The Human Rights Charade

By Edward S. Herman

Z magazine, January 1998


Clinton administration officials and the mainstream U.S. media acted out a familiar charade during the recent visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, pretending a deep concern over Chinese human rights abuses, and implying that their continuation might damage U.S.-Chinese relationships. At the same time, however, officials and media also spoke of the need for "dialogue, " "mutual understanding," and a "constructive relationship," and they all took the position that human rights was only one of a number of issues at stake in this relationship. Kenneth Lieberthal, a professor of political science at Michigan, and consultant to the administration, stressed that "the relationship need not be hostage to domestic political pressures." He was not referring to domestic political pressures from business to ignore human rights; he meant pressures to sacrifice business in response to human rights claims. It is also notable that the only sanctions imposed on China so far have been for failure to open markets or adequately protect U. S. intellectual property rights.

For the establishment, human rights is a side issue that should not be allowed to affect the important considerations. The mainstream media rarely acknowledge this priority system in straightforward fashion; even more rarely do they suggest that decision-makers view human rights, first and foremost, as an annoyance and public relations problem; and they never suggest that human rights violations and violators might be viewed positively by U.S. business and political leaders.

The Business of America

The Chinese market is huge and its increasing openness to foreign business has caused a global "gold rush" from which U.S. business does not want to be excluded. A powerful business lobby has been organized here to fight for government support for entry into the Chinese market, and that lobby is extremely impatient with the claims of human rights proponents and their demands for bargaining in the interest of human rights. The members of this lobby, which includes Motorola, Boeing, Caterpillar, and several major oil companies, are important sources of election funding, and given the intense Clinton and Republican focus on fund raising, and the heavy weight the Clinton administration has given to expansion of trade and foreign investment in its economic program, that lobby's demands will be met, and human rights concerns will not be permitted to stand in the way of the important values at stake.

Because the Chinese recognize the dominance of economic interests over human rights values, they have even toyed with U. S. officials, and as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, "seemed to enjoy watching their partners twist in the wind." This was notable in the negotiations for renewal of China's Most Favored Nation status in June 1994, where the Clinton administration kept urging China to make a small move that could be cited (an "indication of direction"-as in the U.S. certification of El Salvador's human rights "improvements" in the 1980s, based on alleged small reductions in army and death squad murders) to justify serving the Administration's business constituency. The Chinese dragged their feet even on gestures. The media of course missed the hypocrisy and cynicism of this game. The business community and politicians have a rationale for doing little or nothing on behalf of human rights in a country like China-namely, that greater trade and investment will itself serve to democratize China. This is a wonderfully convenient argument, unproven, and somewhat illogical as greater trade and investment strengthens the existing political regime and gives it greater freedom of action. It is l also interesting that this argument is not applied to Cuba and Iran, nor to Nicaragua during the years of Sandinista rule-in those cases desired change was thought to follow from reducing trade and investment.

Why the Charade?

Why do Clinton and the media engage in the human rights charade? In part, because the public values human rights and the United States is supposed to be in favor of human rights and democracy, so that a show of concern by our leaders is required to demonstrate our high moral character.

This display of concern is not necessary if there is little public interest in or knowledge about the abusing country and its victims. Whether the public is informed on these matters is, of course, affected by what government, business, and the media choose to publicize, and these conjointly tend to play down abuses by regimes that serve U. S. business and strategic interests. They have successfully minimized publicity on human rights in most non-enemy states.

But publicity regarding China's human rights abuses got out of control-the Tiananmen Square massacre received intense coverage and has not been forgotten, and the occupation and abuse of Tibet, the sweatshops and prison labor, China's rapid imposition of features of authoritarian rule on Hong Kong, have all caused exceptional attention to Chinese human rights issues. Furthermore, China was long an enemy state-"Red China"-and much of the attention to its abuses has reflected the standard media practice of focusing on enemy villainy. Many conservatives and members of the media continue this focus in the mistaken belief that China is still a communist (rather than plain authoritarian) state.

The Double Standard

That the focus on Chinese human rights violations on the part of the U. S. politicos and mainstream media reflects exceptional circumstances rather than a devotion to human rights, is clearly evident in their disinterest in serious human rights violations by amenable clients. Take Saudi Arabia, a theocratic/authoritarian state that discriminates harshly against women, crushes any dissent by police force, has no free elections, and represents one variant of the dread "Islamic ideology" in official practice. However, this massive human rights violator allows privileged U.S. access to its oil and serves U.S. (oil company) interests well. The United States not only remains silent on Saudi human rights violations, it maintains thousands of military personnel in Saudi Arabia and actively supports and protects the regime. No fuss here about human rights, no problem of "clashing civilizations," and the mainstream media cooperate by ignoring Saudi abuses and failing to point out the hypocrisy of the official U.S. focus on Cuban electoral failings and simultaneous active help in sustaining authoritarian rule in Saudi Arabia.

