December 20, 1998
Every time I hear “human rights” I wince. Of all the catch-phrases that clutter our language, it’s perhaps the most abused. It’s a pat little phrase that engenders sympathy more than understanding, and for that reason it is harmful. People can profess support for its noble precepts, yet succumb to the most egregious woolly headedness.
This is especially true of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Commentaries on its 50th anniversary elicited the standard mix of praise (for its very existence) and regret (at continuing abuses of said rights), but none addressed the real reason for this chequered legacy. For all of its noble promise, the declaration is a feel-good mission statement that exists only on paper.
In his Dec. 10 column, the Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee overstated the declaration’s virtue and competence, and consequently made generalizations that don’t stand up to scrutiny. “Beyond the pious speeches and manufactured celebrations,” he wrote, “something quite marvellous is happening: the birth of a global human rights culture.”
While reading Gee’s column you become acutely aware of the moral blinkers that liberal-internationalist cheerleaders wear when they moralize about other countries’ problems.
The first blind spot is his selective use of examples. The extradition hearing of Gen. Pinochet, and the attempt by Haitians to procure the arrest of Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier are undoubtedly positive, but so what? These are safe examples of redress against despicable men who led repressive regimes. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the declaration. These events might have happened anyway; after all, international ethics wasn’t invented out of a puff of smoke on Dec. 10, 1948.
One could argue that the declaration made them possible, but Gee doesn’t build a good enough case. Instead, he makes the common error of equating human rights with democracy: “Since the end of the Cold War, things have been looking up. The United States, the only remaining superpower, has started leaning on its former clients to behave more decently.” How thoughtful.
This statement reminds me of Lenin’s bald assertion that imperialism is a problem unique to capitalist countries. Socialist countries, because they are the champions of workers everywhere, would never do such a thing. For Gee, human rights is a problem that afflicts countries like Iran, Malaysia and Vietnam, which are not bastions of democracy like the good ol’ U.S. of A.
Ironically, Gee’s column endorses human rights abuses precisely because he exempts the U.S. from the standards he feels free to apply to other countries. One look at America’s renewed bombing of Iraq—to say nothing of its repeated interventions in Southeast Asia, Central America and elsewhere—is enough to undermine Gee’s argument.
The U.S.-led military bombardment and refusal to lift crippling economic sanctions (lapdog countries Great Britain and Canada need not be mentioned) amount to collective punishment against a civilian population for the actions of a government. Furthermore, the U.S. has not promised to lift sanctions if and when the UN inspection team finishes its work.
The campaign to beggar Iraq is being perpetuated for its own sake and has become de facto U.S. policy, which has led to the following perversity. Voices in the Wilderness, a U.S. human rights organization, is being fined $120,000—individual members $10,000 to $20,000—for violating the economic embargo against Iraq. The crime? Sending donated goods, including medical supplies and toys.
In a public appeal for support, spokesman Jeff Guntzel wrote: “The U.S. government tells us that we have engaged in “prohibited” transactions, but in the eyes of humanity, who is the real criminal? Five to six thousand children die each month in Iraq due to the sanctions, according to the most recent UN report.”
Is Gee blind to this atrocity because the perpetrator is a democracy, or is he just uninformed on the matter?
The campaign against Iraq proves the impotence of the UN declaration, because it shows that the UN has become little more than an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Yet this should not be so surprising: there is no such thing as an international world order without a dominant, enforcing country or group of countries.
In our case, we live under a Pax Americana, in which only countries hostile to America and her allies are singled out for punishment, with or without the consent of the Security Council. Because of the overwhelming dominance of the U.S., and to a lesser extent NATO, is the Security Council even relevant? Contrary to Gee’s claim, the end of the Cold War has not been universally beneficial.
Gee would have been on firmer ground if he had defended a world order based on American self-interest, instead of one based on an ethical chimera.
“Human rights” exists at the sufferance of the dominant power; therefore, the declaration is a mirage, as is the notion of a global “human rights culture.” The first step towards building a genuinely ethical world is to acknowledge the empty promise of liberal-internationalism and to banish “human rights” from our political lexicon.