Abstract: Generally, human rights are claims made by disempowered social groups that those with power over them must do for them or must not do to them. As such, these rights can be universal. But so is the abuse of such rights because of the universality of power systems—all human societies, throughout history and across culture, have been under some form of governing entities that enjoyed and exerted power over those under their rule. Subsequently, no government can be beyond reproach when it comes to human rights abuse. Yet, when human rights abuses take place in Muslim-majority countries, Western governments impose sanctions and Western media provide extensive coverage of instances of abuse. But when similar or even more egregious or persistent human rights abuses take place in a Western country, Western governments and media outlets ignore the event or treated it like an isolated secondary event. What is behind the difference in reactions and what is the effect of ignoring human rights abuses when they happen in Western societies on human rights?
Event A: In the summer of 2022, a young Iranian woman was summoned to the police station to answer for the charge of violating some public dress code. Upon her arrival to the station, she was seen being berated by an officer. Security cameras showed the woman walk towards a chair and before sitting down, she collapsed to the ground. She was taken to the hospital where she was declared dead. Western governments called on UN to act against the Iranian government and they unilaterally imposed new sanctions on the government of Iran accusing it of human rights abuses. And for months since the incident, Western media saturated the airwaves and their Internet spaces with coverage of the event and the demonstrations and riots that ensued. It should be noted that the characterization of Western media action as “saturating” the space with negative coverage about the events in Iran is not a rhetorical estimation; it is a conclusion quantifiable by data about media coverage of major global events from a longitudinal studies spanning ten years monitoring more than 340 global media outlets through their online presence that I and teams of student researchers have been conducting since the start of the 2011 protest movement popularized in the West as the “Arab Spring”.
Event B: On the evening of Jan. 7, the Memphis police pulled over Tyre Nichols, a Black man, for no apparent reason. Memphis police chief, after looking into the matter, concluded that there was “no proof” Tyre Nichols should have been stopped for reckless driving. Chief Cerelyn Davis stated that the department has “taken a pretty extensive look to determine what that probable cause was, and we have not been able to substantiate that.” Nichols died in hospital on Jan. 10. Seventeen days later, on a Friday evening, the city of Memphis released video clips, which were edited by police before their release, depicting the violent beating of Tyre Nichols. Shocked by the horrific scenes, some demonstrations broke out in several US cities.
Speaking in the name of the US government, President Biden said, “Like so many, I was outraged and deeply pained to see the horrific video of the beating that resulted in Tyre Nichols’ death.” The president acknowledged that specific racial and ethnic groups, “Black and Brown Americans” experience “the profound fear and trauma, the pain, and the exhaustion” every single day. Despite this official acknowledgement no other Western government commented on this event, called for UN intervention, or imposed sanctions on US government until the killing of Black men at the hands of the police stops. From a point of view of human rights advocacy, one must ask, what is behind the double standard?
To answer this question, we must first understand what is meant by human rights.
In a very general sense, human rights refer to things that must be done for all people (providing basic needs) and things that should not be done to anyone (no torture, arbitrary killings…) by those with power over them. In this sense, governments are the only responsible entity for violating human rights, by action or enaction, of specific social groups. In these two specific cases, one could claim human rights abuses at the hands of both governments, but each has unique elements that produce different offenses.
In the case of women in Iran, one could claim that the government of Iran violates the rights of women by imposing on them, regardless of their cultural or religious identity, a dress code that is vague and arbitrary and that does not apply to all citizens in a way that recognizes their communal identity. In other words, the government of Iran is treating what could be a cultural matter as a security (police) issue. For instance, given that Iran is home to people of different sects, religions, ethnicities, and races, the imposition of one religious dress code on all necessarily violates the rights of non-Shia, non-Muslim, non-Persian citizens. Haranguing a human being in public for not wearing modest clothes is not a modest act; it is a coercive act that injures the dignity of human beings. This is a reasonable claim that can be derived from this event that led to the protest since there is no credible evidence of beating or abusing the woman who passed away in the hospital.
In the case of Black people in the US, one could claim that the US government violates the human rights of Black people through cultural, societal, and institutional systems that enable and empower law enforcement agencies to subject Black people, more so than any other social groups, to violent treatment that results in injury, incarceration, or death at rates that are measurably disproportionate when compared to the treatment of all other racial and ethnic groups. The fact that this is just one case of a Black man being beaten, injured, or killed by law enforcement agents out of many documented cases, and presumably many more cases that were not documented, for decades, show that this is a systemic problem that the State has failed to address.
The quick indictment of the five Black officers only (though white officers were involved too), the plastering on their images on every major news media outlet, and the release of the video on a Friday night all show the steps taken by officials to manage the crisis in order to minimize the fallout. Some commentators went as far as arguing that since all officers responsible for this crime are Black, racism cannot be a factor. These actions and assumptions are deceptive, shortsighted, misleading, and counterproductive. They may manage the crisis, but they will not solve the perennial problem.
Suggesting that a human rights offence carried out by Black individuals acting in their official capacity as agents of the State, which resulted in the death of a Black person, cannot be motivated or resulting from racism and supremacy is fundamentally a flawed argument. In fact, such an argument is in itself rooted in racism since it links racist impulses or lack thereof to specific racial groups. It suggests that only white people under all circumstances can be racist or something else and only Black people under all circumstances cannot be racist or something else.
