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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Why human rights are not paramount

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev prior to a news conference in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. Photo: AP Photo/Michael Sohn

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently faced some criticismfor her decision to ink a trade deal with Kazakhstan for access to its “rare earth” metals.  China, which supplies 97 percent of the world’s rare earths and 90 percent of Europe’s demand, decided in 2010 to cut its exports – sparking a price jump and supply restrictions. In response, Merkel reached out to Kazakhstan to make up the shortfall.

Rare earth metals are a vital component for most developed countries. Last year, my think tank, the American Security Project, released a report about how an American dependence on Chinese rare earths creates a “weak link” in the defense supply chain. Though not actually “rare,” China does control the global market, which makes many countries uneasy about their export decisions.

Merkel was criticized because Kazakhstan does not have a very good human rights record. Last December, Kazakh police forces broke up an anti-government demonstration in a small town in a western oil-producing region and killed at least 17 people in the process; later, its elections were widely decried as decidedly not open and not free.

Human rights groups think the rush to ink trade deals with abusive regimes is shortsighted. Several want western governments to demand certain working conditions and other rights concerns be met before a trade deal goes into effect. It is an intriguing angle to push: after all, the abusive regime probably needs western capital more than the west needs its raw materials, right? But this view misses the tension at the heart of modern foreign and economic policy: leaders must balance national interests with promoting rights abroad.

Merkel’s decision to sign a trade deal with Kazakhstan is not a simple one to make, morally or geopolitically. Germany has always had a somewhat complex relationship with Central Asia in general and Kazakhstan in particular. In 2007, Russia suddenly revoked overflight rights for German airline Lufthansa cargo in an attempt to get them to switch their main Europe-Asia hub airport from Astana to Krasnoyarsk. There is also a sizable population of ethnic Germans in Kazakhstan (when I lived in Karaganda, Kazakhstan in 2003, I taught a number of German students). And Germany has been a major player in the push to use sanctions on Uzbek officials believed to be involved in the 2005 Andijon massacre.

Chancellor Merkel, in other words, is not blind to the moral issues at play in signing a new deal with Kazakhstan. So why would she go ahead with it? In a word: Greece. Europe is teetering on the brink of economic collapse thanks to its debt crisis. It’s in this sort of crisis environment that governments are most likely to compromise on the rights of other countries’ citizens in an effort to safeguard the interests of their own. Germany is, to a degree at least, supporting a huge portion of the European economy. Germany’s outsized role in the euro bailout has sparked a vigorous debate in the German parliament, with a coalition of opposition parties voicing opposition to the bailout.

In light of the European debt crisis, Merkel’s attempt to develop alternate income streams and lower commodity prices through a trade deal with Kazakhstan makes economic and political sense. She would be negligent as a head of state to compromise her own country’s economic well being – and her own political survival – as a symbolic move of support for Kazakh rights. Human rights activists are justified to be miffed at the realpolitik of such a decision, but it’s a very rational one to make all the same.

That doesn’t make human rights in a place like Central Asia unimportant. But it does mean they do not and probably should not take a front seat in foreign policy decisions. Consider this: if Merkel had refused the Kazakh deal or if she had either delayed or undermined it by insisting on changes in Kazakh rights, would she and her party get re-elected? It’s possible an issue as relatively minor as the import of certain classes of metals might not swing an election, but it’s equally possible the Confederation of German Industry, or some other lobby group for industry, could gin up public discontent with Merkel’s party.

It’s rare for a leader to win the support of her citizenry by subordinating their interests to the human rights of people living abroad. Consider, in an American context, Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. President Carter did this to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year, part of his broad push to emphasize the promotion of human rights as an American interest. It was also one of the most bitterly controversial decisions he made, and ultimately contributed to his inability to secure a second term in the White House.

U.S. policy makers are facing a choice in Central Asia that is very similar to Chancellor Merkel’s. The U.S. decision to reengage with the government of Uzbekistan has been controversial, and has sparked condemnations from the same human rights groups that protest Merkel’s decision. Such condemnations, however, raise a very basic question: What can be done? One hears, routinely, from rights activists that the U.S. always has a choice, and that is has leverage, but one hears very rarely what those choices are or what that leverage is.

The sad reality is, European and U.S. leaders do not have many options left in their foreign policy arsenal these days when it comes to Central Asia. Leaders face difficult situations where they must choose between supporting beleaguered foreigners and risk losing power or protecting their own countries’ interests by overlooking human rights abuses. It shouldn’t be surprising that they choose their own country over another. And despite all the hand wringing, no one really has a good answer for what else could possibly be done.