The same point applies to Indonesia. For more than two decades it has been in violation of a UN ruling to get out of East Timor, and its ongoing abuses there and violations of human rights at home are severe. Its elections are controlled, free unions are not permitted, and there are still numerous prisoners incarcerated from the time of the coup and mass murders of 1965-66. However, this authoritarian state allows Western access to its oil, timber, and other resources, and has long been supported and protected by the United States and its allies. Thus, Suharto, whose killings of innocent civilians at home and in East Timor easily rivals or exceeds those of Pol Pot, is treated rather differently, as a "statesman" and "reformer," even if regrettably a bit old-fashioned in respect of democratic niceties. The West gives Indonesia large annual gifts, lends it huge sums of money, competes to provide it with arms, and is now bailing the dictatorship out with U.S. and IMF funds. When Suharto visited Washington in 1995, there were the public remarks about our deep human rights concerns, but the visit was cordial, and a senior Clinton official enthused that Suharto is "our kind of guy," and that here was a relationship that we would like to duplicate with China. That is, issue a few human rights words and gestures, but concentrate on hard business dealing unencumbered by "domestic political pressures." The media have played a critical role in containing domestic political pressures and preserving our cordial relationship with the Suharto regime. In 1979 the New York Times's coverage of the Indonesian invasion and holocaust in East Timor facilitated the human rights violations by misrepresentation and eye aversion. The newspaper swallowed the Indonesian official view that Indonesia was intervening in a civil war (that war was over before Indonesia invaded), and most important, as the massacres intensified the paper's coverage declined to zero in 1978. This is a microcosm of the overall media treatment of this approved human rights violator, continued to this very day, with underreporting of unpleasant facts, sufficient to keep public attention below the level that would have political consequences.

On September 19, 1997, the Indonesian security forces broke up a Congress of the Indonesian Welfare Trade Union, detaining eleven local labor activists, two Australian unionists, and two Dutch journalists. This brave union group, trying for years to organize, has been subjected to continuous police harassment, arrest, and violence. It has also tried to build international support for basic trade union and democratic rights, but the New York Times and other mainstream U.S. media failed to report this event, thereby helping prevent any global campaign from emerging and keeping Indonesian human rights issues out of sight.

Favoring Abusers

The mainstream media can hardly even perceive that official and business elites are not sincerely devoted to human rights; and the idea that they might positively favor human rights violations and violators is completely outside their frames of thought, by ideological premise. Yet they are occasionally puzzled by "investor" preference for authoritarian regimes. The most recent illustration is an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Free To Choose: Investors often pick authoritarian over democratic countries" (September 1S, 1997).

The mainstream media refuse either to look at the record or explore the dynamics of foreign investment and its political consequences. As to the record, the United States has given frequent and enthusiastic support to the overthrow of democracy in favor of "investor friendly" regimes, including Marcos's Philippines in 1972, Pinochet's Chile in 1973, and that of the Brazilian generals in 1964; and it has often shifted policy from the support of friendly fascists like the Somozas in Nicaragua and Ubico in Guatemala to hostility and active subversion of successor reformist or radical democrats like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Arevalo and Arbenz in Guatemala. The World Bank, IMF, and private banks have consistently lavished huge sums on terror regimes, following their displacement of democratic governments, and a number of quantitative studies have shown a systematic positive relationship between U.S. and IMF/World Bank aid to countries and their violations of human rights. The scholar Lars Schoultz, for example, concluded that the correlations between "United States aid to Latin American countries and human rights violations...are uniformly positive."

This makes complete sense if we recognize that U. S. business wants a "favorable climate of investment" abroad, and that military regimes that will crush labor unions and otherwise serve foreign business meet that demand. In my favorite classic, Business Week reported back in 1972 that dictator Ferdinand Marcos told one U.S. oilman: "We'll pass the laws you need-just tell us what you want." The magazine stated that "American businessmen have become increasingly sanguine about their future" in the Philippines. The point that the mainstream media can't face up to is that Marcos, Pinochet, and the Argentinian and Brazilian generals created a favorable climate of investment by massive human rights violations, and were therefore greatly appreciated and given enthusiastic support by U.S. businessmen and officials. Similarly, Mexico, Indonesia, and China today systematically attack attempts at independent labor organization, thereby helping provide a favorable climate of investment, and attracting U.S. business in good part for this reason.

But the establishment can't admit it is human rights violations that make the countries attractive to business-so history has to be fudged, including denial of our support of regimes of terror and the practices that provide favorable climates of investment, and our destabilization of democracies that didn't meet that standard of service to the transnational corporation (in the mythology, we destabilized because of the Red Menace, not the "threat of a good example").

Today, the actors on stage in the human rights charade, and their media flunkies, must pretend that we regret the repression of labor in Mexico, Indonesia, and China, as do our humanistic businesspeople rushing in to take advantage of repressed labor and the non-enforcement of environmental rules. Despite their actions and lobbying efforts, they are really devoted to human rights and are doing their bit by investing in sweatshops of human rights violators, bringing not only jobs but our democratic example to those benighted places, as we do in Saudi Arabia as well.

Human Rights, Justice, Reform