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Human Rights: A Price
We're Willing To Pay

by Steve Vivian

art/Marty Kelley

December 10, 1998 marked the 50th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It's recognized as the worldwide standard by which nations and the World Court measure human rights abuses. The Declaration, or U.D. for short, is especially significant for the United States. The U.S. claims to tie its foreign policy to respect for human rights, as enshrined in the U.D, and it does, to varying degrees, criticize nations for human rights violations.

For instance, the U.S. does occasionally criticize, rather mildly, China's human rights track record. Chinese authorities cleverly resort to the clichés of multiculturalism, claiming that the diversity of world cultures means there is no universal standard of human rights. This is convenient double-talk for tyrants who crush students in public squares and torture democracy advocates.

After spouting its "diversity" defense, China goes back to business as usual: torture, slave labor, persecution.

And after chiding China, the U.S. goes back to business as usual: making the Third World safe for Wall Street.

An especially topical example: Iraq, where the United Nations--driven by U.S. clout--has opened a branch office of Hell. The Iraq sanctions are the most restrictive against a single nation in UN history. Actually, "restrictive" is inaccurate--"brutal" or "cruel" are more honest. But in the New World Order, the UN is often no more than a military and/or political organ of U.S. policy. Saddam Hussein is, it must be stressed, a genuine gangster. He is an expert at torture, terror, gassing, mass execution, etc. However, even the most indoctrinated sanction supporter must see that the sanctions are an indefensible failure.

The UN sanctions have caused the death of more than a million Iraqis. More than half are children. By 1996, Iraqi kids under five were dying at the rate of 4,500 a month, typically from malnutrition. About one and a half million kids in Iraq are orphans. One needs little imagination to calculate their fate. In addition, a majority of pregnant Iraqi women--probably upwards of 75 percent--have anemia. Most of the children born to these women will, of course, die before the age of five. Contrast these grim facts with the U.D.'s Article 25, section 2:

"Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance."

In its touching benevolence, the United States says that UN sanctions provide an "oil for food" deal: Iraq can sell oil to buy food, medicine, and other basics. Looking past this benevolence to the details, we learn that U.N. Resolution 986 provides less than 25 cents a day for each person's total food and medical needs.

Responding to this human rights catastrophe, our leaders show remarkable principle. In a 1996 60 Minutes interview, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked about dying Iraqi children. "Well, this is a price that we feel that we are willing to pay," she answered.

How very generous of her.

President Clinton's human rights track record is what you'd expect: Slick. Clinton talks a good human rights game, but talk is cheap. At this moment, as the U.N. discusses easing the stranglehold on Iraq, the administration drags its feet.

Clinton's hypocrisy in human rights stretches back to 1992. Running against President George Bush, Clinton correctly attacked Bush for "coddling dictators" in China. Once in office, however, Clinton became an expert coddler in his own right. On December 9, 1996--one day prior to the U.D.'s anniversary date of December 10--Clinton enjoyed breakfast with General Chi Haotian, the Chinese minister of defense, whose quaint nickname is "The Butcher of Beijing." Chi was a major player in the Tianamen Square carnage. The very next day, on the anniversary of the U.D., Clinton praised the United States' "global leadership on behalf of human rights and democracy" (Chicago Tribune, Dec. 11, 1998, p. 32, sec. 1). Even for Clinton, such hypocrisy is extraordinary. At the behest of corporate America, he spends quality time with a mass murderer.

Clinton's hypocrisy keeps him company overseas too, which makes for especially idiotic diplomacy. During last year's African visit, he apologized for U.S. slavery while in Uganda. The "apology" was confused and phony. Uganda is far east, on the other side of the continent from West Africa's slave coast (where Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria meet the Gulf of Guinea). It is highly improbable that a single Ugandan slave was ever brought to the United States. Simultaneously, Clinton skillfully overlooked present-day slavery in Nigeria, where thousands of children are bought and sold. His blind spot extended to Mauritania, where about 30,000 humans were trapped in slavery even as Clinton toured the continent.