  • j.edward.conway

    This is an honest article on how the world really works. We need more of this kind of balanced opinion on Central Asian affairs. 

  • CatherineFitzpatrick

    Joshua Foust’s proposition of radical RealPolitik is immoral — and unnecessary. America puts great stake on its reputation for moral governance. So to demand that human rights be retired is immoral because in fact human rights are a moral part of liberal democratic governance which have been part of US foreign policy at least since the Clinton era. In fact, as a principle, they have never been jettisoned, even if the implementation is skewed by geopolitics and America’s own sanctioning of torture has blackened its global reputation.

    Calling for human rights not to be “paramount” is also entirely unnecessary, as the US and EU and other countries forthrightly
    make human rights a part of their foreign policies and policies in
    multilateral institutions. Furthermore, the Central Asian countries that routinely and massively violate human rights also feign the incorporation of human rights policy as the coin of the realm.

    Foust always posits an imaginary government that is faced with an imaginary dilemma of having to entirely junk its human rights advocacy in favour of grim geopolitical necessity — and equally posits an imaginary human rights lobby that demands absolutism in human rights and boycott of all regimes that violate them. Neither of these imaginary creatures exist. In fact, Angela Merkel raised the latest urgent human rights issue of an investigation of the shooting of workers in Zhanaozen *publicly* when she visited Kazakhstan. That’s actually more than Hillary Clinton did on her trip to Uzbekistan in November. Both leaders also engaged in quiet diplomacy and the resolution of at least a few political prisoner cases is credited to such diplomacy. The early release of prominent human rights advocate Evgeny Zhovtis is credited to repeated advocacy for him since his arrest in 2009 and a recent trip to the US by a Kazakh delegation came as his release was announced.

    As massive human rights violators, the Central Asian regimes are more cynical than Foust in dumping human rights, but when it comes to international relations, Nazarbayev and other Central Asian dictators at least feign the human rights paradigmn, wanting to be seen as “respectable” by the international community. Kazkh officials recently met with a representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights about the killings of workers, and Interior Minister even claimed that he welcomed an international investigation (the Foreign Minister then “considered it” but never issued the invitation to the UN investigators). While such manifestations of ostensibly human rights cooperation are made in bad faith by the Kazakh regime, the West can use the game to try to incrementally get concessions and progress. And they do, there are constant efforts in this regard, although most of them are in the realm of quiet diplomacy.

    For their part, human rights groups like Human Rights Watch call not for boycotts but engagement of these regimes with public human rights condemnation as part of the mix. They seldom get states to do this, but they do *some* of it and it’s a constant effort. There aren’t any groups that call for such rigid conditionality with the Central Asian regimes that in fact they should forego the Northern Distribution Network — Foust’s main concern — the route to deliver cargo to NATO troops in Afghanistan. They recognize the exigencies but call for more public statements — in fact, US officials do sometimes make them as do Germans and other Europeans.

    Underlying Foust’s brand of Realpolitik of the likes that not even the original inventors of the term (the Germans) maintain is the premise that human rights advocacy just doesn’t work — it’s pointless to try with these authoritarian regimes because they are cynical and do nothing. For one, the individual cases resolved or small incremental steps are worth it, but even in Realpolitik terms, Western states realize they cannot repeat without consequences the indifference they showed to civic struggles in the Arab world for decades while they propped up dictators. That’s why the conversation has changed. That’s why it’s no longer about the binary think-tankian “either/or” of “human rights or geopolitics”.

    And again, even in Realpolitik terms, there’s a realization to be had that without at least more basic human rights compliance, business propositions are doomed to failure, too. If the idea, as Foust is suggesting, is to drop human rights in favour of pragmatic business transactions, they don’t work, either. Ask Germany,  which is still trying to collect debts from corrupt Uzbek state businesses and has suffered raids on their business properties in Uzbekistan and even the hassling of the German ambassador. Ask the UK, where Oxus Gold, a British company, had its assets seized and its chief engineer arrested and sentenced falsely for espionage, and was forced to flee. Ask Turkey, which has had its businesses summarily closed on grounds of “religious extremism.” Everyone knows how tremendously corrupt and dangerous business is in Eurasia, and its precisely for the same reason that makes for a bad human rights climate: absence of the rule of law. Especially since the destruction of the independent bar in Uzbekistan, the very same justice system that sanctions torture is unavailable to stop state corporate raids or extortion.

