excerpts from the book
How the U.S. Government Co-opted
by James Peck
Metropolitan Books, 2010, paperback
Washington set out after the Vietnam War to craft human rights
into a new language of power designed to promote American foreign
Washington has shaped idealism into a potent ideological weapon
for ends having little to do with human rights - and everything
to do with extending America's global reach.
Washington set out after the Vietnam War to craft human rights
into a new language of power designed to promote American foreign
policy... Washington has shaped idealism into a potent ideological
weapon for ends having little to do with human rights - and everything
to do with extending America's global reach.
[There is a current of human rights that] judges a society by
how well it treats the poor and the weak. It challenges power
by asking why, in large areas of the world where civil liberties
and the "rule of law" do hold sway, so little is done
to meet the most basic economic, medical, and educational needs
of the population.
The [human rights] movement's deep uneasiness with all forms of
radical and revolutionary social change was already evident in
1961, when the newly founded Amnesty international pronounced
that no prisoners who advocated violence could be considered prisoners
of conscience: thus no revolutionaries-not Nelson Mandela in South
Africa, nor even the Berrigan brothers (who had destroyed draft-board
records) in the United States.
Today we look with perplexity at how slavery could coexist with
the belief that all men are created equal, how liberalism could
rise hand in hand with colonialism and brutal forms of exploitation,
how calls for freedom could ignore women's rights, how the antislavery
movement in England could coincide with the Opium Wars against
China, and how democracies could fight colonial wars.
The rise of the American human rights movement since the 1970s
has coincided with an unprecedented increase in inequality, with
brutal wars of occupation, and with a determination to establish
American preeminence via the greatest concentration of military
power in history.
US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to French President Charles
In every society a minority always dominated.
The question was how to do it. If the minority affronted the majority,
it lost influence. If discretely exercised... the minority influence
could be effective and desirable.
US Secretary of State Dean Acheson
You all start with the premise that democracy
is some good. I don't think it's worth a damn .... People say,
'If the Congress were more representative of the people it would
be better.' I say the Congress is too damn representative. It's
just as stupid as the people are; just as uneducated, just as
dumb, just as selfish.
As president. [Jimmy] Carter largely avoided mentioning war crimes
and human rights violations in the Vietnam War - even such egregious
ones as free-fire zones (where soldiers could shoot unidentified
civilians at will), tiger cages (cramped cells in which prisoners
were tortured), Operation Phoenix (for assassinating NLF members
and sympathizers in the South), or the massive bombings of Vietnam,
Laos, and Cambodia.
The free-fire zones in Vietnam, the destruction of crops and forests,
the search-and-destroy missions, the forcible removal of civilian
populations, the terror bombing of undefended villages, the Phoenix
program - all these outrages were decried by some political leaders
and opinion page commentators as a betrayal of American ideals.
To Nixon and Kissinger, the threat of Chile [under Salvador Allende]
had lain in its relatively democratic effort to radically transform
its socioeconomic structure - to free itself from the economic
domination of the United States by nationalizing key industries,
and by mobilizing poor and progressive groups.
a former Henry Kissinger aide
I don't think anybody ever fully grasped
that Henry [Kissinger] saw [Chilean President Salvador] Allende
as being a far more serious threat than Castro. Allende was a
living example of democratic social reform in Latin America.
Foundations, think tanks, NGOs, and universities were encouraged
to fund human rights work and to facilitate its intellectual development,
promote conferences, encourage journals and publications, and
develop a global network of rights workers. Washington's promotion
of a global human rights constituency fit quite smoothly with
its image of the United States as the preeminent rights-based
In the summer of 1978 ... the Ford Foundation came up with a small
planning grant to set up a U.S. Helsinki Watch Committee... Over
the years Helsinki Watch expanded into regional committees (Americas
Watch, Africa Watch, Asia Watch, Middle East Watch), and in 1988
these committees united to form Human Rights Watch.
[Human Rights Watch] was an elite organization, an NGO with a
board of directors and a paid staff quite unlike the movement
organizations of a decade before. Its natural constituency was
to be found in the worlds of power and influence-among politicians,
journalists, jurists, union leaders, and academics... Its leaders
were primarily upper-middle-class professionals - from publishing,
law, journalism, and Wall Street - with highly developed communications
skills and discretionary time and income to devote to international
The word "hypocrisy" barely begins to cover [the Carter]
administration's support for Pol Pot's insurgents as they fought
the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, followed by support for the Khmer
Rouge's retention of Cambodia's UN seat - even as [the US] denounced
Khmer Rouge genocide.
