Our moral codes are fundamentally malleable. They shift based on circumstance. This is as true of nations as it is people. While there are considered to be universal moral truisms which should permeate through international law, and interactions between countries, when we stare into the annals of history we see these moral truisms discarded with little thought. Under extreme circumstances, countries the world over are very willing to brush aside their obligation to their fellow humans in favour of their obligation to their nation. In modern history, no nation on Earth has been more guilty of this, more willing to tout laughable double standards than the United States of America.
There are dozens if not hundreds of examples of the United States engaging in activity which it would deem morally reprehensible, had that same activity been engaged in by another country. We needn’t look far for recent examples of this behaviour. Take the uproar which has been a core media focus in the US of late surrounding a possible Russian intervention in the 2016 election skewing the results in favour of Donald Trump. American politicians from both sides of the political spectrum and their constitutes have shown massive contempt towards the Russians for this perceived slight, with anger brewing over the possible manipulation of American democracy. Severe consequences for the perpetrator are being demanded. But if there is one country who has no right to be angry over election meddling it’s the United States, who have a long history of influencing the outcomes of elections in other countries for their own strategic benefit. The below figure demonstrates each election that the U.S.A has meddled in since the conclusion of the second world war. Those marked with an asterisks indicate a successful ouster of a sitting government.
The US justifies this sort of hypocritical behaviour by citing their own exceptionalism. The standards applied to other countries simply cannot be applied to the United States, because they’re too powerful and too entrenched in global affairs to be held accountable for their actions. Everything that happens in the United States politically, militarily and economically has a ripple effect throughout the rest of the world, because of their long history of global dominance, and ties shared with other nations. Of course, this dominance is fleeting as we see the unstoppable, steep economic rise of rival countries like China and India. But just as everything that happens in the US affects the rest of the world, everything that happens in the rest of the world in turn affects the United States. The country believes that it has a unique obligation to act as the police force for the rest of the world, and it is certainly in their interest to maintain a global order in which they sit at the top.
The principle of universality implies that there is a standard which must be met by all countries of the world in relation to the rights of people, and the sovereignty of nations. The principle is also applicable to morally just war theory. Universal morality has been translated into universal law in the form of UN charters, such as the Human Rights Charter, adopted by the UN in 1948. The United States have often violated this charter which they themselves bolstered and led at its inception. Particularly since 9/11, the United States government have justified gross abuses of human rights at home and abroad under the guise of ‘national security.’ Their logic seems to be that if the United States is in even a minuscule amount of danger, the government is entitled to abuse people for the good of the country. The Human Rights Charter was a bold commitment that power could not serve as a cover to oppress or injure people, and it established equal rights of all living people to life, liberty, security, equal protection of the law, and freedom from torture, arbitrary detention, or forced exile. The US Government’s counterterrorism policies have clearly and openly violated at least 10 of the declaration’s 30 articles. Additionally, the United States’ government has yet to ratify important human rights-related treaties, and opposes international cooperation on human rights in the International Criminal Court.
Below is a list of major international treaties which the U.S has refused to ratify. It is interesting to note the nature of these treaties – treaties which by and large are focused on bettering the lives of marginalised peoples. Basic conventions for the rights of women, children and people with disabilities are rejected by the United States.
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights • (1966)
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women • (1979)
- Convention on the Rights of the Child • (1989)
- Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court • (1998)
- International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families • (1990)
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities • (2006)
- International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance • (2006)
You can learn more about the United States’ frankly shocking domestic and international human rights record here.
Let’s take a closer look at America’s interventionist policies throughout the world. Before the end of the Cold War, the United States justified its invasions and regime changes in other countries by linking them to Russia, asserting that the spread of Russian influence had to be stopped. But after the Cold War, that policy was quickly reversed, and the US’s new, far more explicit reason for invading countries was that they had to quell the dissent of regimes who did not abide by the international policy thrust upon them by the US. Countries like this were labelled a ‘virus’ or ‘contagion’ whose spread must be stopped. When the USSR was at the height of its power and size, the United States could use them, the monster in the closet, as a scapegoat for wars in other countries. Once that monster was vanquished and Soviet aggression was no longer an issue, they had to inspire the public to have new enemies, even conceptual enemies in the case of terrorism. A public who is whipped into a frenzied fear by a perceived threat is a public who will support violence abroad. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, an agreement was struck between the The United States and Russia that the military alliance of NATO, formed under the pretext of serving as a defence against the USSR would not expand ‘one inch to the east.’ Within a short period of time, NATO did indeed spread to East Germany and even further, right up to Russia’s borders under the Clinton administration. NATO was only ever created to serve as a buffer against the USSR. Having a strong military alliance helped to quell USSR aggression. Once the USSR collapsed, NATO served no real purpose other than to act as an extension of US power abroad. When the United States first reversed course on their promise to not expand NATO, Mikhail Gorbachev complained, and the US argued that it was simply a “gentleman’s agreement”, and if the Russians should be so foolish as to believe a US handshake agreement, it was their own problem. This is a glaring inconsistency, as so much of American aggression toward the USSR was based on their expansion – as soon as they had the chance, the United States expanded its military alliance within a stones throw of Russian soil.
