Human Rights and the United States

by Noam Chomsky

Lies of Our Times Written June 18, 1993


"At Vienna Talks, U.S. Insists Rights Must be Universal." So reads the headline for Elaine Sciolino's front-page story on the forthright U.S. stand at the Vienna conference on Human Rights, where "the United States warned today that it would oppose any attempt to use religious and cultural traditions to weaken the concept of universal human rights" (NYT, June 15, 1993). The U.S. delegation was headed by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, "who promoted human rights as Deputy Secretary of State in the Carter Administration." A "key purpose" of his speech, "viewed as the Clinton Administration's first major policy statement on human rights," was "to defend the universality of human rights," rejecting the claims of those who plead "cultural relativism." Christopher said that "the worst violators are the world's aggressors and those who encourage the spread of arms," Sciolino reports, while stressing that "the universality of human rights set[s] a single standard of acceptable behavior around the world, a standard Washington would apply to all countries." In his own words, "The United States will never join those who would undermine the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights]" (Mary Curtius, Boston Globe, June 15).

The Declaration, endorsed with no dissent by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948, is generally recognized as customary international law, by U.S. courts in particular; the judgment in Filartiga v. Pena (1980) referred to "customary international law, as evidenced and defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" (Joseph Wronka, Human Rights and Social Policy in the 21st Century, University Press of America, 1992).

At last, Washington is taking a stand that we can be proud of. For once we can appreciate the chorus of self-acclaim that routinely follows the pronouncements of U.S. officials, and the bitter condemnation of the "dirty dozen," as U.S. diplomats refer to those who reject "elements of the Universal Declaration" that do not suit them (Curtius). Of the bad guys who hold "that human rights should be interpreted differently in regions with non-Western cultures," only one took the floor, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas (Sciolino).

The chorus of acclamation, however, gave little indication of the contents of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, apart from those Articles that the U.S. proclaimed sacred. Perhaps it is worth a further look on the principle, also grandly proclaimed in a Times headline, that "The Truth is Great, and Shall Prevail" -- referring to Soviet depravity, now at last exposed (NYT Book Review, March 21, 1993).

Article 14 states that "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution"; Haitians, for example, now locked into their prison of terror and torture by a U.S. blockade. As the Vienna conference ended, 87 Haitians crowded aboard a sailboat were intercepted 25 miles off Haiti's coast and returned to the terror, on grounds that they are fleeing poverty, not political persecution -- as determined by ESP (Reuters, "Haiti peasant group backs UN sanctions," Boston Globe, June 18, p. 68). Sciolino notes that "some human rights organizations have sharply criticized the Administration for failing to fulfill Mr. Clinton's campaign promises on human rights," the "most dramatic case" being "Washington's decision to forcibly return Haitian boat people seeking political asylum." More pertinently, the case illustrates Washington's reverence for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 25 states that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." It is superfluous to ask how the world's richest country, with unparalleled advantages, enforces this basic principle of the Declaration we revere.

For those familiar with Article 25, the celebration of our virtue might have been disrupted slightly by an item headlined "Tufts study finds 12 million children in US go hungry" (Judy Rakowsky, Boston Globe, June 16, p. 80, Food section). The study, conducted "Even before the economic doldrums of the past two years dragged more people into poverty," defined hunger "as not having enough money to buy adequately nutritious food to nourish the body and maintain growth and development in children." This leads to "impaired physical and mental growth, a lasting handicap," according to study director Larry Brown of the Tufts Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition, "which found a total of 30 million Americans are hungry" (pre-recession). "The nations with which we compete -- Germany and Japan -- are knocking our socks off by protecting their people," Brown added: "We have to end hunger for our nation's economy."

That a child's right to food has to be marketed in such terms speaks volumes about the values of the dominant culture, and about the sanctity of the Universal Declaration outside the ranks of the "dirty dozen."

Another item might also have marred the celebration. A June 15 Times headline reads: "43,412 Stricken Cubans, and Not a Single Answer." Buried within, we detect a possible answer. Reporting the decision of the Cuban government to distribute vitamins to the entire population so as "to increase resistance to the disease," correspondent Howard French comments on the "plummeting living standards in what had only recently been one of Latin America's healthiest and most affluent countries. Especially hard hit is the Cuban diet, [which] is limited by strict rationing" as a result of "the collapse of the Soviet bloc and a three-decade American embargo," recently extended by George Bush under pressure from candidate Clinton, then laying the groundwork for his "Administration, which has defined human rights as a focus of foreign policy" (Sciolino). In such ways we uphold Article 25.

To be sure, this is done in pursuit of our fervor for democracy, demonstrated by our treatment of Cuba until it fell out of our hands in 1959, to select an example at random. A commissar unwilling to fall back on this standard absurdity might, however, concede the Cuban exception to our dedication to human rights, accounting for it on the grounds explained by University of Chicago Iran scholar Marvin Zonis and banker Karim Pakravan, writing on Iran (Boston Globe, June 5): "Yet no country in the world, with the arguable exceptions of Cuba and Vietnam, has inflicted such powerful hurts on the United States as Iran," whose conservative parliamentary regime was overthrown in a successful CIA coup in 1953, installing a regime of torturers and killers that endured for a quarter of a century. Zonis and Pakravan forgot to mention Nicaragua, which also maliciously assaulted us, inflicting "psychological injuries." Poor little United States, beset by powerful enemies that afflict it mercilessly. Surely the "powerful hurts" we suffer should exempt us from the provisions of the Universal Declaration. What remedy do we have, in our impotence and vulnerability, but to launch economic warfare against those who "inflict such powerful hurts" upon us?

If there is, in human history, an episode that compares in vulgarity, cowardice, and deceit to the highly successful enterprise of turning our victims into our tormentors, I have not found it. The incessant whining about our sad fate at the hands of our Vietnamese oppressors, virtually exceptionless throughout the degrading POW farce, is an episode that truly defies commentary -- particularly when one recalls our own atrocious treatment of POWs in Vietnam, Korea, and the Pacific War, to mention only the most extreme cases of savagery.

Putting aside the terror and violence to which we have subjugated much of the Third World, and the malicious economic warfare that is a Washington specialty, a reporter lauding our dedication to the Universal Declaration might notice UNICEF's estimate that half a million children die every year as a direct result of the debt repayment on which we insist so that commercial banks will be compensated for their bad loans, with the additional help of the U.S. taxpayer; it is understood that U.S. enterprises are to be protected by state power from the ravages of the market, appropriate only for the weak.

The loans, granted to our favorite dictators and oligarchs so that they could purchase U.S. luxury goods and export capital to the West, are now the burden of the poor, who had nothing to do with them. Susan George estimates that debt service alone amounted to a capital flow of $418 billion from South to North from 1982-90, six times the value of Marshall Plan aid in today's dollars. This includes the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where starvation and misery is rampant in part thanks to the much-admired U.S. policy of "constructive engagement," which helped South Africa to cause 1.5 million killed and over $60 billion in damage in the neighboring countries in that period while maintaining its illegal hold on Namibia. To this figure we may add the eleven million children who die each year from easily treatable diseases, a "silent genocide," WHO director-general Hiroshi Nakajima observes, "a preventable tragedy because the developed world has the resources and technology to end common diseases worldwide" but lacks "the will to help the developing countries" -- the latter a euphemism for the countries colonized and controlled by the West.

When we denounce the crimes of Pol Pot, we rightly count the numbers who died as a result of his brutal policies, not merely the minority killed outright. Application of similar criteria to ourselves, were this imaginable, would yield an awesome figure. Recall the contents of Article 25, to which we are dedicated with such solemnity -- as distinct from the "dirty dozen."

Article 23 declares that "Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment," along with "equal pay for equal work" and "just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family and existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection." Again, we need not tarry on our devotion to this principle. Furthermore, "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."

These rights are indeed granted in the United States in the sense that no law explicitly denies them. Rather, social and political arrangements, some legal, some rooted in vast discrepancies of private power, prevent these rights from being exercised. Labor's political victories in the mid-30s sent a chill through the business community, which saw its dominance over social and political life threatened as the U.S. was dragged into the modern world. A strong counteroffensive, delayed briefly by the war, reversed these gains. By the 1980s, the US was well off the international spectrum once again, to the extent that the International Labor Organization, which rarely has an unkind word for its paymasters, took up an AFL-CIO complaint about the use of strikebreakers and recommended that the U.S. act to conform to international standards. Apart from South Africa, no other industrial country tolerates these methods to ensure that the Universal Declaration will remain empty words.

Firing of strikers is only a minor element of the array of devices that have been deployed to deny labor rights, a campaign in which the mass media have played a shameful role. The effects are vividly seen in North Carolina, which "boasts of having the lowest unionization rate in the country," Toronto Star reporter Linda Diebel observes in a study of "right-to-work laws" -- Newspeak for "effectively impossible to organize laws" -- and other measures to improve the investment climate (June 6, 1993). The issue is of great concern to Canada, which is watching jobs flee to southern states of the U.S. as wages are driven down by policies designed to convert the rich countries themselves into two-tiered societies on the Third World model, with islands of extreme wealth and privilege in a growing sea of misery. The average manufacturing wage in North Carolina is well below Canada's, Diebel reports, while "health and safety provisions are bare-bones and are under continuous assault."

