A letter to Santa Claus?

February 19, 1999

The story of human rights since 1948 is a dismal one, and the United States and Britain are the villains, says Noam Chomsky

The Confucian Analects describe the exemplary person as "the one who keeps trying although he knows that it is in vain". The thought is not easy to suppress when one considers the dismal story of human rights in the past 50 years. America and, to a lesser extent, Britain are among the story's villains. Take, for example, the latest United States/United Kingdom bombardment of Iraq and its "collateral damage" - a serious abuse of the human rights of Iraqi citizens, although it merits little notice in the western press, which dismisses it as trivia.

And trivia it is, viewed against the background of other US exploits: in Central America, Washington's "backyard", for example, when the liberal press was giving the then US president Ronald Reagan "good marks" for his support for state terror in El Salvador as it peaked in the early 1980s. Even the liberal-left newspapers urged that more military aid be sent to "Latin-style fascists ... regardless of how many are murdered" because "there are higher American priorities than Salvadorean human rights". Hundreds of thousands of people battling for greater social equality, a share of the land, disappeared during these years of fear.

The repercussions of USinterference in Central America go on. The devastating consequences of the recent Hurricane Mitch were graphically reported, but the media was silent about one little-noted side effect; the scattering of tens of thousands of landmines across Central America - a relic of the Nicaraguan component of the terrorist wars of the 1980s.

And even this legacy pales in comparison with that of the US bombing of Vietnam in the 1960s. Estimates of casualties from the litter of anti-personnel weapons left on the Plain of Jars in Laos are as high as 20,000 a year. These tiny bomblets are designed specifically to kill and maim. The victims are mostly children who pick up the colourful "bombies" or farmers who dislodge them.

Efforts to deal with the continuing atrocities have been led by a US Green Beret veteran and an Englishman. The Mennonite Central Committee has been active in Vietnam since 1977, joined later by the British-based Mines Advisory Group. MAG specialists report that the US refuses to provide them with "render-harmless procedures" that would make their work "a lot quicker and a lot safer". These remain a state secret, as does the whole affair in the US.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations 50 years ago, broke new ground. It enriched the realm of enunciated rights and extended them to all persons. Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon says the declaration "is not just a 'universalisation' of the traditional 18th-century 'rights of man', but a new 'moment' in the history of human rights I belong(ing) to the family of post-second world war rights instruments that attempted to graft social justice onto the trunk of the tree of liberty".

Glendon singles out articles 22-, a "pillar" of the declaration "which elevate to fundamental rights status several 'new' economic, social, and cultural rights".

There were some, of course, who dismissed the declaration with contempt as just a "collection of pious phrases", the oft-quoted remark of Soviet delegate Andrei Vishinsky, whose record need not detain us here. Reagan's UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, deriding the social and cultural provisions of the declaration, called it "a letter to Santa Claus", while a few years later ambassador Morris Abram described such ideas as a "dangerous incitement" and "little more than an empty vessel into which vague hopes and inchoate expectations can be poured".

Abram was speaking at the UN Commission on Human Rights, explaining Washington's rejection of the Right to Development, which sought to guarantee "the right of individuals, groups, and peoples to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy continuous economic, social, cultural and political development". The US alone rejected that particular right.

The human rights regime was one of three related pillars of the new world order established by the victors in the aftermath of the second world war. A second was the political order articulated in the UN Charter, the third the economic order formulated at Bretton Woods. But what were the human rights components of this projected international system and where does it stand today?

The Bretton Woods system functioned into the early 1970s, a period sometimes called the "golden age" of postwar industrial capitalism. It was an era marked by high economic growth and progress in realising the socioeconomic rights of the Universal Declaration. These rights were a key concern of the framers of Bretton Woods, and their extension during the "golden age" was a contribution to translating the declaration from a "letter to Santa Claus" into at least a partial reality.

One basic principle of the Bretton Woods system was regulation of finance, motivated by the understanding that liberalisation could serve as a powerful weapon against democracy and the welfare state. An unfettered market would allow financial capital to become a "virtual senate" that could impose its own social policies and punish those who deviated by capital flight. Bretton Woods was dismantled by then US president Richard Nixon's administration with the cooperation of Britain and other financial centres.

For the major industrial powers, the period since has been marked by slower growth and the undoing of the social contract, notably in the US and Britain. In the US, the typical family now puts in 15 weeks of work a year beyond the level of 20 years ago while income and wealth have stagnated. The top 1 per cent has gained enormously, and the top 10 per cent have registered gains. Other studies reveal 90 per cent of workers are concerned about job security, and 70 per cent fear that attempts to organise in trade unions will cost them their jobs under current norms of state-supported corporate crime. All this is in conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A concomitant of the US's recent social policy is the need to deal with the unemployed. One mechanism has been the "drug war", carefully contrived by the US government, which has led to a large rise in the prison population. Twenty years ago, US incarceration rates were similar to those of other industrial societies. Today they are five to ten times as high. The "war on drugs" has no significant effect on use of drugs or street price, but it makes sense as a device to remove "disposable people", as they are called in US client states, and to frighten the rest.

