The Age of Imperviousness

A dangerous new crop of dictators is learning that they really can get away with murder. But it's as much Obama's fault as it is Putin's.


The problem of impunity — the difficulty of punishing powerful wrongdoers — has given birth to a new and potentially graver menace, the scourge of imperviousness. For years, advocates and activists have struggled against impunity, the lack of punishment for most of the worst human rights offenders. They decry the emboldening effect of this lack of sanction on other abusers, who dismiss international law and norms as toothless. But now, as Russian President Vladimir Putin muscles his way into Ukraine and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi commits travesties of justice, we see impunity feeding into something potentially worse: imperviousness.

While the label may be new, the behavior isn’t. Abusers who pay little or no mind to the outcry over their misdeeds have existed throughout human history. But they now seem to be emerging in places where, until recently, governments were more susceptible to shaming. Impunity is a problem of politics and structure, stemming from shortages of political will and weaknesses in national and international justice institutions. Imperviousness acts at a deeper, more subjective level. It is the judgment of heads of state that, when it comes to how they treat their people, what others think and say simply does not matter. 

Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, there have been outlier regimes galore that have not cared about international legal obligations or the stigma of noncompliance. These included closed countries like North Korea and Burma; the regimes of Ceausescu, Tito, and others of the communist bloc; Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile and his fellow South American dictators; Milosevic, Karadzic, and other Balkan tyrants; and African strongmen like Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Uganda’s Idi Amin.

In recent decades, though, their ranks thinned. In Eastern Europe and South America, authoritarians were replaced with mostly liberal, rights-respecting governments. Liberia and Rwanda left their dark histories behind to embrace democracy. Burma and Libya came out from under brutal dictatorships into fitful transitions. Pressure from foreign governments, human rights advocates, and above all these countries’ own citizens helped force reform. 

Over the same period, organizations like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House began publishing hard-hitting exposés on a wide array of rights violations. Human rights activists adopted sophisticated tactics to generate media attention for wrongdoing, squiring around New York Times reporters and CNN cameras in crisis zones to expose the worst; human rights activists helped feed momentum for eventual, though belated, action to stop slaughters in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Darfur. In each case local dissident movements and rights defenders drew strength from outside supporters who backed their brave battles for freedom.

For a while, it seemed as though imperviousness was in retreat. A growing numbers of countries wrote human rights obligations into their constitutions, and more than 100 created national human rights institutions to monitor progress. In 2008, the United Nations initiated a human rights review process that trained scrutiny on each member state in turn; every single government — including North Korea, Syria, and Iran — turned up with a delegation in Geneva to hear and respond to the criticisms. Even countries like China and Russia implemented modest, non-threatening improvements to local justice systems in order to have something to show when human rights monitors looked, even if only to deflect scrutiny from the lack of more fundamental reforms. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began to violently suppress dissent in 2011, some commentators hoped that heightened media scrutiny, as well as video and social media outcry, would temper the brutality, citing that the growth of such tools was a measure of progress since Assad’s father had quietly killed 30,000 civilians in the Hama massacre three decades earlier. 

But those hopes for Syria were dashed — imperviousness was back on the march. On the contrary, hashtags and viral videos have not given Assad a moment’s pause. And despite expectations that his Western-raised wife and his professional background in medicine might augur a degree of respect for international norms, Assad has proved to be among the most determined butchers of the 21st century. He has stalwartly resisted every form of pressure applied to date, and he is expected to be equally immune to an attempt by the U.N. Security Council to refer him for prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

Assad is hardly alone. Egypt has sentenced more than 500 supporters of the once-again-banned Muslim Brotherhood to death for the killing of a single police officer. Sisi’s interim government has jailed scores of journalists, including three reporters from Al Jazeera who have been brought to court repeatedly in metal cages for what is widely seen as a sham trial. In the latest twist, the court is trying to extort $150,000 from the men for the privilege of seeing the evidence against them. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Washington darling until recently, is in a no-holds-barred struggle to hold on to power amid a corruption scandal that has seen him try to ban YouTube and Twitter, while cravenly denying clear evidence that shows he, personally, bullied both the media and the judiciary. He has vowed to "sterilize" his opponents by "boil[ing] or moleculariz[ing]" them. Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, a country midwifed into existence by the United States, has now been accused by the United Nations of complicity in war crimes committed in the course of a bloody internecine conflict over the last five months. Larger trends reinforce the pattern of backsliding: Freedom House has seen an unprecedented eight-year trend in backsliding of global civil and political rights; Amnesty International has just reported that 30 years after the U.N. adopted its Convention Against Torture, 79 countries still engage in the banned practice, with the number increasing since the escalation of the global fight against terrorism. 

Each of these leaders is called out almost daily by some combination of the media, human rights groups, foreign governments, and international bodies. None of them seems to much care.

Imperviousness begets imperviousness. The role model for all these indifferent leaders is Putin, who has elevated imperviousness to international norms and outside criticism to a new level with his rigged elections, suppression of dissent, anti-gay legislation, and now the annexation of Crimea. Who knows what lies in wait for eastern Ukraine. His decision to release the jailed punk protesters of Pussy Riot and financier-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky right before the Sochi Winter Games was aimed to shore up his Olympics vanity project and nothing more. And let’s not forget that the invasion of Crimea was, in fact, planned in Sochi, while he was smiling for the cameras. He has brushed off the niceties of the international syst
em with the flick of a wrist; through his Security Council veto, he has made it safe for others to do the same. 