In 2014, the United States ratified a UN Security Council resolution condemning war crimes in Syria. Their caveat on agreeing to the resolution was that the United States could not be investigated for war crimes, nor could Israel. The United States also has publicly known policy in place which gives them the ability to save any US citizen from prosecution at The Hague. The reason for this of course is that the United States often openly commits war crimes, which it would denounce any other nation for committing. So, what exactly are the war crimes that the US has conducted in Syria that they cannot allow themselves to be investigated for?
When attempting to wrestle control of the Syrian city of Raqqa from ISIS, US Secretary of Defence James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis referred to the effort as a ‘war of annihilation.’ The US dropped thousands of bombs on Raqqa, and the city was shelled with a staggering 30,000 artillery rounds in just a 5 month period. The population of Raqqa was reduced from 340,000 to less than 100,000. An Amnesty International report notes that artillery and airstrikes continued to pummel civilian areas of the city even as a deal was struck resulting in ISIS militants leaving the city. At least 2000 US troops are still illegally occupying Syria, and it is widely speculated that Washington’s final goal is to overthrow another government. Specifically, to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and install a regime which aligns more closely with American values, and American desires within the region. Laughably, American intelligence has claimed that fewer than 500 civilians were killed in 2017 in all of America’s military operations across the world, admitting to to just 32 civilian deaths in Raqqa. An Associated Press report from April of this year noted that close to 500 corpses had been pulled from the rubble following American airstrikes. As part of their ongoing battle against ISIS throughout Iraq and Syria in 2017, it is reported that US led airstrikes resulted in no fewer than 6000 civilian deaths. That’s 5,500 more dead people than the United States is willing to acknowledge, in two countries alone.
While there are hundreds of examples one could look at showing the horrors of American war crimes such as the Dachau Massacre in World War II, the Wounded Knee Massacre or the My Lai Massacare in Vietnam, there are specific recent instances that stand out for their depravity. As with their war in Afghanistan, America’s occupation of Iraq saw some of the most shocking human rights abuses in history. From October to December of 2003, US soldiers with little to no experience running prisons oversaw the Abu Ghraib prison. Detainees here were humiliated, raped, tortured and killed at the hands of guards. A leaked military report not meant for public release detailed some of the extreme torture practices enacted.
“Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees … beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair … sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and a broom stick.”
The report goes on to note that detainees were forced to perform sex acts on one another, and strung up in embarrassing and painful positions, sometimes for days. There are multiple allegations of detainees being beaten to death by US soldiers and private contractors. Much of the same practices were enacted at many US prisons in both Afghanistan and Iraq, however the Abu Ghraib case was unique in the fact that there was a large volume of harrowing photographic evidence. You can view some of that photographic evidence here, however it is not for the faint of heart. Unsurprisingly, only a small number of those responsible for these crimes against humanity were ever charged. They were sentenced not at the ICC where crimes of this calibre would normally be put on trial, but in domestic American courts.
US military action in other countries is often based on their perception of crimes the country is question has committed against its own people. This is evident in the case of Syria, where in April of this year America bombed numerous strategic targets in the country, using chemical attacks by Bashar al-Assad’s government against Syrian civilians as their reason for doing so. These chemical weapons attacks, while no doubt reprehensible and unforgivable are not that far removed from the human rights abuses the US conducted in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. Can you imagine the reaction if the Iraqi military had bombed Washington in response to American abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib?
The shared theme between each of the stories relayed here is that the United States frequently engages in gross abuses of power all over the world, with little to no consequences applied to their actions. Their ability to curb blame, to justify their abhorrent decisions, and have a blind eye turned by their many allies in the international community is uncanny. America have utilised both their hard power economically and militarily, and their soft power of cultural influence and moral impunity to position themselves as entirely untouchable in the global order. This goes back to before World War II, and has only gotten worse since. At what point will the rest of the world hold America’s feet to the fire of their own standards? Will there come a time when America’s hypocrisy will be brought to the forefront, and their interventionist ways and global policing policies will be questioned? Time will tell, but at present it seems as though American exceptionalism is here to stay, and grants them licence to do as they damn well please across the planet, with little regard for the consequences internationally.