Double standards are nothing new in politics. The gap between rhetoric and actual practice is especially wide when it comes to lofty claims about human rights. US administrations, in particular, are frequently singled out for criticism of employing one standard for its rhetoric and another for its own practices.

Is such criticism fair or valid? A report issued last week by Human Rights Watch may help answer this question. Few governments invoke principles of human rights as much as the United States government does. By its own rhetoric, the US sets a higher standard for human rights compliance, which is logically used by its critics to evaluate its record.

At least since the Carter Administration, the US has employed human rights compliance or lack thereof as a key element in its foreign policy, or at least public pronouncements about its friends and adversaries, in varying degrees.

Nowadays, the US probably has the largest human rights section in its foreign affairs bureaucracy. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour is an important part of the State Department, headed these days by Michael Posner, a former human rights lawyer and head of Human Rights First, a well-known human rights organisation based in New York.

The division produces the controversial annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” which provides meticulous details about human rights infractions around the world, but nevertheless provokes criticism for using different standards for different countries.

However, the more important test for the US government’s human rights pretensions is in the actual practice of its own agencies. How does the US fare in actually living up to the high principles it advocates? Is there a double standard operating here, as is often claimed?

Human Rights Watch’s report issued on Jan 22 provides several facts that make reasonable people conclude that there may in fact be a double standard operating in more cases than can be explained by bureaucratic failures or cultural norms.

Consider these examples that the HRW report documents:

1. The US incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, sometimes imposing very long sentences marred by racial disparities.

2. Some 363,000 non-citizens are held in immigration detention facilities, although many are not dangerous or at risk of flight.

3. Detentions without charge at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

4. Seriously flawed military tribunals.

5. Blocking lawsuits seeking redress for torture victims.

6. 46 million people live in poverty in the US, the largest number in recent memory. Poverty often intersects with racial and gender inequalities.

Keep in mind that HRW, which has documented these infractions of the US’ own standards, is a moderate, middle of the road American organisation. If anything, it is accused sometimes of soft-peddling, not over-criticising, US human rights violations.

There is no question that US advocacy of human rights has been frequently quite useful for a variety of reasons, but its value would be greater if it had a better record of compliance.        –Arab News