Amnesty International recently issued a travel advisory for the United States in an effort to call attention to the excessive gun violence there. An overly political move, according to critics. The human rights organization experienced quite a bit of backlash online. But even Hans van Soest, a columnist for the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, and Sven Koopmans, a member of the Dutch parliament representing the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, and also, incidentally, a former division head of Amnesty International, have argued that the organization has compromised its own authority with this action.
Apparently, some people previously considered Amnesty International to be apolitical, since it has primarily spoken out against dictators in other countries. Of course, these were mainly leaders of so-called banana republics. But when Amnesty International turned its attention to the U.S. and its trigger-happy citizens, and also criticized the burka ban in the Netherlands, some suggested that it had overstepped its bounds.
It appears that the controversy is not really about criticizing governments in general, but, more specifically, about which governments can be held accountable for human rights violations.
Human rights violations do not only occur during war, under dictatorships or due to acts of terrorism. Peaceful democracies can also violate human rights, for example, by increasingly limiting the rights of women and minorities, as is currently happening in the U.S. Furthermore, 40 people per day die from gun violence there, white nationalist terrorism is on the rise, and ordinary citizens can still easily purchase semi-automatic weapons because they are supposedly part of the national identity.
Even the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, alongside its more favorable travel information, has issued a warning about gun violence to Dutch citizens traveling in the U.S.
Defending human rights does not just mean lecturing people in the tropics or other countries in the southern hemisphere. There are also people living in Western countries who need to be protected against governments that are violating their rights.
With respect to the human rights violations occurring in the most powerful nation in the world, we can also look to activities beyond its own borders. The United States has waged wars from Afghanistan and Iraq to Sudan, Yugoslavia and Grenada, and has repeatedly violated basic human rights in the process. It is high time to hold the U.S. accountable for both domestic and foreign violations, and to take that seriously.
Looking at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it becomes clear that the right to housing, health care, liberty, security and privacy is violated more frequently in the West than we imagine or discuss.
Some consider Amnesty International’s recent action to be an example of left-wing politics. But ensuring that no country is immune from criticism is an issue that transcends political affiliations. Thus, I welcome holding a mirror up to the United States.
At the same time, Amnesty International continues its ongoing campaigns against global injustice. Among other things, these campaigns have contributed to eliminating the death penalty in 142 countries. The United States, however, is not among those countries.
America is the country in which I was born. It is the place where many of my family members found a home and freedom. But that does not render criticism of its human rights violations out of bounds. Those who are disturbed by criticism of the most powerful country in the world should ask themselves who or what they are defending: the people whose rights are being violated or the status quo.
Clarice Gargard is a radio and television producer, and a freelance journalist.