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January 1999 
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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 hemisphere.

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


 

 

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