T H E H Y P O C R
I S Y O F I T A L L
By Noam Chomsky
Bill Clinton's claim that "Human rights" has become "the soul of
ourforeign policy" is a transparent fraud, obviously designed to restorediscipline
and obedience after the Vietnam war, and accepted aslegitimate, indeed holy, by virtually
the entire Western intellectualclass.
The lead story in the New York Times, reporting Clinton's recent callfor China's
leaders to protect human rights, was headlined "PresidentTerms Certain Rights
'Universal'". The qualification 'certain rights' is accurate. The generally accepted
human rights standard is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UD), considered
'customary international law' in US Courts. But contrary to much rhetoric, the US takes a
highly relativist stand concerning the UD: even formally, it upholds only 'certain rights'
of those enumerated.
Specifically, the US regards the socio-economic rights of the UD ashaving no status.
They are, in the words of UN Ambassador JeanneKirkpatrick, "a letter to Santa
Claus": "Neither nature, experience, nor probability informs these lists of
'entitlements', which are subject to no constraints except those of the mind and appetite
of their authors."
For similar reasons, the US has rejected the UN Declaration on the Right to
Development, which upholds "the right of individuals, groups, and peoples to
participate in, contribute to, and enjoy continuous economic, social, cultural and
political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully
realised." These are not rights, Washington's ambassador informed the UN Commission
on Human Rights: the proposals "seem preposterous" and even "a dangerous
incitement." The US alone vetoed the Declaration, thus effectively rescinding Article
25 of the UD, which spells out these rights. And indeed, US practices are sharply
inconsistent with the socio-economic provisions of the UD.
In fact, the US officially exempts itself from all provisions of the UD by refusing to
sign the enabling conventions designed to implement these provisions. The Convention on
the Rights of the Child, for example, has been ratified by all countries apart from the US
and Somalia. What is more, the few conventions that have been ratified are deemed
inapplicable in the US. That is no small matter: Human Rights organisations have
repeatedly pointed out that US criminal justice and penal practices are in violation of
international conventions, as are many of its labour practices.
Unlike the case of the socio-economic provisions, the US claims touphold the civil and
political rights enumerated in the UD. But these are subject to certain unilateral
qualifications. In the US, the most famous of these provisions is Article 13(2), which
states that "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own."
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, this principle was invoked every year on Human
Rights Day (December 10), with demonstrations and indignant condemnations of the USSR for
its refusal to allow Jews to leave. Routinely omitted on these occasions, however, was the
phrase which follows: "and to return to his country."
The significance of the omitted words was spelled out on 11 December1948, the day after
the UD was ratified, when the General Assemblyunanimously passed Resolution 194, which
affirms the right of Palestinians to return to their homes or receive compensation if they
choose not to return.
Also omitted was the fact that those exhorting the Soviet tyrants toobserve Article
13(2) were its most dedicated opponents. This annual rite symbolises quite accurately
elite attitudes towards the universality of human rights: Rights are operative when the
powerful so declare, an elementary principle that is concealed with impressive displays of
hypocrisy and falsification.
It is to Clinton's credit that he removed the hypocrisy in thisparticular case. At the
December 1993 UN session, the Clintonadministration reversed official policy, joining with
Israel for the first time in opposing UN 194. As is the norm, there was no report or
comment. But at least the inconsistency is behind us: the first half of Article 13(2) has
lost its relevance, and Washington now officially rejects its second half.
The US also rejects Article 14 of the UD, which declares that "Everyone has the
right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." Again the
rationale of the US stance is easy to see. To mention only one case, for 20 years the US
has virtually blockaded Haiti, forcing fleeing refugees back to the hands of brutal
torturers and murderers, who were generally backed, openly or tacitly, by Washington.
Within the rich industrial societies themselves, human rights protection is generally
high by comparative standards. The more serious violations have to do with behaviour
beyond the borders. The most extreme are direct participation in horrendous atrocities,
and support for them: for example, Washington's Indochina wars, which left millions dead
and three countries in ruins, with thousands still dying every year from unexploded
ordnance and the effects of chemical warfare; or the US wars in Central America in the
'80s, which left hundreds of thousands of tortured and mutilated victims and millions of
refugees, widows, and orphans. In this case, the US dismissed with contempt the ruling of
the World Court ordering it to terminate its "unlawful use of force" and pay
substantial reparations to the victims.
According to Lars Schoultz, the leading academic specialist on the USand human rights
in Latin America, US aid "has tended to flowdisproportionately to Latin American
governments which torture theircitizens, [...] to the hemisphere's relatively egregious
violators offundamental human rights." The same pattern continues under Clinton: the
leading recipient of US military aid and training is Colombia, where the military and its
paramilitary associates are compiling a shocking human rights record, the worst in the
Further afield, the US (along with the UK and others) supported SaddamHussein with
enthusiasm throughout his worst atrocities, only turningagainst him when he disobeyed
orders -- and then supporting him again as he slaughtered rebelling Shi'ites immediately
after the Gulf War. In Indonesia, Suharto came to power in 1965 with the massacre of
hundreds of thousands of people, mostly landless peasants, a "staggering mass
slaughter" in the words of the New York Times, which went on to praise the
"moderates" who had brought about this "gleam of light in Asia", thus
joining in the applause that resounded across the political spectrum for the worst
massacre since the Holocaust.
Suharto proceeded to compile one of the world's worst human rightsrecords, invading and
illegally annexing East Timor while killing perhaps a quarter of its population, always
with strong Western support. Meanwhile the turned his rich country into a "paradise
for investors", who were hindered only by the rampant corruption and robbery of the
Suharto family and their associates. The Clinton administration hailed Suharto as
"our kind of guy" when he visited Washington. As in the case of Saddam, Mobutu,
Ceaucescu, Marcos, Duvalier, Somoza, Trujillo and a long list of other gangsters and
killers, Suharto lost favour in Washington only when he no longer performed his assigned
role, losing the capacity to control thepopulation.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. It makes good sense for people todemand and
struggle for the rights that are officially proclaimed, andtypically used by the powerful
as a weapon against others. They should do so, however, without illusions about power
systems and those who serve them.
* Professor Chomsky teaches at M.I.T. A documentary video titled "PROFESSOR NOAM
CHOMSKY: THE NEW WORLD ORDER; LATIN AMERICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST" is available. http://www.MiddleEast.Org/video1.htm