... It was easy enough for human rights
leaders to denounce the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. What was far
harder was acknowledging American responsibility for what had
happened. And yet already at the time of the American invasion
and bombing of Cambodia in 1970, witnesses of the flight of peasants
to Phnom Penh to escape the B-52s and the shattering of their
traditional livelihoods were warning of the horrors such brutalization
might bring in its wake. In the end, this was another awful chapter
in the very old story of how savage warfare not only destroys
a society but also opens the way for the rise of a small, fanatical,
brutal leadership capable of horrific atrocities rationalized
Senator William Fulbright speaking about the Vietnamese and the
war in the former Indochina
What happened [to Vietnamese society]
was largely the result of the war. It destroyed the old, traditional
government and customs and practices. The war came close, politically
if not physically, to doing what General [Curtis] LeMay once proposed
- bombing them back to the Stone Age. I think what has happened
is a direct result of the war and of what we did in that war.
In 1983 Congress created the National Endowment for Democracy
(NED) ... The NED distributed grants to organizations headed by
the Republican and Democratic parties, the AFL-CIO, the Chamber
of Commerce, and various women's and youth organizations; the
idea was for private institutions to help their counterparts abroad...
These nongovernmental groups often worked in coordination with
the State Department, the CIA, and local U.S. embassies.
Directors of the NED [National Endowment for Democracy] ... included
such insiders as Walter Mondale, Henry Kissinger, Lane Kirkpatrick,
Dante Fascell, and the chairs the Republican and Democratic National
The NED [National Endowment for Democracy] brought to fruition
Zbigniew Brzezinski's ideas for the creation of a human rights
foundation. Funds would go to NGOs, foreign individuals, conferences
and groups, as well as awards for human rights leaders.
Human rights leaders spoke as though Washington had actually taken
up the cause of human rights-as opposed to adapting human rights
language as part of an ideological war of ideas... They convinced
themselves that Washington was actually interested in human rights
rather than in an ideological vision of "rights-based power"
that would nourish the idea that American values were universal.
They repeatedly praised the Reagan administration for "vigorously
pursuing" the cause of human rights in Cuba and the USSR,
for example, as though such advocacy were a principled stand rather
than a political strategy. They lauded its support for "civil
society" throughout the Soviet bloc and challenged it to
extend its support elsewhere, while refusing to acknowledge how
that support was fueled by Washington's national security interests.
Both Americas Watch and Amnesty [International] savaged the Reagan
administration for its commendation of governments that were systematically
abusing human rights and for claiming dramatic progress in Argentina,
Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick's
praise for the "moral quality" of the El Salvadoran
government even as death squads were roaming the country; Reagan's
praise for President Efram RIos Montt of Guatemala for being "totally
dedicated to democracy" even as his armed forces were slaughtering
tens of thousands in counterinsurgency operations; the administration's
praise of the Nicaraguan Contras as "freedom fighters"
even as they were committing massive atrocities; Washington's
decision to normalize relations with Chile's dictator, Augusto
Pinochet - all these outrages were challenged in some of the most
blistering human rights criticism ever aimed at Washington.
Robert Gates, then deputy director of the CIA, wrote, "one
of the enduring characteristics of Congress, especially on foreign
affairs, is its eagerness to avoid clear-cut actions that will
leave the Hill unambiguously responsible if something goes wrong,
especially if they have acted contrary to the wishes of the President.
El Salvador's archbishop, Oscar Romero shortly before his assassination
in 1980, said
When a dictatorship seriously violates
human rights and attacks the common good of the nation, when it
becomes unbearable and closes all channels of dialogue, of understanding,
of rationality-when this happens, the church speaks of the legitimate
right of insurrectional violence.
When human rights groups refused on principle to take a stand
on American global policies and geopolitical questions, they chose
to ignore the history of the national security establishment's
standard operating procedures. Some human rights activists and
members of Congress were well aware of long-standing U.S. military
programs in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations, which
brought military and intelligence officers from other countries
to the United States for training. But few leaders spoke of or
to this history. Thus all the newly uncovered facts about ongoing
atrocities were reported with little background on decades of
political warfare strategies. Human rights groups never much addressed
Washington's policies, certainly not in a way that effectively
discredited the rhetoric of democratization.
Human rights leaders ... never [found] a war against the social
development and economic well-being of a nation a violation of
Jack Belden in his classic 1949 book "China Shakes the World"
The [Chinese] Communists pulled down the
proud and raised up the humble. They freed women from men, the
child from the father, the tenant from the landlord.
The West had failed to bring a better way of life to China. Foreigners
had plundered the country for more than a century under the doctrine
of free enterprise, leading more and more Chinese to reject the
doctrine of individual liberty because they came to believe it
was a weapon of the strong to oppress the weak. The staggering
problems China confronted demanded the utmost empathy from Americans.
