Aug 27, 2014

    'Fergusonstan' offers lesson in humility for America

    FOR most of the post-World War II era, the United States has placed the goal of spreading liberal democratic values at the top of its foreign policy agenda.

    Republican and Democratic administrations have invested billions of dollars - and in some cases resorted to the use of military power - to challenge dictatorships and promote democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

    In fact, there are several US government agencies, like the National Endowment for Democracy, whose sole job is to support democratic institutions in other countries.

    More recently, US officials and lawmakers have blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was elected to office through open and democratic elections, for alleged human rights violations, not to mention similar criticism directed against governments in Asia, like China and Myanmar, and in the Middle East, where the Egyptian military that had ousted an elected Islamist from power has been a major target for American censure, and has been punished with sanctions.

    So you probably could imagine the smirk on the face of Egypt's foreign minister when his office issued a statement last week calling on the US to "show restraint" in its reaction to protests in Missouri.

    The US should deal with the protests in the city of Ferguson in accordance with US and international standards, insisted Egyptian officials, expressing "hope" that investigations would reveal the truth about "Mike Brown's murder", referring to the black teenager whose killing by a white police officer on Aug 18 triggered the protests.

    The Egyptian officials were borrowing the same terms that American officials have used to describe and criticise the treatment of demonstrators by Egypt.

    Other governments that have faced American criticism of their human rights conduct have joined Egypt in condemning the sometimes harsh treatment of the protesters in Ferguson by the police.

    That the drama in Missouri had a political dimension - African-Americans accusing the white-dominated police of racism - has played into the hands of the autocrats and dictators around the world who were trying to portray the Americans as hypocrites, since they were supposedly behaving like the, say, Egyptian police.

    Some critics even used the term "Fergusonstan" to convey the idea that what happened in Ferguson recalled the violence taking place in the "stans" of South and Central Asia.

    But comparing the way the security forces of Egypt, Myanmar or Tajikistan have treated protesters to police behaviour in Ferguson is like comparing the effects of Ebola to that of the flu.

    A report released by Human Rights Watch accused Egyptian security forces of systematically and deliberately killing protesters at a sit-in in Cairo last year.

    Indeed, at least 1,000 supporters of the former president, Mohamed Morsi, were killed in the clashes.

    And the Egyptian regime which came into power through a military coup has announced that it was outlawing any form of public protest.

    What happened in Ferguson did receive a lot of media attention, and has ignited public criticism of the police behaviour and a swift response by the Obama administration.

    Police brutality, including the occasional killing of innocent civilians, is not a new phenomenon in the US and other liberal-democratic societies.

    If anything, there has been a steep decline in police misconduct in recent years.

    But at the same time, there is no doubt that the clashes between the police and civilians in Ferguson, especially with their racial undertones, erode the high moral authority that the US has projected, as its government claimed that other governments are mistreating their citizens and needed to follow the American lead.

    Or as Amnesty International tweeted last week, the "US can't tell other countries to improve their records on policing and peaceful assembly if it won't clear up its own human rights record".

    And the foreign ministry in Russia - a country that is committed to basic democratic principles while not adhering to American standards when it comes to such issues as freedom of the press and gay rights - did make a good point when it issued a statement calling on "our American partners to pay more attention to restoring order in their own country before imposing their dubious experience on other nations".

    Indeed, Americans who are rightly proud about their protection of liberty and individual rights, need to recognise that their own history - in particular, the depressing chapter on race relations - demonstrates that each country does not have to become a carbon copy of the American political model.

    After all, the US model itself remains a work in progress.