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Essay: U.S Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Yugoslavia and the Middle East

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Sierra Club

by Nicholas Klar

The problems of the former Yugoslavia are rooted in the problems of history. The Yugoslav state was established as a unitary Slav kingdom of three nations, Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes but was dominated by the Serbs until WWII. Its short history has been characterised by conflicts and crises arising in large part from the friction between Croats and Serbs.

That Yugoslavia was even allowed to remain ethnically diverse after WWII was unusual in itself. Concerned that ethnic politics were a contributor to two world wars the Allies undertook their own ethnic cleansing program in Europe. This caused enormous upheavals by forcing large emigrations in an attempt to fit populations to borders.

It could be argued that the problems of the 1990’s happened because nothing was set in place which would prevent it. Ethnic cleansing has been on ongoing process within the former Yugoslavia. As an example, between the 1960’s and 1980’s over 200,000 people were forced to emigrate and more than 700 villages were ‘cleansed’ in the predominantly Albanian area of Kosovo.

The right of secession was given to each Yugoslav nation under the 1946, 63, and 74 constitutions. Under Article One it read that Yugoslavia was,

‘...a community of equal peoples which, on the basis of self-determination, including the right of secession, have expressed the will to live together in a federal state’

Therefore, the Croatians and Bosnians had a legal right to form their own state(s), and the underlying humans rights problem is derived from the role of ethnicity.

Human rights problems in a state derive from, and are shaped by, the nature of the society concerned, the form of the political regime, and the policies of the political rulers. Given the above background, any Yugoslav government would have faced serious problems in establishing its authority amongst the citizens who made up the former Yugoslavia. The only alternative to a strong government, who used force and repression to curb nationalism, was federal disintegration.

In the former Yugoslavia human rights problems are compounded by the impact of forty years of communist rule in a country composed of different national groupings. Socialist doctrine emphasises economic and social rights over those of civil and political rights. Until his death, the federal leadership provided by Tito was recognised and unquestioned by local leaders.

With his demise Yugoslavia lurched from one political crisis to another, the economy went into serious decline, the federation broke apart, and into eventual anarchy. Given the strife-torn background of the Yugoslav state which emerged in 1918, its chequered inter-war history, the bitter experience of Axis occupation, and its latter ‘civil war’, there would be no easy answers.

Since human rights are those basic moral rights which all persons ought to have accorded to them under law, the essential pre-condition for their implementation is a domestic legal sysytem based on the rule of law (as long as those laws are not in conflict with the requirements of the International Covenant on Civil and Polilitical rights).

The main characteristics of the rule of law are government by publicly enacted, clearly defined laws, the absence of arbitary arrest or detention without trial, and trial before independent courts which are both fair and effective. While the current state of anarchy reigns, backed by the government of Serbia, human rights can not be upheld.

Beset by these problems, what role did the United States play? There is no doubt that human rights played an important part in Bill Clinton’s foreign policy, although its significance varied with time and place as he steered between the courses of Jimmy Carter, who was accused of meddling with the affairs of other states, and Ronald Reagan, who chose at times to ignore human rights abuses in the guise of "moderately repressive regimes", particularly in Central America.

It began to be seen that major powers could no longer pursue alliances, international business, or foreign relations without some regard for human rights. Human rights are now intrinsically bound with national interests and can no longer be ignored. Both George Bush Snr. and Bill Clinton declared that the new enemy was ‘instability’, and that their task was nothing less than to exorcise tyranny, aggression, and instability from the world. This has clearly followed on under the current presidency.

If the U.S. were to see these as threats in themselves, it will adopt a somewhat paranoid position in a chaotic world. If President Bush equates U.S. security with world order, he may find it difficult to rein in America’s customary imperial overstretch. It should be remembered that foreign policy is primarily designed to serve defence, not ambitions of greatness.

Why is it that George Bush Snr. chose to ‘liberate’ an undemocratic Kuwait and why was he more anxious to send troops to Somalia where he knew the opposition will be light? Why does the U.S. protect Kurdish enclaves in Iraq but did not institute anything as strong for Bosnians?

America is struggling to define its role as the ‘lonely superpower’. Now is the time to step back from the role of global policeman and give the U.N. greater authority. This is not only to ensure that the U.S. can not be accused of acting imperialistically or unilaterally, but that other nations are allowed to share the burden of the new world order.

We must empower the U.N. and its agencies to fulfil the role it was created for. In the long term the U.S. will not achieve anything by charging into Iraq, and the possibility of a drawn out and widening conflict is unacceptable. We must support the U.N. in its many efforts, to have displaced persons absorbed by other countries, to decry abuses by all parties to the Israel/Palestinian conflict, to fairly monitor the sanctions against Iraq, encourage the opposition of those many Iraqi’s who are against the ambitions of Sadaam, and ensure that aid is distributed equitably where needed. All people beset by these and other conflicts must be ensured an opportunity to have their future decided fairly, and not at the point of a gun.

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1992, "U.S Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Yugoslavia and the Middle East" - + date accessed

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