Article 3 of the U.D. asserts, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." Article 4 of the U.D. asserts, "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."

In the view of Clinton--and of the U.S. civil rights establishment generally--the Nigerian and Mauritanian slaves are unworthy victims. They don't help the U.S. or its leaders score economic or political points, so they aren't worth helping.

The largest cause of U.S. betrayal of human rights is corporate profits. The U.S. doesnąt desire its clients to practice brutalities; however, the urgency to crack open markets, protect energy sources, and exploit dirt-cheap labor overpowers other considerations. Cheap labor is unorganized, harshly exploited, and often frightened. The link between corporate profits and exploited labor is obvious and requires no analysis here. Too many leaders in Freedom's Land are determined to keep exploiting the Third World for cheap labor and enormous natural resources. And plenty of Third World thugs are eager to assist at the local level. For example, Aetna Life and Casualty now sells insurance in China, and Atlantic Richfield Co. expanded its $1 billion investment by signing a deal with China's National Offshore Oil Corporation. Ford has a deal to build 150,000 cars and 60,000 vans in China, and even threw in valuable technological data as part of the sweetheart deal. With a knowing wink from Slick Willie, U.S. business will continue to form "partnerships" with mass murderers: China's market of 1.2 billion citizens (and growing!) fills corporate America with lusty glee.

The exploitation is developed at the highest levels, as the U.S.' business clients create highly advantageous trade agreements such as NAFTA, GATT, and MAI. These agreements are deliberately mischaracterized as "free trade" agreements for "open markets." However, multinationals don't want free trade and open markets; they want trade deals grossly tilted in their favor, and they want protected, not free, markets. The most powerful corporations have the clout to get these protections (weak labor, patent protections, etc.), and so these trade agreements are hammered out "by the lawyers and businessmen who plan to benefit ... invariably, the thing missing is the public voice" (Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1998, p. 22 sec. 1).

The link between grim global capitalism and human rights abuses is clear to all but the indoctrinated. That's why the "lawyers and businessmen who plan to benefit" from these plans prefer to negotiate quietly, away from public scrutiny, secure in the knowledge that most Americans are rendered too brain-dead by our amusement culture--cable TV, malls--to pay serious attention.

The lawyers and businessmen are partially correct. Too many Americans couldn't care less about contemporary torture, slavery, land rape, etc. But a lot of Americans do care. And fortunately, Americans are much freer than citizens in just about any other nation. We can openly discuss human rights abuses, and we can even openly ridicule our nation's leaders without fear of political reprisal or worse--a freedom brutally denied most in Africa, China, Central and South America, and the Middle East. It's a freedom we should not only value; it's a freedom we should put to practical use.

The citizens of the Third World need our sympathy, but, of course, it takes more than correct feelings to improve the world: it takes practical action. Contrary to Madeline Albright, we can insist that murdering children is not a price we are willing to pay. All humans--even Iraqi children, whom the U.S. finds literally expendable--merit the protections of basic human rights.

The practical action you take is entirely your choice. One can begin by simply sharing this article with a friend. The web links below belong to organizations that offer more information and suggestions for practical action. The organizations appreciate any labor or money one can direct their way. In short, any step that helps implement the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a step toward saving a fellow human from a Hell on earth. •

Human Rights Resources:

  • The American Anti-Slavery Group is our nation's only organization dedicated solely to abolishing current-day slavery.
  • The Burma Project provides information on development and political activity in Burma, one of the world's most oppressed nations.
  • Corporate Watch gathers information from around the world about corporate wrongs, including the frequent link between "investment" and human rights abuses.
  • The United Nationshomepage offers plenty of information about human rights worldwide, and you can find the entire text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Labor Notes analyzes economic and social trends from a labor perspective.
  • Middle East Report offers timely information on economic, political and human rights issues in the Middle East.

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