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
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
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
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
Is there no shame? None at all?