The Human Rights - Economics Connection Grand Theft

by Michael Leung, 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 forgotten.

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 place.

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 climate.

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 justified.

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 to overcome.

Strategic Domination

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 and power.

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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