Overlooking the bad things our pals do

Over at Slate, Josh Keating has a rundown of the Obama administration’s hilariously convoluted attempts to condemn Saudi Arabia’s mass execution of political prisoners without really condemning it:

Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, obviously and unfortunately, and no one seriously expects the U.S. to take major diplomatic action over this, but these circumlocutions are still pretty glaring given how profoundly unhelpful these executions were, particularly when it comes to the ongoing Syria peace talks, a major U.S. diplomatic initiative. The statements stand in stark contrast to the more forthright condemnations coming out of European governments as well as the off-the-record grumblings of U.S. officials.

Saudi Arabia is far from the only government whose dismal human rights record is tolerated by the U.S. government. But rarely is the contrast so glaring between what officials will say in private—whether discussing the instability caused by the devastating Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, or Saudi donors’ support for Sunni extremism—and how they talk and act in public.

Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said “we certainly would condemn any country that’s carrying out mass executions,” but refused to actually condemn this actual country that actually carried out an actual mass execution. We have no problem condemning the ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran in the starkest terms, but note the discrepancy:

Regarding the executions in Saudi Arabia, we continue to urge the Government of Saudi Arabia to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases. And we have expressed our particular concern over the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. We also condemn the attacks on Saudi diplomatic properties in Iran. We take attacks on diplomatic facilities, as you might imagine, very seriously. We note reports that some of the perpetrators of these attacks have been arrested, and we urge the Government of Iran to fully respect its international obligations to protect diplomatic property.

We have “expressed concern” about the execution, but we “condemn” the embassy attack. Condemning an attack on an embassy is fair enough; embassies are supposed to be protected, and Iran in particular seems to have a tough time protecting foreign embassies. But mass executions, and executions of political prisoners on the crime of speaking out against the state, are equally condemnable. If Iran were to execute someone unreasonably, we most certainly would condemn them for it, and I know this because we’ve actually done that before. The only thing that explains the difference in the response to these two events is that the country that carried out the mass execution is our pal and the country where the embassy was attacked isn’t, and that’s true no matter how many neocon columnists dutifully print up Saudi spin telling you otherwise.

But as Keating writes, the Saudis aren’t nearly the only regime whose human rights abuses we happily downplay in favor of other national interests. Take Malaysia, where human trafficking is a huge problem. Do we care? Yeah, sure, we care…but not enough to keep Malaysia out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In fact, the Obama administration wanted Malaysia in the TPP so badly that it cooked its annual human trafficking report last year in order to clear the way for Myanmar to be a part of the trade pact:

The State Department last year downgraded Malaysia in its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report to Tier 3, alongside North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe, citing “limited efforts to improve its flawed victim protection regime” and other problems.

But a congressional source with knowledge of the decision told Reuters the administration had approved the upgraded status. A second source familiar with the matter confirmed the decision.

Some U.S. lawmakers and human-rights advocates had expected Malaysia to remain on Tier 3 this year given its slow pace of convictions in human-trafficking cases and pervasive trafficking in industries such as electronics and palm oil.

If Malaysia had stayed on Tier 3, it would have been statutorily barred from the TPP, so you can see where this is going. Malaysia’s lack of trafficking progress was deemed good enough to get it bumped up to the “Tier 2 Watch List,” which coincidentally allows it to be part of the TPP although I’m sure those two things aren’t connected in any way.

Nobody really cares about human rights except insofar as it’s an issue you can beat up your enemies with. But I guess that’s not really news to anybody.

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