Much like the Third World, North Carolina advertises "low taxes, lax regulations, minimal worker compensation and cheap, productive workers." In their anti-union passion, North Carolina business leaders campaigned to prevent United Aircraft from setting up a repair operation, because, as the Raleigh News & Observer reported, "the arrival of thousands of unionized workers would damage North Carolina's status as one of the nation's least unionized states and possibly blunt the state's efforts to attract other companies looking for low-cost labor." A union district manager observes that "It's very difficult to go on strike in North Carolina. You'd be better off in Eastern Europe. There is no protection for striking workers whatsoever."

So much for Article 23.

The U.S. and the West generally have forged a concept of human rights that dismisses the social and economic provisions of the Universal Declaration as mere rhetoric. Henry Shue observes that abstract liberal theory, which assumes the subsistence problem to have been met, excludes "no fewer" than 1 billion people -- actually far more (Basic Rights, 1980, p. 183). The "dirty dozen" make a different selection, and are justly condemned for denying the universality of certain rights. Given the overwhelming dominance of the West in every domain, including control over the norms of Political Correctness, the Western concept of "what counts" prevails. Representatives of Venezuela, not one of the "dirty dozen," observed that "the proposals tabled by the countries of the South, such as the right to development, the effects of the foreign debt, the war on poverty, child protection and the defense of indigenous communities, had provoked strong opposition from the North" (IPS, June 4, 1993), though they fall under the Universal Declaration.

The selective eye of the West picks out just those rights that benefit the rich and powerful: Freedom of speech is of great value to those who can use it to achieve their ends, confident that unwanted thought will be marginalized and the mass of the population left effectively voiceless. For similar reasons, the privileged insist upon political rights. The social and economic rights of the Universal Declaration are peripheral concerns for those whose wealth and privilege guarantees them these amenities, and who profit from the denial of the rights to others. Accordingly, the West adamantly rejects the universality of the Universal Declaration. For the poor and suffering, all of these rights are values to be treasured, but they scarcely enter the debate, or commentary on it.

These crucially important facts are not completely suppressed. Thus Sciolino notes that the Administration will "press for Senate ratification of four treaties -- to eliminate racial discrimination and discrimination against women, to protect the economic rights of the poor and to codify basic human rights and duties." The comment tacitly concedes that the U.S. does not observe the Universal Declaration. Note that mere ratification of treaties, even if achieved, would still fall short of the action required to ensure that "basic human rights" are protected, in accord with the Universal Declaration.

Adequate press coverage would have gone further, noting the repeated refusal of the United States to accept UN human rights covenants. Thus the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Political Rights, among others, was submitted to Congress for ratification with the express stipulation that it would be "non self-executing," that is, unenforceable in the U.S., so that ratification "would have only symbolic and not legal significance" (Wronka). The U.S. Senate made the same stipulation in considering the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, "in part so as not to invalidate the Supreme Court decision" that permits corporal punishment in schools (Wronka).

Let's have a further look at Warren Christopher, the gallant defender of the universality of human rights. Sciolino reports that he condemned "the world's aggressors and those who encourage the spread of arms." It is too much to ask an American intellectual to consider how Washington ranks among "the world's aggressors" -- say, in the period from the attack against South Vietnam over 30 years ago to Panama, in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But who is the world's leading arms merchant, by a huge margin? How can one write these words, without cringing?

And how can a reporter blandly refer to Christopher's work "promoting human rights" under the Carter Administration? Recall that Haitians were then fleeing from the terror of Washington's friend Baby Doc, hence unqualified for political asylum and barred from our shores, deported, and harshly treated (if they did not die at sea). Or recall 1978, when the spokesman for the "dirty dozen," Indonesia, was running out of arms in its attack against East Timor, then approaching truly genocidal levels -- so that the Carter Administration had to rush new armaments to its bloodthirsty friend. Or 1979, when the Administration sought desperately to keep Somoza's National Guard in power after it had slaughtered some 40,000 civilians, finally evacuating commanders in planes disguised with Red Cross markings (a war crime) and reconstituting them as a terrorist force on the border under the direction of Argentine neo-Nazis. Or take Iran, where the Administration sought to foist useless high-tech arms on another favored torturer, assuring the Shah that there would be "no linkage" between arms sales and human rights. Or Wilmington North Carolina, where prison terms of 282 years were imposed on Ben Chavis and other civil rights activists in a fraud that was an international scandal, but the Administration declared itself unable to utter a word.

Needless to say, we cannot dream of the day when someone in the media might discover the studies by Edward Herman and Latin American scholar Lars Schoultz that demonstrate the close correlation between U.S. aid and torture, running right through the Carter years, including military aid and independent of need, studies that would be pointless to undertake as Jeane Kirkpatrick, George Shultz, Elliott Abrams and the rest of that merry crew took the reins.

Is there no shame? None at all?

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