Human Rights for Sale
Economic imperatives and the West's double standards
by Tokunbo Ojo
Toward Freedom magazine, August / September 2001
In the age of information and globalization, concern for human
rights has become a hot potato in the West. A generation ago,
people in the world's democratic nations seldom worried about
whether their fundamental human rights were protected. But as
globalization proceeds, serious questions are being asked.
For example, are the basic human rights of individuals or
entire populations really protected? And if so, who guards those
rights in a globalized world?
Further, are so-called written and unwritten fundamental rights
for real, or merely "a collection of pious phrases"?
That's how Andrei Vishinky described them when he represented
the Soviet Union during the 1948 debate over the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights (UDHR).
The signs aren't promising these days. In the quest for market
shares, many Western leaders, like their counterparts elsewhere
around the world, are willing to sacrifice the human rights of
citizens to advance trade.
In 1997, for example, Canada's federal government banned the
importation of a gasoline additive, MMT, which constituted a health
hazard. But the company involved, Ethyl, filed and won a lawsuit
against the government for breaching NAFTA provisions. This forced
Canada to repeal the law and pay Ethyl $13 million for lost profits
and legal costs. Unfortunately, that violated the right of Canadian
citizens to the social security promised in Article 22 of the
UDHR, as well as the health and well-being assurances of Article
In the West, many people consider the governments of China
and some African countries the greatest violators of human rights.
But in reality, Western governments don't perform much better.
A case in point: the increasing use of the death penalty in many
US states and renewed interest in the federal death penalty.
Both the Geneva Convention and UDHR forbid extra judicial
executions, torture, and cruel treatment. Yet, the US Central
Intelligence Agency is, at the very least, implicated in the assassinations
of several leaders- the Congo's Partrice Lumumba and Chile's Salvadore
Allende come to mind-as well in as a variety of bloody coups throughout
Latin America and Africa in which many civilians have been murdered.
Canada's hands aren't clean, either. When Talisman, a Canadian
company, was violating human rights in the Sudan - while a Canadian
representative served as president of the UN Security Council-both
the UN and Ottawa ignored the situation. Critics called the refusal
to sanction the company "a knife in the back" of suffering
Sudanese people. Talisman is a 25 percent partner in a large oil
project in Sudan with the state petroleum companies of China,
Indonesia, and Sudan. Ambassador John Harker's probe and report,
which was submitted to Canada's Foreign Affairs Ministry in February
2000, indicated that Talisman's oil operation is fueling Africa's
longest-running and bloodiest conflict in the following ways
* People are being displaced because of the Sudanese military
government's concerns about oil-field security;
* Oil development has intensified the fighting between government
troops and rebels in southern Sudan and among different southern
* Airstrips and roads built for oil development at the Heglig
oil fields are being used by the government for military operations.
"It is difficult to imagine a cease-fire while oil extraction
continues, and almost impossible to do so if revenues keep flowing"
to the Sudanese government, Harker wrote. Svend Robinson of the
Canada's New Democratic Party said the government was "shamefully
lining up with Talisman to put corporate profits ahead of the
human rights of the people of Sudan." J
Canada also turned a blind eye to the atrocities of DiamondWorks
in Sierra Leone. With the full of knowledge of France, Britain,
~ Canada, and the US, the Canadian diamond company stirred up
the civil war in Sierra Leone to enhance its access to diamonds.
That:: violated fundamental rights ranging from access to food
to life itself.
In the quest for markets, freedom of association is repressed
in many democratic societies. In 1993, for example, Canada's federal
government extended the public service wage freeze introduced
in the Public Sector Compensation Act of 1991, thus bypassing
the right to collective negotiation. The International Labor Organizations
Committee on Freedom of Association stated in April 1995 that
Canada was violating its obligation to protect freedom of association
and the right to organize.
Placing statutory limitations on collective bargaining is
becoming common practice, noted Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz
in "What Happened to Freedom of Association?," a 1995
article in Canada's Globe and Mail.
Only when situations don't favor them do Western governments
complain; when things go their way, they're apt to stay silent.
Since the US and its friends have developed closer economic ties
with China, for instance, they've been less eager to discuss the
human rights abuses that continue apace there.
To avoid criticism within the UN, noted a l998 article in
the pro-business Economist magazine, China "waged a concerted
diplomatic campaign in Europe and America, including tours by
Chinese leaders and quiet offers of trade deals, to dissuade countries
from voting for a resolution critical of it."
If human rights and humanitarian laws are to mean anything,
all states must develop the political will to incorporate principles
of international justice in their domestic laws, including the
right to judge war criminals and human rights violators in a tribunals
similar to the Nuremberg Tribunal. A clear collection also must
be drawn between economic and human rights.
With a deeper global commitment to human rights, the UDHR
may yet become what Eleanor Roosevelt wished it to be more than
a half-century ago-a "Magna Carta of all mankind."
Tokunbo Ojo is a freelance journalist from Montreal, Canada.