Still, the spread of imperviousness can’t all be blamed on Putin. In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama positioned himself as the antidote to the imperviousness of George W. Bush’s administration on issues like torture and indefinite detention. But Obama’s failure to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center, as he promised more than six years ago, and his claim of unilateral, unexplained authority for targeted killings via drone strikes have evinced a level of immunity to both domestic and international pressure — and sent a message that even those who claim to value strong international norms do so selectively, at best.

Obama is not deaf to outrage, and he has done far more to acknowledge and address shortcomings than those on the world’s most impervious list. Yet he will almost certainly leave office in 2017 with Guantánamo open for business and the U.S. drone program alive and well — and still shrouded in secrecy. Coupled with the revelations of National Security Agency surveillance, his continuation of these Bush administration anti-terrorism policies leaves the widespread impression of a United States that has lost the moral high ground. 

Imperviousness has also been fueled by the cramped and equivocal international responses to dramatic backsliding on human rights. Obama has rightly put a great premium on avoiding war, but by ruling out the threat of force in responses to grave human rights abuses, he may unwittingly contribute to the twin senses of impunity and imperviousness that foreign dictators evince. We’ll never know what would have happened had Obama gone through last summer with his threat to launch retaliatory strikes against Assad’s chemical weapons massacre, in defense of his self-proclaimed red line. Every scenario open to Obama was evil, the lesser and greater hard to discern. Yet limiting Assad’s punishment to the relinquishment of his chemical weapons stocks was like telling a convicted murderer that he must no longer own guns, but is otherwise a free man. True to form, Assad has at least partially surrendered his chemical stocks (though there is now evidence that he has violated at least the spirit if not the letter of the ban but continues to maraud and murder through conventional means). If front-page photos and televised images of rows of children’s bodies aren’t enough to elicit an international response that goes beyond words, rising imperviousness perhaps shouldn’t come as much surprise.

The same is true in Egypt. Policy analysts cite some sound reasons for Washington’s reluctance to turn its back on Cairo’s repressive military-led government, and they also point out that U.S. leverage is far less than it once was. Yet tepid pronouncements from the White House make clear that whatever influence the United States does have, it is reluctant to use that influence. From all appearances, Sisi may remain impervious for the foreseeable future. As far as Ukraine is concerned, Obama keeps repeating his vow against the use of force, as the United States and Europe haltingly add names one by one to their sanctions lists. Whether and when Obama and his allies in Brussels and Berlin are prepared to draw the line on Putin’s invasive poking near the borders of Europe has been left vague. 

Imperviousness is also fostered by the deepening disregard of governments outside Europe and North America for anything that smacks of Western interference. Egypt arrested and tried international NGO staffers for their work on democracy training and promotion. Turkey, resentful over the European Union’s ambivalence over its aspirations for membership, has lashed out against Brussels’s anodyne reaction to its corruption scandals. The Arab Spring, Ukraine’s Maidan protests, the International Criminal Court, the Syria uprising, and even the polio vaccine have all been denounced as Western plots. With the diminution of American moral authority, casting aspersions on U.S. motives is becoming a more popular sport.

There is no easy fix for imperviousness. There is some risk that traditional forms of pressure — public criticism and sanctions — only feed the image of courageous martyrdom cultivated by indifferent leaders. Iran’s leaders made a great show of denouncing the failed Green Revolution as the work of outside interferers, and Putin tried to do the same with the Maidan uprising. The most effective international shame is factual and hands-off yet translates into domestic mobilization. Yet U.S. sanctions and international criticism over the invasion of Crimea have sent Putin’s popularity at home soaring. Abetting the rise of homegrown democratic leaders has never been easy — and it’s getting harder, with the antenna for outside interference on high alert. 

Some regimes, like Iran and Sri Lanka, tend to write off Western views but are more susceptible to global pressure via the United Nations, a tactic the United States has tried with some success. Nascent civil society efforts are afoot in Brazil, South Africa, and elsewhere to get their governments to factor human rights into their foreign policies, potentially offering a source of pressure on the Putins of the world that is more credible and less easily dismissed than messages from Washington or Brussels. But for these efforts to have even a hope of working, they can’t become too closely associated with Western partners and funders. There is some chance that the economic consequences of pariah status (for example, plunging tourism revenues in Egypt) may gradually incentivize better behavior. There is also a chance that locally respected voices — those of writers, artists, and intellectuals — will make their voices heard in defense of rights and norms, galvanizing ordinary citizens and emboldening dissenters within impervious regimes.

The traditional medicines of human rights activism — exposés, media attention, and pressure from mostly credible Western governments — are falling short when it comes to some of the major challenges of the day. It is as if an expanding group of leaders has built up antibodies and these leaders can now resist where they would previously have succumbed. While it’s not time to give up on the traditional treatments, human rights defenders need to get into the lab quickly and develop some new tactics before the virus of imperviousness spreads even further.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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