The Human Rights - Economics Connection
by Michael Leung
www.zmag.org, October 22, 2007
The violence that constitutes the majority
of human rights abuses is a result of the dominant powers using
force to maintain a status quo of vast inequality. Of the six
billion people in the world, half live on less than $2 a day,
and a billion of those live on less than $1 a day. Only a small
percentage of Americans will ever have a substantial interaction
with the poorer half of the world's population, and they are essentially
ignored in the mainstream media. Their poverty is often fatal.
Despite an abundant global food supply, over twenty thousand a
day die of starvation, malnutrition, and associated diseases.
Knowledge of this uncomfortable fact is limited and usually quickly
Lack of clean water also takes its toll. Instead of large scale
water purification and distribution systems to serve the bulk
of the world's population, we have expensive weapons systems to
keep people in their place. Their place is anywhere but here,
where their basic needs would be an unacceptable economic burden.
Weapons are justified as a good use of resources because the US
military instills a sense of pride in Americans. While people
may starve, no expense will be spared to protect the troops by
heaping profits on their weapons suppliers.
When the weak oppose their state of affairs in an organized manner
they are labeled communists, socialists, terrorists, insurgents,
or worse, regardless of fact. These people can be decimated at
will once appropriately labeled. Their wholesale slaughter is
largely accepted as a response to highly trumpeted threats to
the national security and even the continued existence of the
most powerful nation on earth. That the threatening nations or
groups have minimal military capacity is rarely noticed.
The United States has active military personnel stationed in over
700 external bases spanning 130 of the 192 countries. It is the
world's sole superpower whose military expenditures equal the
entire rest of the world's combined. The US military is unique
in its immunity from war crimes, genocide, and crimes against
humanity. Failure of other countries to grant exemption results
in halting of aid as well as political and economic punishment.
Empires have one function, to extract tribute from their weaker
clients. The American empire robs third world countries by exchanging
real goods for US dollars, which can be printed at will. The governments
of the third world countries must use their US dollars to purchase
US treasuries so they can maintain a low exchange rate which sustains
their export based growth. They can thus continue to export their
labor and natural resources to the US at a heavy discount. This
trade of real goods and resources for dollars which are then recycled
back into the US economy comes at the expense of domestic development
in the third world.
In economic terms, this exchange is justified through comparative
advantage, as both countries receive some benefit by trading.
What is ignored almost entirely is that the more developed country
generally gets the larger net benefit, with which it maintains
its position of power. With this system, third world countries
receive marginal economic gains in exchange for a state of permanent
subservience. This is the mechanism for the grandest theft in
the history of the world, to the tune of trillions of dollars.
It is stolen from the poorest and most vulnerable people who are
least able to resist. The amount stolen easily swamps all aid
and humanitarian assistance which is touted as evidence of benevolent
intent and used as diversion from the theft that is actually taking
The ruling elite in the third world who sell out their country's
sovereignty and resources are given ample support by the US government
with weapons and the political cover to use them on their population.
These US backed tyrants and dictators routinely use torture and
murder to keep their populations in check. They are called 'allies'
and 'moderates' that maintain control through the impoverishment
and repression of their people.
Economic development outside this system and independent nationalism
are simply not tolerated. Examples like Nicaragua, Vietnam, Cuba,
and Venezuela are lessons not easily dismissed by third world
governments that care about their populations.
Minimal knowledge of this theft and widespread complacency result
in insufficient domestic opposition. However, due to the hostile
reaction of the US to outside pressure or criticism, its history
of crushing successful populist movements in the third world,
and a nominally democracy government, change must come from within.
State of Affairs
An informed US population with the ability to apply moral values
consistently is essential for significant change. Some case studies
on human rights abuses will illustrate the current moral and intellectual
The first is the use of chemical weapons in Iraq by the US military.
In 2004 the US dropped white phosphorous on Fallujah, a city of
several hundred thousand residents. Despite heavy media coverage
of Saddam Hussein using white phosphorous as a chemical weapon
against the Kurds, the US media hardly mentioned the event. Entirely
absent were editorials calling for the bombing and invasion of
the United States for what is an equivalent crime. Such action
is clearly preposterous when the same standards are applied in
reverse. Our use of chemical weapons can be no more than a tragic
mistake and poor judgment as opposed to a horrendous crime as
when used by our enemies. When the US uses chemical weapons, the
horrors of the victims were not worthy of mention, or the pain
and suffering of their families and friends. On the other hand,
the record of the Kurds suffering from Saddam's chemical assaults
is general knowledge. Also not mentioned is the US sale of chemical
weapons to Saddam to use on the Kurds.
