"Recovering Rights"

A Crooked Path

excerpted from the book

Rogue States

The Rule of Force in World Affairs

by Noam chomsky

South End Press, 2000, paper


New Rights?

... The UD broke new ground in significant respects. It enriched the realm of enunciated rights, and extended them to all persons. In a major law review essay on the 50th anniversary, Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon observes that the Declaration "is not just a 'universalization' of the traditional 18th-century 'rights of man,' but part of a new 'moment' in the history of human rights ... belong[ing] to the family of post-World War II rights instruments that attempted to graft social justice onto the trunk of the tree of liberty," specifically Articles 22-27, a "pillar" of the Declaration "which elevates to fundamental rights status several 'new' economic, social, and cultural rights." It is fair to regard the UD as another step towards "recovering rights" that had been lost to "conquest and tyranny," promising "a new era to the human race," to recall the hopes of Thomas Paine two centuries ago.

Glendon stresses further that the UD is a closely integrated document: there is no place for the "relativist" demand that certain rights be relegated to secondary status in light of "Asian values" or some other pretext.

The same conclusions are emphasized in the review of the human rights order issued by the United Nations on the 50th anniversary of the Charter, and in its contribution to the first World Conference on Human Rights at Vienna in June 1993. In his statement opening the conference, the secretary-general "stressed the importance of the question of interdependence of all human rights." Introducing the 50th-anniversary volume, he reports that the Vienna conference "emphasized that action for the promotion and protection of economic and social and cultural rights is as important as action for civil and political rights."

The Vatican took a similar stand in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the UD. In his 1999 New Year's Day message, Pope John Paul II denounced Marxism, Nazism, fascism, and, "no less pernicious," the ideology of "materialist consumption" in which "the negative aspects on others are considered completely irrelevant" and "nations and peoples" lose "the right to share in the decisions which often profoundly modify their way of life." Their hopes are "cruelly dashed" under market arrangements in which "political and financial power is concentrated," while financial markets fluctuate erratically and "elections can be manipulated." Guarantees for "the global common good and the exercise of economic and social rights" and "sustainable development of society" must I be the core element of "a new vision of global progress in solidarity."


Rights for Whom?

As widely noted, a major innovation of the UD [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] was the extension of rights to all persons, meaning persons of flesh and blood. The real world is crucially different. In the US, the term "person" is officially defined "to include any individual, branch, partnership, associated group, association, estate, trust, corporation or other organization (whether or not organized under the laws of any State), or any government entity." That concept of "person" would have shocked James Madison, Adam Smith, or others with intellectual roots in the Enlightenment and classical liberalism. But it prevails, giving a cast to the UD that is far from the intent of those who formulated and defend it.

Through radical judicial activism, the rights of persons have been granted to "collectivist legal entities," as some legal historians call them, and more narrowly, to their boards of directors, "a new 'absolutism' " bestowed by the courts. These newly created immortal persons, protected from scrutiny by the grant of personal rights, administer domestic and international markets through their internal operations, "strategic alliances" with alleged competitors, and other linkages. They demand and receive critical support from the powerful states over which they cast the "shadow" called "politics," to borrow John Dewey's aphorism, giving no little substance to the fears of James Madison 200 years ago that private powers might demolish the experiment in democratic government by becoming "at once its tools and its tyrants." While insisting on powerful states to serve as their tools, they naturally seek to restrict the public arena for others, the main tenet of "neoliberalism." The basic thesis was expressed well by David Rockefeller, commenting on the trend towards "lessen[ing] the role of government." This is "something business people tend to be in favor of," he remarked, "but the other side of that coin is that somebody has to take government's place, and business seems to me to be a logical entity to do it. I think that too many businesspeople simply haven't faced up to that, or they have said, 'It's somebody else's responsibility; it's not mine.'

Crucially, it is not the responsibility of the public. The great flaw of government is that it is to some degree accountable to the public, and offers some avenues for public participation. That defect is overcome when responsibility is transferred to the hands of immortal entities of enormous power, granted the rights of persons and able to plan and decide in insulation from the annoying public.

Current policy initiatives seek to extend the rights of "collectivist legal persons" far beyond those of persons of flesh and blood. These are central features of such trade treaties as NAFTA and the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI), the latter temporarily derailed by public pressure, but sure to be reconstituted in some less visible form. These agreements grant corporate tyrannies the rights of "national treatment" not enjoyed by persons in the traditional sense. General Motors can demand "national treatment" in Mexico, but Mexicans of flesh and blood will know better than to demand "national treatment" north of the border. Corporations can also (effectively) sue national states for "expropriation"-interpreted as failure to meet their demands for free access to resources and markets.

The Right to Information

The immortal collectivist persons are easily able to dominate information and doctrinal systems. Their wealth and power allow them to set the framework within which the political system functions, but these controls have become still more direct under recent Supreme Court rulings defining money as a form of speech. The 1998 election is an illustration. About 95 percent of winning candidates outspent their competitors. Business contributions exceeded those of labor by 12 to 1; individual contributions are sharply skewed. By such means, a tiny fraction of the population effectively selects candidates. These developments are surely not unrelated to the increasing cynicism about government and unwillingness even to vote. It should be noted that these consequences are fostered and welcomed by the immortal persons, their media, and their other agents, who have dedicated enormous efforts to instill the belief that the government is an enemy to be hated and feared, not a potential instrument of popular sovereignty.

The realization of the UD depends crucially on the rights articulated in Articles 19 and 21: to "receive and impart information and ideas through any media" and to take part in "genuine elections" that ensure that "the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government." The importance of restricting the rights of free speech and democratic participation has been well understood by the powerful. There is a rich history, but the problems gained heightened significance in this century as "the masses promised to become king," a dangerous tendency that could be reversed, it was argued, by new methods of propaganda that enable the "intelligent minorities ... to mold the mind of the masses, ... regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers." I happen to be quoting a founder of the modern public relations industry, the respected New Deal liberal Edward Bernays, but the perception is standard, and clearly articulated by leading progressive public intellectuals and academics, along with business leaders.

For such reasons, the media and educational systems are a constant terrain of struggle. It has long been recognized that state power is not the only form of interference with the fundamental right to "receive and impart information and ideas," and in the industrial democracies, it is far from the most important one-matters discussed by John Dewey and George Orwell, to mention two notable examples. In 1946, the prestigious Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press warned that "private agencies controlling the great mass media" constitute a fundamental threat to freedom of the press with their ability to impose "an environment of vested beliefs" and "bias as a commercial enterprise" under the influence of advertisers and owners. The European Commission of Human Rights has recognized "excessive concentration of the press" as an infringement of the rights guaranteed by Article 19, calling on states to prevent these abuses, a position recently endorsed by Human Rights Watch.

For the same reasons, the business world has sought to ensure that private agencies will control the media and thus be able to restrict thought to "vested beliefs." They seek further to "nullify the customs of ages" by creating "new conceptions of individual attainment and community desire," business leaders explain, "civilizing" people to perceive their needs in terms of consumption of goods rather than quality of life and work, and to abandon any thought of a "share in the decisions which often profoundly modify their way of life," as called for by Vatican extremists. Control of media by a few megacorporations is a contribution to this end. Concentration has accelerated, thanks in part to recent deregulation that also eliminates even residual protection of public interest

Rogue States

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