Imposing Human Rights

Article published on Feb. 12, 2003
community published
Article published on Feb. 12, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

With the current war on terror' and everything that goes with it, the subject of human rights seems to be enjoying an impressive resurgence. Swept away by our romantic notions of paternalistic grandeur, it is rare that we consider how human rights are perceived outside the West.
Indeed in most of the countries we are so fond of criticising for their supposed absence of human rights itself, drawing stark contrast with our virtuous selves.

However, when the West initiated its agenda of human rights in 1945, there was considerable contention over interpretation. Most of the opposition came from the formerly socialist countries of the Soviet Union and South-East Asia and Africa, who sought to challenge the supposed 'universalism' of human rights with particular respect to what they perceived as a Western bias toward political and civil rights, deliberately avoiding emphasis on economic rights. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, such criticism is drowned out as the West has consolidated the global political and economic consensus.

Although the talk of human rights is often cloaked in the language of idealism on closer inspection we find that they are conditioned by specific economic and ideological preferences. That is, inherently capitalist and liberal respectively. In addition, the existence of a permanent and broad body of international law on human rights contrasts with the international community=s inaction, or perhaps indifference, towards acts of genocide (think Rwanda '92 or East Timor '98) and widespread social deprivation, starvation, AIDS and the like. The most frequent explanation for the importance of human rights in the post-war international agenda is a moral reaction against the barbarity of Nazism, including the Holocaust, medical experimentation and the concentration camps. While such concerns undoubtedly explain motivation in part, there also existed less admirable impetus, specifically, to provide a moral twist to a foreign policy which legitimated the global extension of Western capital to the detriment of the poor.

For many poor people, human rights are perceived as an agenda of values that supports the expansion of capital, promotes exploitation and subservience. When academics lecture on human rights they make the unspoken assumption that political and civil rights (freedom of speech etc..) are equivalent to economic and social rights (the right to education, freedom from hunger etc). However the forces of globalization ensure that economic rights receive considerably less attention as it exports a system of neo-liberal capitalism to developing countries which have little or no say in the matter. After the war, developing countries sought to elucidate rights that they saw as imperative including, the right to self-determination, sustainable development and control over local resources. However, such economic rights that the developing world prioritized placed the unwanted burden upon developed countries to help the poor, challenged liberal values and (most importantly) challenged the sanctity of the free market. The US, realizing the potential subversion this posed to its power, consequently downplayed formal human rights discourse vis-a-vis economics and instead concentrated on its interests, especially the expansion of capital; namely, the almighty dollar.

Human rights then have been used as an idealist facade for foreign policy. Post-1945, the US desperately needed to find new markets for the huge surpluses it had produced during the war. The result was a human rights programme that reflected the interests of the West and a liberal ideology including freedom of the individual and a laissez- faire, non-interventionist approach by the state in economic and social matters paving the way for Western economic domination. Of course, with billions in developing countries reliant on the state as their sole form of welfare, who were people to turn to? The private sector, naturally, came the reply. This process is what globalization has expanded. It has expanded the role of private interests, while states have been forced (usually manifest as the >conditionalities= with Western loans) to cut welfare expenditure at the expense of the impoverished masses.

For example, we in the West, along with the cosy souls at Amnesty International, like to castigate Cuba for its fragrant repression of political and civil rights. Indeed, such criticism justifies the US=s suffocating embargo round the island. While I have no doubt that such violations are true and moreover wrong, our criticism misses the point. Castro, unlike the US-sponsored Batista dictatorship that preceded his own, has managed to feed his people and educate them to a higher degree than most in the developing world. According to UNICEF in 2000, Cuba's infant mortality rate and primary school education levels, for boys and girls, were comparable to Western levels. The same was broadly true in Nicaragua while under the socialist Sandanista government in the early 80's, before the US and its proxy forces annihilated the country. After adapting to Western democratic norms, Nicaragua now competes with Haiti for the unenviable distinction of being the most destitute country in the Western hemisphere. At the same time during 1980's era of fervent Western liberalism, when infant mortality increased to horrific levels across the whole of Latin America, the only country that did not show an unambiguous increase in child mortality was Cuba. It is highly questionable whether its achievements would have been possible if it had opened itself up to the free-market and adopted democratic institutions at such a fragile time in its history post-Batista in 1959 and amidst the competing tensions of the Cold War throughout the 1980's. Neighbouring countries that did, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador and other 'showcases of capitalism', have slid into misery since.

This is why poor people view with suspicion our eager propagation of human rights because it has not dealt with their relevant problems first. Problems that are little to do with freedom of speech, or of the press and other concerns that we in the West can afford to worry about. It is about hunger, malnutrition, a lack of sanitation, illiterate children and the spread of disease scarring whole populations. Only when rights organizations and western agencies start addressing these problems first, will our noble ideals become credible in the eyes of the poor.