In 1976 Luis Posada Carriles blew up a civilian airliner from
Cuba, killing all 73 aboard. Carriles currently lives freely in
the US with the full protection of the government which refuses
to extradite him. Providing sanctuary to an international terrorist
is a serious offense, as the Taliban in Afghanistan can attest.
But in the Carriles case there are no declarations that a government
that protects terrorists is illegitimate and needs to be overthrown.
No pundits advocate that the US should be sanctioned, blockaded,
and embargoed for being a state sponsor of terror. Cuban fighters
bombing US cities in an attempt to target Carilles followed by
an invasion and indefinite occupation would be considered excessive.
The United States runs the only global network of kidnapping,
disappearances, and torture with the CIA's secret rendition program.
US special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are also involved in
arbitrary detention and torture. Those targeted, when not outright
murdered or assassinated, have no judicial recourse. The American
government officials responsible for these human rights violations
are not labeled terrorists or held accountable. Divestment from
the US and economic strangulation as punishment for continuing
these gross human rights abuses is out of the question.
Nuclear development by Iran or North Korea poses a threat to the
world, says the only nation that has actually used nuclear weapons
on a civilian population, twice. For Iran and North Korea, sanction,
starvation, cutting off oil supplies, asset seizures, and threats
of invasion are all considered valid responses for possessing
nuclear technology. Though the US maintains a large nuclear arsenal,
a threatening nuclear first strike policy, a policy of nuclear
weapon use against non-nuclear nations, and is currently building
more nuclear weapons in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty,
such responses are never considered in reverse. The ridiculousness
of applying similar measures to the US makes it obvious that collectively
punishing entire populations for the actions of a few is never
The constant rhetoric that makes violence and aggression acceptable
in one case and unthinkable in the next is staggering. The framework
of inherent evil in our enemies is accepted to such a high degree
that war and military threats against those enemies often engender
a sense of pride, patriotism, and righteousness. Their regular
denunciation relegates vast populations to potential collateral
damage, a class of sub-humans which can be destroyed at will by
the most advanced military on the planet in the name of freedom
and democracy. Countries are leveled to 'defend the peace' and
'protect human rights'. The ultimate double standard, one that
justifies the death of others but from which we are immune, is
highly entrenched. Its internalization is a triumph of indoctrination
and propaganda in the service of wealth and power.
The general acceptance of double standard for human rights as
national policy makes it unlikely that advocacy for other issues
like environmental protection, poverty, healthcare, and education
will be anywhere near sufficient. It is not for lack of effort.
Corporate power and investor interests have simply been too large
The largest human rights abuses, in terms of scope and magnitude,
can only be carried out by the powerful. The structures that concentrate
power are at the core of these abuses. Protecting human rights
inherently involves limiting concentrations of power, in all its
forms. Unrivaled US military power in combination with an economic
system that encourages financial profit and wealth without limit
is a toxic combination.
People can be roughly grouped into two categories, those whose
income is primarily from investment, and those whose income is
primarily from wages. It is largely the function of the latter
group to increase the profits of the former. This is done through
private sector employment and the consumption of private sector
goods and services. The first group of investors and owners represents
two percent of the population which is enriched by both the labor
and consumption of the vast majority. Earnings from investments
have consistently outpaced median wage growth. About 40% of investment
income goes to the top 1% of taxpayers. Private sector employment
and consumption underlie the continued consolidation of wealth
The trend of increasing disparate wealth on top of an already
highly skewed distribution is intrinsic to the current capitalist
system. The increased economic clout of the few gives them disproportionate
political power in an era where monetary campaign contributions
and financially intense lobbying holds sway. Non elite interests
like human rights and social justice suffer accordingly. This
concentrated wealth has prevented widespread political progress
on these essential issues...
Notes: These ideas and analysis are based
off the work of Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky, Henry C.K. Liu, David
Ellerman, and others.
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