Why so many rulers are impervious to shame

More and more rulers are thumbing their noses at international norms, worries a human-rights activist

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More and more rulers are thumbing their noses at international norms, worries human-rights activist SUZANNE NOSSEL.

The problem of impunity — the difficulty of punishing powerful wrongdoers — has given birth to a new and potentially graver menace, the scourge of imperviousness.

For years, activists have struggled against impunity, the lack of punishment for most of the worst human-rights offenders. They decry the emboldening effect this has on other abusers, who dismiss international law and norms as toothless. But now, as Russian President Vladimir Putin muscles his way into Ukraine and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi commits travesties of justice, we see impunity feeding into something potentially worse: imperviousness.

While the label may be new, the behavior isn’t. Abusers who pay little or no mind to the outcry over their misdeeds have existed throughout human history. But they now seem to be emerging in places where, until recently, governments were more susceptible to shaming.

Impunity is a problem of politics and structure, stemming from shortages of political will and weaknesses in national and international justice institutions. Imperviousness acts at a deeper, more subjective level. It is the judgment of heads of state that, when it comes to how they treat their people, what others think and say simply does not matter.

Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, there have been outlier regimes galore that have not cared about international legal obligations or the stigma of noncompliance. These included closed countries like North Korea and Burma; the regimes of Ceausescu, Tito and others of the communist bloc; Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile and his fellow South American dictators; Milosevic, Karadzic and other Balkan tyrants; and African strongmen like Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Uganda’s Idi Amin.

In recent decades, though, their ranks thinned. In Eastern Europe and South America, authoritarians were replaced with mostly liberal, rights-respecting governments. Liberia and Rwanda left their dark histories behind to embrace democracy. Burma and Libya came out from under brutal dictatorships into fitful transitions. Pressure from foreign governments, human rights advocates and these countries’ own citizens helped force reform.

Over the same period, organizations like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House began publishing hard-hitting exposes on rights violations. Human rights activists adopted sophisticated tactics to focus media attention on wrongdoing, squiring around reporters and cameras in crisis zones. They helped feed momentum for action, eventually, to stop slaughters in Bosnia, Kosovo and Darfur. In each case local dissident movements and rights defenders drew strength from outside supporters.

For a while, it seemed as though imperviousness was in retreat. A growing number of countries wrote human-rights obligations into their constitutions and more than 100 created national human-rights institutions to monitor progress. In 2008, the United Nations initiated a human-rights review process that trained scrutiny on each member state in turn; every single government — including North Korea, Syria and Iran — turned up with a delegation in Geneva to hear and respond to the criticisms. Even countries like China and Russia implemented modest improvements to local justice systems in order to have something to show human-rights monitors.

When Syrian President Bashar Assad began to violently suppress dissent in 2011, some commentators hoped that heightened social-media scrutiny would temper the brutality, citing the growth of such tools as a measure of progress since Assad’s father had killed 30,000 civilians in the Hama massacre three decades earlier.

But Assad has ignored hashtags and viral videos. And despite expectations that his Western wife and professional background in medicine might augur a degree of respect for international norms, Assad has proved to be among the most determined butchers of the 21st century.

Assad is hardly alone. Egypt has sentenced more than 500 supporters of the once-again-banned Muslim Brotherhood to death for the killing of a single police officer. Gen. Sisi’s interim government has jailed scores of journalists, including three reporters from Al Jazeera who have been brought to court repeatedly in metal cages for what is widely seen as a sham trial. In the latest twist, the court is trying to extort $150,000 from the men for the privilege of seeing the evidence against them.

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Washington darling until recently, is in a no-holds-barred struggle to hold on to power amid a corruption scandal that has seen him try to ban YouTube and Twitter, while cravenly denying clear evidence that shows he, personally, bullied both the media and the judiciary. He has vowed to “sterilize” his opponents by “boil[ing] or moleculariz[ing]” them.

Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, a country midwifed into existence by the United States, has now been accused by the United Nations of complicity in war crimes committed in the course of a bloody internecine conflict over the last five months.

Each of these leaders is called out almost daily by some combination of the media, human rights groups, foreign governments and international bodies. None of them seems to much care.

Globally, Freedom House has seen an unprecedented eight-year trend of backsliding on civil and political rights. Amnesty International has just reported that 30 years after the United Nations adopted its Convention Against Torture, 79 countries still engage in the banned practice, with the number increasing since the escalation of the global fight against terrorism.

