’ actually predates its use by President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In 1979, for example, The Washington Post sought to articulate the difference between the abuses perpetrated by simple dictatorships and banana republics versus those who were mass abusers of human rights. “How does the international community deal with rogue regimes, those that under the color of national sovereignty commit unspeakable crimes against their own citizens?” its editorial board asked. “We have in mind not the mass deprivation of rights practiced by police states everywhere but the virtual genocide perpetrated by such regimes as Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Idi Amin’s Uganda.”
While international humanitarian law developed in the decades after World War II ended, the Cold War froze its application in many countries. The Soviet Union, for example, cared not at all internally for individual liberty or basic freedoms such as the right to emigrate, but grew to be sensitive about human rights criticism of ‘the great socialist paradise.’ President Gerald Ford, perhaps at first reluctantly, grew to recognize the potency of human rights advocacy in statecraft.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Iron Curtain breathed new optimism into the notion of those who believed that defense of human rights might finally make the leap from rhetoric to reality. Those optimists were in for a shock. Ethnic and sectarian cleansing in Bosnia shocked the world with images of concentration and rape camps reminiscent of World War II. Still, NATO rallied to end the atrocities, and ultimately Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milošević found himself in the dock of an International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague, although he died before hearing a formal verdict.
The Rwanda Genocide was something different. Kofi Annan, at the time the UN official in charge of peacekeeping, ordered UN forces to stand down in the face of incitement to genocide, a decision which enabled on of the worst genocides of the late 20th century. That Annan subsequently won promotion to become UN Secretary-General simply added insult to injury. Samantha Power, currently U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, won a Pulitzer Prize examining the failure of the Clinton administration to adequately address problems of genocide.
Even if the world did not magically become a just and humane place as some might have hoped, both Hollywood and journalists ensured that many genocides or potential genocides would not occur without impunity. George H.W. Bush’s decision to send troops to Somalia to help alleviate a largely man-made famine was largely made under the pressure of horrendous media imagery. Hollywood and the press likewise drove attention to the potential for genocide in Darfur and, more recently, the tremendous abuses perpetrated by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. There was a roll-of-the-dice element to whether abuses would attract the attention of the west. There was bizarrely little attention focused on “the Great African War” in that continent’s Great Lakes region that contributed to more than three million deaths.
President Obama promised to usher in a new period of respect for human rights and to end what he perceived as an era of American callousness, unilateralism, and disrespect for multilateral institutions and international law. He created an “Atrocities Prevention Board” and placed Power in charge. And Power enunciated a “Responsibility to Protect” to justify U.S. intervention in Libya to shield civilians from Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s murderous militias. How sad it is, then, that the legacy of both Obama and Power may usher in a new period of impunity for rights abusers.
The Atrocities Prevention Board did little or nothing to stop or even expose human rights abuses while Obama’s desire to “lead from behind” and his refusal to secure Gaddafi’s weapons caches destabilized the Sahel and transformed Libya into a new front against the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry and his aides have cozied up to an Iranian regime with the highest per capita rate of execution — Saudi Arabia may be an odious regime, but its rate of execution is an order of magnitude behind that of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Rather than demand that Tehran release American hostages, Obama and Kerry have turned a blind eye to their plight in order not to undercut their own Hollywood delusions. Many newspapers appeared to allow partisan blinders to shield Obama and Kerry from exposure of the worst aspects of their decisions.
The BBC and New York Times, for example, despite having ample regional staff and stringers, largely ignored the Syrian, Hezbollah, and Revolutionary Guards attempts to starve 40,000 Syrian Sunnis in Madaya until shamed into reporting on the atrocity by media analyst Tom Gross, who noted, “The lack of reporting on this by major international media is, in my opinion, one of the (media) crimes of our era, perhaps comparable to the New York Times’ cover-up of the Holocaust in the 1940s.”
Madaya is not the only atrocity currently underway, however. In recent months, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has undertaken an unprecedented reign of destruction against Turkey’s Kurdish population, perhaps even more brutal than what the Kurds experienced at the height of the Cold War. Snippets of information from southeastern Turkey have been flowing out for some time, but this excerpt from an email dispatch by a non-Kurdish Turk in the region summarizes well other reports emanating from a region where the Turkish government has refused most press or diplomats access:
At least 150 000 people have migrated from the area taking only brief essentials with them, leaving their bullet-ridden homes with everything behind. They wave white flags to the security people who allow them to walk out of their homes, taking whatever they can with them. That is because there has been a curfew in the many towns and cities across the region varying from a few days on up. At Cizre and Sur district of Diyarbakir the curfews have exceeded over a month now. People run out of food and water, they cannot access health services or any public service, no school for children, no work for residents, no business for shop owners, all for endless days. Many neighborhoods look like scenes from a Syrian town.
People cannot bury their dead. They cannot even collect the corpses of the killed or wounded from the streets, which lie there for days. The dead include children, women, older people and anybody who have been shot with long range rifles from whichever direction. To add injury to pain a government decree a few days ago brought down the number of days to bury an unclaimed dead person from 2 weeks to three days. It used to be that if an unclaimed corpse in the morgue would be buried by the municipality after 2 weeks. Now not only is the duration 3 days but the municipality is replaced by central government authorities. So you may sit in your home watching your dear son or husband lying in the street for days and having him or her picked up and buried in an unmarked grave.
Just yesterday 12 young people ages between 18 and 25 were killed at a house in Van. Police said they were tipped that these guerrillas were getting together at this house to plan a major attack, so an operation was planned to attack the house. At the end of the ensuing gun battled one policeman and 12 guerrillas were killed. So far it sounds normal, but after the cause of deaths were made public at the hospital, 11 of the 12 guerrillas were shot at their head at close range. There are no known witnesses to the police operation because all the people living on the street were removed to go away and the neighborhood was blocked off.
Another such police execution happened a week earlier in Istanbul when two women suspected of being terrorists were killed at their home, both being shot at the head, one after having been shot twice in her vagina.
Many in the security forces are extremists. If you just watch them in their snow hoods and listen to their “Allahu Akbar” chants you may think they are ISIL fighters. They write chauvinist graffiti threats on the walls of the cities and towns in the region. One such person claiming to be a policeman (maybe he is not) put a video on the website of a “yandash” [regime mouth piece] newspaper, Yenisafak, yesterday threatening a comedian showman because he allowed a phone connection live from Diyarbakir from a teacher expresses her grievances on the situation there. The teacher was not very specific. She was just saying that the people of the rest of the country should be aware of the suffering of the people over there. The teacher is now also under investigation. She will probably be detained, arrested and fired from her job, which she was not practicing anyway in the last couple of months. These facts are not mentioned in the main media, which consists of either “yandash” ones or supposedly independent ones. The latter are scared and under threat of being out of line.
Erdoğan’s actions show all the hallmarks of the ethnic chauvinism of Milosevic, Assad, or Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. His actions will not bring security, but justify a Kurdish demand for freedom from Turkey. Regardless, that such a massacre can occur without White House remark confirms that today is an age of human rights impunity. Not only Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian advisors and the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) are engaged in full-scale efforts to ethnically and religiously cleanse territory, but also nominal U.S, ally Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. That they can do so largely without comment from Washington simply encourages them to further atrocity. Obama, Kerry, and Power may believe they have ushered in a progressive era of foreign policy. If that is true, then no one told the dictators and mass murderers.