Higher standards?

As always with Timoth Garton Ash’s pieces (see below) there is much to agree with but always a couple of items you want to challenge. So without taking anything away from agreement with the main thrust of his argument on arms to China, just a couple of points I want to dissent from and highlight which, although incidental to his main argument, are important issues.

Talking of human rights abuses, he says: The US, claiming to be a beacon of freedom to the world, deserves to be judged by a higher standard.

I can’t agree with that because I reject the notion implicit in this statement that there should be higher standards for the US (or anyone else for that matter). Logically, if we accept that there are higher standards, then there must also be lower standards which we apply to other countries?

Haven’t we had enough of these higher and lower standards on human rights, a notion which is rooted in the cold war with the tolerance of ‘friendly’ dictatorships from the right and a tolerance of ‘objectively anti-imperialist’ dictatorships from the left but which now finds its expression in a cultural relativism found on both sides of the political spectrum?

We can hold the United States to account on human rights issues without presenting a sliding scale and letting others off the hook.

The second point:

Europeans claim moral superiority over Bush’s America on the grounds that we always favour the peaceful resolution of conflicts and respect for human rights.

Let’s leave aside Garton Ash’s claim to speak for Europe but ask ourselves whether that is an accurate statement of the status quo and whether that should be Europe’s position.

Does Europe always favour the peaceful resolution of conflicts? One could certainly say that the EU has a bias towards such a position but on occassion EU states and even the EU collectively has broken from the notion of never using force. The reluctance to use force allowed the Balkan wars to rumble on for years with catastrophic results for the human rights Europe supposedly always respects. In the end even Germany recognised the need to use military means to put an end to the seige of Sarajevo and later Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. There was also widespread support in the EU for using armed force to destroy Bin Laden’s base in Afghanistan and sweep the Taliban from the power. Less so on Iraq but even that controversial war had the support of many Europeans and several EU member states.

I’d say it is more accurate to say that Europe generally prefers peaceful resolution of conflict. Better that than a dogma which would rule out intervention in, say, Sudan, because we are tied to a notion of peaceful resolution. As the EU belatedly learnt with the former Yugoslavia, there is sometimes a conflict between always favouring respect for human rights and always favouring peace.