Imperviousness begets imperviousness. The role model for indifferent leaders is Mr. Putin, who has elevated imperviousness to international norms and outside criticism to a new level with his rigged elections, suppression of dissent, anti-gay legislation and now the annexation of Crimea. Who knows what awaits eastern Ukraine?.

And let’s not forget that the invasion of Crimea was planned in Sochi, while Mr. Putin was smiling for the cameras at the Winter Olympics. He has brushed off the niceties of the international system with the flick of a wrist. With his Security Council veto, he has made it safe for others to do the same.

President Barack Obama also has contributed to the spread of imperviousness. In 2008, as a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama positioned himself as the antidote to the George W. Bush administration on issues like torture and indefinite detention. But his failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center as he promised and his claim of unilateral authority for targeted killings via drone strikes has sent a message that those who claim to value strong international norms do so selectively, at best.

Mr. Obama is not deaf to outrage, and he has done far more to acknowledge and address shortcomings than those on the world’s most-impervious list. Yet he will almost certainly leave office in 2017 with Guantanamo open for business and the U.S. drone program alive and well — and still shrouded in secrecy. Coupled with the revelations of National Security Agency surveillance, his continuation of these Bush administration anti-terrorism policies leaves the widespread impression of a United States that has lost the moral high ground.

On the other hand, while Mr. Obama has rightly tried to avoid war by ruling out the threat of force in response to grave human rights abuses, he may unwittingly contribute to the sense of imperviousness that foreign dictators evince. We’ll never know what would have happened had Mr. Obama last summer followed through on his threat to launch retaliatory strikes in Syria in defense of his self-proclaimed red line after Assad’s chemical-weapons massacre.

Every scenario was awful, the lesser and greater hard to discern. Yet limiting Assad’s punishment to the relinquishment of his chemical-weapons stocks was like telling a convicted murderer that he must no longer own guns but is otherwise a free man. If televised images of rows of children’s bodies aren’t enough to elicit an effective international response, rising imperviousness perhaps shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

In Egypt, tepid pronouncements from the White House make clear that whatever influence the United States retains there is not likely to be used in any serious way.

As for Ukraine, Mr. Obama repeats his vow not to use force as the United States and Europe haltingly add names one by one to their sanctions lists.

Imperviousness is also fostered by deepening mistrust for anything that smacks of Western interference. Egypt arrested and tried NGO staffers for their work on democracy training and promotion. The Arab Spring, Ukraine’s Maidan protests, the International Criminal Court, the Syria uprising and even the polio vaccine have all been denounced as Western plots. With the diminution of American moral authority, casting aspersions on U.S. motives is becoming a more popular sport.

There is no easy fix for imperviousness. There is some risk that traditional forms of pressure — public criticism and sanctions — only feed the image of courageous martyrdom cultivated by indifferent leaders.

Iran’s rulers made a great show of denouncing the failed Green Revolution against them as the work of outsiders, and Mr. Putin tried to do the same with the Maidan uprising. U.S. sanctions and international criticism over the invasion of Crimea have sent Mr. Putin’s popularity at home soaring. Abetting the rise of homegrown democratic leaders has never been easy — and it’s getting harder, with the antenna for outside interference on high alert.

Some regimes, like Iran and Sri Lanka, tend to write off Western views but are more susceptible to global pressure via the United Nations, a tactic the United States has tried with some success. Nascent civil society efforts are afoot in Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere to get their governments to factor human rights into their foreign policies, potentially offering a source of pressure on the Putins of the world that is more credible and less easily dismissed than messages from Washington or Brussels.

But for these efforts to have even a hope of working, they can’t become too closely associated with Western partners and funders. There is some chance that the economic consequences of pariah status (for example, plunging tourism revenues in Egypt) may gradually incentivize better behavior. There is also a chance that locally respected voices — those of writers, artists and intellectuals — will galvanize ordinary citizens and embolden dissenters within impervious regimes.

The traditional tools of human rights activism — exposes, media attention and pressure from mostly credible Western governments — are falling short when it comes to some of the major challenges of the day. It is as if an expanding group of leaders has built up antibodies and these leaders can now resist where they previously would have succumbed. While it’s not time to give up on the traditional treatments, human-rights defenders need to get into the lab quickly and develop some new tactics before the virus of imperviousness spreads even further.

Suzanne Nossel is executive director of the PEN American Center. She wrote this for Foreign Policy.


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