Today the Communist Party is, for better or worse, is often still
seen within China not as a decaying elite feeding off a brutalized
populace but as a political force that retains considerable legitimacy
from the radical changes it has spearheaded - as well as from
its frank acknowledgment of past failures.
The prevailing human rights view fails to fully take into account
the excruciatingly painful and frightening reasons for revolutionary
upheaval [in China], and to a great extent ignores the diverse
struggles for justice and social transformation that are part
of China's cultural traditions.
Chinese historians point to the brutal, centralizing, and repressive
methods the Western states used to develop their wealth and power
as historic examples of human rights atrocities. They see Western
development less as a triumphant evolution of human rights than
as a process wherein high-sounding ideals were repeatedly invoked
to legitimize a long series of horrors. They accuse human rights
advocates of suggesting there are now far different and more humane
ways to develop, though the West never practiced them during its
own rise. Their intention is not to claim that China, too, should
proceed like the West, with "colonies, genocide of the natives,
expansionism, exploitative trade relations," as one report
characterized that history. Rather they are calling attention
to a certain hypocrisy in the eagerness with which critics of
China conveniently turned against the very methods the West itself
had used to create the wealth, affluence, and power in which its
vision of rights now flourishes .
Chinese accounts point out the role of slavery in American development,
the racism that continues to this day, and the settler culture
that seized the Indian lands - hardly useful methods for dealing
with China's own ethnic minorities. Noting how America's great
natural wealth combined with the benefits of being free of feudalism
at its founding, Beijing contends that human rights conditions
are "closely associated with how developed the country's
economy is. If it is bogus for dictatorships to justify suppression
of rights under the guise of development, these critics argued,
it is just as bogus to trumpet human rights arguments from the
center of the greatest concentration of wealth known to history
- while manifesting amnesia about the methods used to achieve
it, and often to sustain it today.
Beijing believes the United States enjoys more rights because
of its wealth, power, and history - not because of its greater
virtue, empathy, or understanding of others. It argues that an
individualizing of human rights pervades the Western human rights
stance largely because of such affluence; that basic subsistence,
national independence, economic and cultural transformation are
often simply taken for granted. The United States sees itself
as a "mentor," concluded one Chinese observer, when
it is really just ignoring the "unique conditions that have
made the democratic system in the U.S. more advanced than in many
Senator J. William Fulbright
We tend to overlook the fact that our
social and political system was established upon probably the
richest, most productive, most desirable piece of real estate
in the world. If our system had been implanted on the bleak areas
of Siberia, I doubt it would have been so productive.
Americans were spared the threat of foreign invasion for hundreds
of years, while China, like many other countries, suffered the
"humiliation of being carved up by foreign aggressors and
has experienced the tribulations of long-time wars. Western powers,
including the United States, came heavily armed with literal as
well as religious and ideological weapons, justifying the unequal
treatment they imposed with the most uplifting and self-righteous
In the 1990s Beijing began issuing detailed and wide-ranging reports
on life in America. What it found amiss would startle few observers
of American conditions: a steady rise in homelessness and below-the-poverty-line
populations; grossly unequal access to health insurance and medical
care; racial disparities in wealth and education; rampant violence
reinforced by some 235 million guns; illegal detention and systems
of surveillance; continued inequality of women, domestic violence,
and sexual offenses.
Chinese critics asked how the growing inequalities between rich
and poor in the United States could be compatible with a human
rights spirit. Why were 36.5 million Americans living in poverty
in 2006? Why is the wealth of the richest growing exponentially,
widening the already huge earnings gap between the rich and the
less well off? Why did payments to corporate CEOs that were some
475 times higher than those to ordinary workers go unchallenged
by human rights advocates? On another subject, was the control
of patents on medicines for AIDS and other diseases that would
help enormously in poorer countries an intellectual property right
- or a human rights violation?
Why, the Chinese asked, did the United States have the largest
prison population in the world, nearly 2.26 million men and women
in prison in 2006 - counting those on probation and parole, some
7 million, one in every thirty-two adults? Why did the number
of prisoners increase 7.3 percent annually throughout the 1990s,
more, than doubling the 1985 total? Why did blacks, who comprise
only 12.1 percent of the population, comprise 40 percent of all
inmates sentenced to more than one year? What accounted for overcrowded
prison conditions, the high percentage of the mentally ill behind
bars, rampant AIDS, and the sexual victimization of prisoners?
Why did the federal government allow states to use attack dogs
in dealing with prisoners? And why, especially, when the American
media cover these issues, do they virtually never do so under
the rubric of "human rights," when their coverage of
China's prison and labor camp conditions is always so categorized?
