Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Best Face Forward?

And the award for Understated Segue of the Day goes to FP for this little gem:
"Towns around Daraa, [Syria] the southern city at the center of the protests, have reportedly been raided. A western suburb of Damascus has been cut off completely by government forces. Thousands of demonstrators have reportedly been arrested. Despite the crackdown, reports indicate that some demonstrations are continuing throughout the country. Syrian opposition groups say between 600 and 800 people have been killed since demonstrations began in March. Syria is now expected to drop its bid for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council." Emphasis mine.

Syria is reportedly considering a 2013 bid, and the optimist within me would like to believe that they'll take advantage of the delay to bring their own human rights record up to snuff--although there's not a lot of evidence to support that hope.

Granted, Syria wouldn't be the first country to sit on the UN Human Rights Council with a questionable human rights record, but its decision to drop its bid is telling. The move demonstrates a disconnect between domestic and international goals--as well as a disconnect between stated and demonstrated values.  This sense of disconnect isn't unique to Syria. The Washington Post today reports on two nations in similar straits: Libya and Bahrain.

Simon Denyer says that "Libya is simultaneously trying to play the roles of touch guy and victim in its dealings with the outside world as it unleashes venom and shellfire on its opponents but pleads for a cease-fire and dialogue." And Philip Kennicott states that "As international human rights groups and Western governments condemned Bahrain's reprisals against participants in the Arab Spring uprisings, one particularly cherished part of the country's image took a hard hit -- its reputation for promoting arts and culture."

Both articles underscore a divide between image projection and perception, between future goals and present realities--demonstrating the difficulty of controlling an international image in the face of domestic turmoil. Ordinarily I like to keep an open mind toward the workings of foreign cultures and societies, but in the case of human rights abuses like those we've seen documented in Libya and Bahrain, it's hard to be sympathetic.

I touched on the theme of international cooperation in yesterday's post, and it's one I've written on before. Multilateral action is an important component of traditional and public diplomacy because it promotes legitimacy (or at least the appearance of it), creates international bonds, and assists in the establishment or promotion of values and norms (van Ham's "social power"). And in terms of international norms and values, the UDHR principles have got to be at the top of the list.

Maybe it's my American upbringing, but in a word association test, the phrase "human rights" conjures up an instant response of "inviolable." The benefits of democracy and equality, and the human right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are truths that I've always held to be self-evident.As Secretary of State Clinton has said, "In democracies, respecting rights isn't a choice leaders make day by day; it is the reason they govern."

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