This perverted proposition that ascribes certain attributes to specific social groups is so pervasive that it is in fact at the core of many of Western policies and affirmative actions that were designed to remediate the harms done to Black people. Most of these actions merely mandate that certain institutions, in this case the police, are staffed by more Black people with the assumption that the presence of Black people in systems initially designed and deployed by racist people will fix the problem—make them not racist or less racist.
Racism or supremacy is not a biological trait to which some specific racial or ethnic groups as susceptible to has no basis in facts and science. Racism is a point of view, an ideology that is acquired through systems of culture, education, and vocation. As such, anyone, irrespective of their individual ethnic or racial identity can subscribe to it and apply it in their daily life. Racism is the outcome of systems of culture, not predetermined by the systems of nature. In Western societies, racism may take the form of a belief in the idea of earned, deserved, or granted superiority rooted in identity. Such a superiority impulse can be rooted in race identity, but it can also be rooted in any other form social identity as long as it is enabled and realized through power and dominance embedded in ideological and institutional systems. With this definition of supremacy, it becomes easy to see the connection between racism and human rights abuses.
The fact that five Black officers violently attacked a Black man causing his death underscores the deep flaws in the assumptions guiding the approaches, procedures, and processes intended for addressing systemic racism. It is not persons who are racist, violent, and bigoted, it is the policing system—the system when it was first designed and deployed and the functions and purposes for which it was initially designed and deployed are all informed by supremacy and/or racism. No matter who staffs the system, be it individuals who are Black, Brown, or Woman, the system will always produce the outcome for which it was designed due to the cultural and institutional forces that informed it and shaped it over time. In the end, the police system in the US has been designed to impose order through violence, dominance, and power; and social groups that are most marginalized and disempowered become the primary target of abuse of power.
Understanding human rights in this context, whereby one places the burden on those in power to guarantee dignified treatment of disempowered social groups under their control, is the only meaningful and consequential way to promote human rights in the real world. Moreover, this framing of human rights helps to remove the most consequential threat to human rights: the instrumentalization of human rights.
The instrumentalization of human rights feeds the false and harmful narrative that suggests that there are some governments or forms of governments that protect and promote human rights, and that there are some governments or forms of governments that violate human rights. The narrative that are some societies that are by nature descent and respect human rights norms and other societies that are by their nature violent, and their culture is incompatible with human rights norms. A narrative that racializes human rights abuse—one that argues that Western liberal societies or non-Western societies that become Westernized are decent societies that respect human rights, and non-Western or non-Westernized liberal societies are not decent societies and cannot be trusted to promote and protect human rights.
The silence of Western governments on human rights abuses when they are perpetrated by Western governments, and the same governments’ use of human rights to coerce, threaten, sanction, and/or invade other countries devalues the idea of human rights, politicizes human rights norms, and degrades the protections of human rights culturally, socially, and legally. The instrumentalization of human rights is often, if not always, motivated, justified, or rooted in supremacy and racism, too. As demonstrated by comparing these two cases, the supremacy is never limited to a specific instance, a one-off event, within national border.
Within a couple of years from the day I arrived in the US in early 1990’s, the brutal beating of another Black man, Rodney King, at the hands of officers of and police department, LAPD, struck me as jarringly horrific given the manufactured image previously put in my head about the leading force behind the modern civilization—garden of peace and prosperity. Here we are, in the middle of the third decade of the 21st century, and Black men are still beaten and killed at the hands of the police. Yet, the information streaming out of Western media outlets and politicians’ mouths make it appear as if human rights abuses take place only in Muslim-majority countries and that Islamic culture is incompatible with human rights norms. A closer examination of these cases, however, reveals that, while governments in Muslim-majority countries do indeed abuse the rights of the people under their rule, the cruelty and magnitude of human rights abuses events in Western societies are greater and more persistent, yet they are portrayed as outliers, not outcomes of systems of discrimination, bigotry, and racism.
The Native Peoples of the Americas were wiped out because those who committed the genocide against them did not see them as full human beings. The colonial crimes against African peoples were justified as collateral damage resulting from the “virtuous” act of civilizing barbarians. When an Australian law maker wanted to reject a motion to acknowledge the crime of genocide against the Aboriginal peoples, he claimed that white civilized people could not have committed genocide. Throughout history, supremacists have committed human rights crimes motivated by their racism and now these powerful States are instrumentalizing human rights to continue their colonial and imperial subjugation of weaker, poorer communities. This is what distinguishes the global reaction to human rights abuses when they happen in Muslim-majority countries from the reaction to human rights abuses when they happen in Western countries.
Human rights are universal because human rights abuses are universal for every community is under the control of a governing power (the State). From these two cases, considering the difference in context and the severity of the human rights offense, the occurrence of the offense underscores the importance of the power analysis approach for understanding human rights. Indeed, both the government of Iran and the government of the United States created the systems and deployed them through the authority and power of the State to violate the rights of the people under their rule. Equally important, the power differential between States has been applied in ways that violate the rights of disempowered nations, too. In other words, and from a systems thinking perspective, the rights of the Muslim people in Iran become subjected to two-fold abuse—one internal and one external. In order to promote and appreciate the universality of human rights, one must consider and treat all governments—especially powerful ones, irrespective of their claims to being democratic, liberal, authoritarian, monarchical, Islamic, or whatever form of government they wish to portray themselves as, they all must be considered and treated as abusers or potential abusers of and perennial threat to human rights.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA, Ph.D., a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, and College of Law; authored many articles and books on the subjects of human rights, jurisprudence, political philosophy, and economics. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any oth