Traces of the link between foreign policy of major states and human rights could be found in the political history of Europe a few centuries ago. Yet, the nexus between these two subjects became prominent since the mid-seventies and the early eighties. The West, especially the United States of America and the United Kingdom, obviously led the campaign for greater human rights standards in the Third World countries or the South since this period. Forsythe (2002) confirms that human rights became a “fixture” on the US foreign policy and international agenda since the mid-1970s (p. 501). Robin Cook (2002), former Member of Parliament of the United Kingdom, in a commentary claimed that “on taking office as Foreign Secretary in 1977, I placed the promotion and protection of human rights at the heart of the new Labor government’s foreign policy” (p. 45). Other European countries also currently pay particular attention to human rights and have incorporated ideals of human rights into their domestic policies as well as their relations with other countries.
President Jimmy Carter was instrumental in turning the US foreign policy firmly towards human rights and democracy in what the North considers problematic areas. As pointed out by Schmitz and Walker (2004), “from the first day of his presidency, Jimmy Carter set out to fundamentally alter the direction of American foreign policy. Coming to office in the wake of the disillusionment brought about by the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (Church Committee) revelations on Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covert activities abroad, Carter promised a new direction to American foreign policy by shaping it around the principles of human rights and nonintervention” (p. 113). In 1977 the Carter administration developed a comprehensive policy framework that made human rights the central component of the American foreign policy (Schmitz and Walker 2004). Yet, even Carter could not promote human rights at the expense of national interest and his own political survival. It is imperative to note that Carter’s foreign policy was criticized especially in the United States as weak and naïve. Implying that security and national interest are fundamental, Carter in 1977 declared that “human rights cannot be the only goal of our foreign policy, not in a world in which peace is literally a matter of survival” (Quoted in Forsythe 1980, 38).
This however, did not mean that America gave up on its human rights centered foreign policy entirely, as it is one of the corner stones of American foreign policy now (Forsythe 2002). A firm commitment however to what is generally called the “ethical foreign policy” is missing. It is pointed out that “while the United States has long embraced human rights and democracy as ideological values, in times of conflict such values may be eclipsed by the demand of security” (Blanton 2005, 649). For example, “the Carter administration has directed more diplomacy to criticizing the Soviet violations of human rights than the Chinese violations” because “the United States had important security interests with the Soviet (Union)…and far more economic interests in Russia than in China” during the Cold War (Forsythe 1980, 43). During the Cold War the United States also extended military and financial support, which also included transfer of weapons to regimes with questionable human rights records and authoritarian tendencies if they were useful instruments to counter security threat from the Soviet Union (Blanton 2005). Nevertheless, human rights slogans were also used against the Soviet Union as a useful tool. The Western powers “saw human rights issues as a stick with which to beat the Soviet Union to lessen its appeal to their own citizens and thus curb its influence. Like all Wars of attrition, superpower competition during the Cold War was based not only on establishing military, economic, territorial and political supremacy over the enemy but was also delegitimizing the adversary’s political system by assuming the moral high ground” (Pedaliu 2007, 186).
Many of the European states have also committed to better human rights standards around the world and inclined to use human rights as a foreign policy tool. Member states of the European Community, through the Copenhagen Declaration proclaimed their determination to “defend” the principles of representative democracy, rule of law, social justice and human rights (King 1999). It is generally believed that the European countries are more proactive and genuine in terms of ensuring a vibrant HR culture in the South, compared to for example, the United States. However, even these countries could not delink human rights concerns from their own national interest considerations. For example, European commitment to human rights came under severe threat during the political troubles in Greece in the late 1960s. A military junta came to power through a coup and relied on repression to stay in power. Commentators pointed out that the “Western European Governments uncomfortably and silently acknowledged that the Cold War and the stability of the South-Eastern flank of NATO had to take precedence over the violation of the democratic process in Greece and decided to treat the whole messy situation as an internal matter” (Pedaliu 2007, 189).
The United Kingdom, another European human rights champion of the Third World countries, could not or was not willing to criticize some of its allies. Evan Luard, a former Member of Parliament from Oxford who served as a junior minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, believed that the Labor Government which espoused active human rights promotion “found that Britain’s close economic investments with South Africa sometimes constrained it to be cautious towards proposals for international action against that country which might involve economic sanctions” (Luard 1980, 581). Pointing to the ambiguity of human rights policies of European states, Forsythe (2002) argues that France, “while presenting itself to the world as a champion of The Rights of Man and submitting its own policies to the review of the European Court on Human Rights, has compiled a rather lengthy record of support for dictatorship in Africa” (p. 501).
Australia, another member of the Global North, hardly defended human rights in the South largely due to its location in the South and the realities created by geopolitics. Summing up Australia’s commitment to human rights internationally, Saul (2011) contends “unlike that of its close ally, the United States, Australian foreign policy since 1945 has never been animated by an equivalent sense of civilizing moral mission and ideological purpose in the area of human rights” (p. 423). For example, Australia recognized the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, adopted unreserved friendly relations with Israel despite its problematic conduct in the occupied territories of Palestine, and desisted from criticizing China. Australia is keen to preserve cordial relations and a partnership with China despite its questionable human rights record due to China’s strategic and economic significance (Mackerras 2000). Another example is Australia’s relations with Myanmar. According to McGregore (2005), Australian “governments refrained from publicly criticizing Burma, for example on being governed by an unelected military regime, on the large number of political prisoners, media censorship or the ongoing violent civil wars with ethnic minorities” (p. 199). Even on the allegations of human rights violation during the last phase of the war in Sri Lanka, Australia opposed an international investigation against Sri Lanka due to its need to prevent what is generally termed the “boat people”, some of whom were ethnic Tamil, reaching Australia from Sri Lanka.
Hence, a cursory look at the literature on the linkage between foreign policies of the states of the North and human rights leads us to conclude that (1) there exists an ethically and morally based concern about the state of human rights in the less developed world among most of the Western world, and (2) action on this issue almost always has been linked to their national security and interest. This linkage has three dimensions: (1) at times, human rights were used as a weapon against enemy or unfriendly states in order to achieve national interest of the states of the North, (2) states of the North resisted the temptation to condemn and or criticize human rights violations in the South when they had the potential to impede their national interest, and (3) human rights slogans turn louder when the impact on their national interest is absent or milder. Currently, the United States is using HR as a tool against Sri Lanka in order to achieve its strategic interests in the South Asian and the Indian Ocean regions, while, at the secondary level, trying to promote international peace and order and the socio-political wellbeing of the minority communities in this country.