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has tried to make this proposition herself to the Uzbeks, in a speech in November from the floor of a new GM plant outside Tashkent, that human rights and democracy progress will lead to more prosperity on the “new Silk Road”. While this premise runs the risk of putting the business cart before the human rights horse, at some level the Uzbek regime itself knows that modernity is related to things like increased Internet penetration, which is why they cautiously begin to allow this albeit with heavy censorship — censorship that their increasingly savvy population gets around at least in some small degree.

    In the case of Germany’s transaction to get the rare earth metals, this is a pragmatic one in which both Kazakhstan and German have a vested interest, for different reasons, to want to avoid further dependency on China. I don’t think you can say that Germany now looks for cheap goods especially to Central Asia merely because they are in debt-ridden Europe and need cheap goods — their paramount interest in Central Asia is about gas and oil resources and the NDN route.

    I was supposed to work in the 1980 Olympics and wasn’t able to when the US decided to boycott it over the invasion of Afghanistan.  As I lived through this era as an adult I don’t recall at all that this was  a “bitterly controversial” move (Foust is merely cutting and pasting Wikipedia here) even if it had its critics. The boycott was not a significant factor in Carter’s failure to gain re-election — the Iran hostage crisis was, along with domestic issues of the economy. The boycott could never have succeeded without significant popular support, as we have only to compare it to the Beijing Olympics where even mass movements of concern for Sudan (where China has oil interests) and Tibet were insufficient to cause a boycott.

    While human rights groups always raise human rights concerns at the time of trade agreements or transactions, they seldom insist on radical conditionality. In the article in the New York Times linked by Foust, one source says, ““I don’t see a problem in signing contracts with Kazakhstan as long as we keep human rights on the table,” said Nico Lange, director of the Kiev office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.” While never as strong as human rights groups would like, Merkel *did* keep human rights on the table.

    “Business should be, as much as civil society, interested in governance on the rule of law, transparency and accountability,” said Ms. Aidakulova and Mr. Artemyev of the Soros Foundation. “This sets the environment in which business interests will be effectively protected.”  Indeed.

    Human rights remain paramount, and not only for human rights activists; governments, even Central Asian governments concede them, and the “balance” of international relations is not one achieved without them.
    In fact, every day officials in bilateral and multilateral settings don’t just wring their hands helplessly but keep pushing the envelope and having some modest successes — it is not a static situation.

    Indeed, the US does have leverage which it never publicly articulates. If the Central Asian governments truly are interested in not having a spillover of the Taliban and other extremist groups across their borders, then their assistance is required to the US in winding down the war and establishing post-war security. Are they truly interested in preventing post-war conflict or not? They always claim to be working against terrorism even as they round up thousands of innocent devout Muslims. Are they really going to stop cooperating with the NDN if we call them out on their torture? Just because one WikiLeaks cable shows Karimov threatening to pull cooperation on the NDN over a State Department prize going to an Uzbek dissident doesn’t mean that we can’t keep using this leverage to push for human rights progress. The whole reason Uzbekistan signed ILO conventions against forced child labour or introduced habeus corpus or other reforms is because they feel the pressure for at least the semblance of progress, which occasionally has a by-product of reality.

    All of the regional governments are uneasy about the US presence, but they handily play it against another presence even more vexatious to them — Russia — and against a new economic partner they also remain very ambivalent about — China. All these governments also get handsome fees through the NDN and lucrative business contracts. So they are not going to be dumping the US because they raised the issue of political prisoners, publicly or privately.

  • guest

    If the author had not been and
    continue to be affiliated with the U.S. Military and related security
    industry, I might agree about the ‘balanced-ness’ of this article.
    But as a reader I have my doubts and grave concerns when the U.S.
    Military tries to analyze foreign affairs by bashing human rights
    organizations in an attempt to support its own policy decisions in
    Central Asia. Human rights organizations are important because they
    act as a voice crying out in the wilderness — to try to shake our
    governments up out of the group-think mentality that by its very
    nature bureaucratic organizations trend toward. Government policy
    makers need to hear from those who see things from an alternate
    perspective in order to understand the scope and scale of the issues.
    I don’t think the U.S. Military is a reliable alternative. And if
    you question my questioning of the author’s bias– why bring up
    President Carter and the Olympics, without mentioning the failed
    military rescue of the Iranian held hostages as a reason for his
    failed second Presidency bid? The author has a good point;
    governments need to be pragmatic. But I’m not sure that it is in the
    Pentagon’s mandate to pay someone to tell me that.