Why, if the plight of a Chinese prisoner can epitomize the state
of human rights in China today, in the words of the Lawyers' Committee
for Human Rights does no American prisoner evidently epitomize
the state of human rights in the United States? Why do Western
human rights groups argue that, while the United States certainly
needs reform," Beijing needs "regime change" and
"the rule of law"?
As far back as the 1850s, Frederick Douglass, looking at the unquestionably
vibrant press in the United States, asked how it could coexist
with one of the most cruel systems of slavery the world had ever
known. Why was a people so moral about some issues able to live
face-to-face with such evil? And why did segregation last for
another century after slavery? The issue was not the absence of
a free press or of the free flow of ideas or of criticism. How
and why blatant injustices are accepted and lived with as part
of the commonweal is, as the American abolitionist John Brown
warned, the key question of human rights.
While American human rights groups call for democratization in
other countries, Chinese critics focus on the electoral process,
a "game for the rich people where politics are so highly
commercialized." How are the $3 billion cost of presidential
campaigns, the marketing of candidates, negative campaigning,
and the influence of "soft" donations any different
from the abuses Washington and human rights leaders are so fond
of pointing out elsewhere? Are the concentration of ownership
in the media and the advertising, sound-bite ethos of contemporary
American democracy irrelevant to its functioning? Does it not
matter that reporters, who once saw themselves as paragons of
independence, "maintain their jobs, salaries, and promotion
opportunities by catering to the value and viewpoints on 'international
and political affairs' of the wealthy and powerful in American
life? In short, do human rights advocates holding up the United
States as a rights-based society actually find a thriving, vital
democratic ethos functioning there?
The Constitution itself does not include economic, social, and
cultural rights. It includes no mandate to have the basic needs
of people satisfied.
The preoccupation with individual rights mitigates against equality,
weakens a sense of the common good, and furthers an individualism
rooted in a spirit of competition over a spirit of cooperation.
Henry Steele Commager in the early 1990s
We have yet to read a substantive meaning
of equal protection into the realm of economy. Neither the court
nor the Congress is at this stage prepared to say the equal protection
of the laws means an equal right to a job, means equality in housing,
means equality in medical care, means equality in prison and penal
conditions, means equality in all those nonpolitical, non-legal,
and we might say, nonsocial areas. Thus a century after we got
rid of the paradox of freedom and slavery, the paradox of equality
and individualism persists and may indeed be getting more aggravated.
The American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration
of the Rights of Man failed to restrain European colonialism and
racism in the non-white world or rampant inequality at home. Only
with non-Western struggles against colonialism, racism, imperialism,
and economic exploitation did the concept of human rights move
beyond individual rights toward the UN covenants that today codify
cultural and social rights and especially the right to a decent
standard of living.
From the early 1990s on, leading American human rights groups
applauded the new humanitarianism Washington and London were espousing.
They could have argued that in extreme cases military intervention
could reflect a crass pursuit of national interests and still
be morally necessary: thus Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1978,
which ended the Khmer Rouge atrocities; India's attack on East
Pakistan in 1971, leading to the creation of Bangladesh; and Tanzania's
invasion of Uganda in 1979, which destroyed Idi Amin's murderous
regime. But they did not make this argument; those invasions,
all opposed by Washington, had been largely ignored by human rights
leaders. The new era of humanitarianism grew out of something
else: Washington's need to keep refurbishing faith in the singularity
of its moral status. An America-centered order did not demand
that Washington accept responsibility for the state the world
was in but only that it help those it judged in need.
Only 1% of medicines brought to market treat diseases like tuberculosis,
malaria, and sleeping sickness that most affect people in developing
Thousands of dossiers have been produced describing in meticulous
detail the death squads and torture and extrajudicial executions
carried out by brutal regimes and pathological dictators around
the world. When people with black or yellow or brown skin, with
Islamic or Communist or nationalist credentials murder their prisoners
or bomb their villagers, they are condemned - often quite selectively,
to be sure - by the "civilized" world. And they should
be condemned. But the American leaders who ordered the free fire
zones in Vietnam and the Phoenix program, or directed the Contras
against the Sandinistas, or were complicit in Saddam Hussein's
gas warfare against the Kurds, or set up and operated Guantánamo
are not taken to court. They face no trials. On any human rights
website you will find a growing number of prominent leaders indicted
for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Few are American or
Western European or Israeli.
Human rights will have little future as a process of justice unless
the leaders of democratic societies are also charged with crimes.
Justice that unceasingly fails to confront the powerful is not
only selective, it has become a weapon of the powerful. Immunity
for the prominent is a deeply corrupt basis for an international
criminal court, and it points to one of the major challenges confronting
the human rights movement.
American human rights organizations ... believe American power
... can be restrained by appeals to its better instincts and controlled
by law... But, states, as John Adams reminded us, don't have great
souls; they don't have better natures. The state is a cruel monster.