Amnesty International released a report last year documenting the abuse of fundamental human rights associated with this engine of social control. These processes undermine even the most traditional rights in the Universal Declaration, including articles 5, 7 and 9.

The second pillar of world order is articulated in the UN Charter. Its fundamental principle is that the threat or use of force is barred, with two exceptions: when specifically authorised by the UN Security Council or in self-defence against armed attack until the Security Council acts (article 51). There is no enforcement mechanism apart from the great powers, decisively the US. But Washington flatly rejects the principles of the charter.

The main innovation of the past 20 years is that US contempt for the principles of world order has become completely open. Thus the Reagan administration justified its bombing of Libya as "self-defence against future attack", hence, it argued, with an Orwellian use of language, permissible under article 51. Israel's bombing of Tunis in 1988, killing 75 people, was carried out with US cooperation, though US secretary of state George Shultz drew back from his public approbation when the UN Security Council unanimously denounced the bombing as an "act of armed aggression".

In the Clinton years, all pretences have been dropped. Secretary of state Madeleine Albright informed the UN that Washington will resort to force "multilaterally when we can, unilaterally when we must", to secure its interests. And in the recent Iraq crisis, the official stand was that "we prefer to act through our allies", but will resort to force alone if we so choose. The US does not even "prefer" to act through the UN, as required by international law, because the UN does not endorse US actions. "The basic US view," said one European diplomat, "is that the era of the UN is over."

The framework of world order has ceased to exist. The approved principle is the rule of force. The sophisticated understand that to appeal to legal obligations and moral principles is legitimate, but as a weapon against selected enemies. The level of support for this stand among educated sectors should not be taken lightly. The human rights implications require no comment.

The realisation of the Universal Declaration depends crucially on the rights articulated in articles 19 and 21: to "receive and impart information and ideas through any media" and to take part in "genuine elections" that ensure that "the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government". The importance of restricting the rights of free speech and democratic participation has been well understood by the powerful.

For such reasons, the media and educational systems are a constant terrain of struggle. In 1946, the prestigious Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press warned that "private agencies controlling the great mass media" are a fundamental threat to freedom of the press, capable of imposing "an environment of vested beliefs", and "bias as a commercial enterprise" under the influence of advertisers and owners. The European Commission of Human Rights has recognised "excessive concentration of the press" as an infringement of the rights guaranteed by article 19, and has called on states to prevent these abuses.

For the same reasons, the business world has sought to ensure that private agencies will control the media. Concentration has accelerated, thanks in part to recent deregulation.

Control of the internet is the "hot issue", regarded by the business world as a marketplace not only for goods but also for "selling" ideas and attitudes. The internet is expected to provide enormous profits if it can be taken from the public, the owner of the airwaves and cyberspace by law, and brought under corporate control.

New software and technologies are being devised to direct this public creation to marketing, diversion, and other safe activities, undermining the "once-eclectic" character of the net, that has provided a way to construct a public counterforce to concentrated power. In Indonesia, for instance, it was used to mobilise political activity against the brutal governing regime.

It should surprise no one that private power and its "tools and tyrants" should seek to ensure that others can do no more than "keep trying although they know that it is in vain". But the Confucian judgement is surely too grim. The words are hard to utter after this terrible century, but there has been improvement in many aspects of human life - agonisingly slow, but nonetheless real. Particularly in societies that have won a significant measure of freedom, choices are available, including fundamental institutional change if that is the right way to proceed. We need not quietly accept the injustice that is all around us, nor the prospects, which are not slight, of severe catastrophes if human society continues on its present course.

Noam Chomsky is professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This article, an extract from one of the 1999 Amnesty lectures, was delivered to a packed Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford last week.

* The US stands accused by Noam Chomsky of breaching the following articles of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, among others: Treatment ofprisoners in US jails breaches basic human rights. Article 5 provides that no one shall be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; article 7 that all men areentitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law; and article 9 that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Under Article 19 everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression I and freedom to seek, receive and impart information through any media. Chomsky argues that the concentration of the US press in the hands of a few huge companies infringes this . Article 23 states that everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests. "Studies in the US," says Chomsky, "reveal that 70 per cent of workers fear that attempts to organise in trade unions will cost them their jobs".

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments