The Human Rights Charade
By Edward S. Herman
Z magazine, January 1998
Clinton administration officials and the mainstream U.S. media
acted out a familiar charade during the recent visit of Chinese
President Jiang Zemin, pretending a deep concern over Chinese
human rights abuses, and implying that their continuation might
damage U.S.-Chinese relationships. At the same time, however,
officials and media also spoke of the need for "dialogue,
" "mutual understanding," and a "constructive
relationship," and they all took the position that human
rights was only one of a number of issues at stake in this relationship.
Kenneth Lieberthal, a professor of political science at Michigan,
and consultant to the administration, stressed that "the
relationship need not be hostage to domestic political pressures."
He was not referring to domestic political pressures from business
to ignore human rights; he meant pressures to sacrifice business
in response to human rights claims. It is also notable that the
only sanctions imposed on China so far have been for failure to
open markets or adequately protect U. S. intellectual property
For the establishment, human rights is a side issue that should
not be allowed to affect the important considerations. The mainstream
media rarely acknowledge this priority system in straightforward
fashion; even more rarely do they suggest that decision-makers
view human rights, first and foremost, as an annoyance and public
relations problem; and they never suggest that human rights violations
and violators might be viewed positively by U.S. business and
The Business of America
The Chinese market is huge and its increasing openness to
foreign business has caused a global "gold rush" from
which U.S. business does not want to be excluded. A powerful business
lobby has been organized here to fight for government support
for entry into the Chinese market, and that lobby is extremely
impatient with the claims of human rights proponents and their
demands for bargaining in the interest of human rights. The members
of this lobby, which includes Motorola, Boeing, Caterpillar, and
several major oil companies, are important sources of election
funding, and given the intense Clinton and Republican focus on
fund raising, and the heavy weight the Clinton administration
has given to expansion of trade and foreign investment in its
economic program, that lobby's demands will be met, and human
rights concerns will not be permitted to stand in the way of the
important values at stake.
Because the Chinese recognize the dominance of economic interests
over human rights values, they have even toyed with U. S. officials,
and as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, "seemed to enjoy watching
their partners twist in the wind." This was notable in the
negotiations for renewal of China's Most Favored Nation status
in June 1994, where the Clinton administration kept urging China
to make a small move that could be cited (an "indication
of direction"-as in the U.S. certification of El Salvador's
human rights "improvements" in the 1980s, based on alleged
small reductions in army and death squad murders) to justify serving
the Administration's business constituency. The Chinese dragged
their feet even on gestures. The media of course missed the hypocrisy
and cynicism of this game. The business community and politicians
have a rationale for doing little or nothing on behalf of human
rights in a country like China-namely, that greater trade and
investment will itself serve to democratize China. This is a wonderfully
convenient argument, unproven, and somewhat illogical as greater
trade and investment strengthens the existing political regime
and gives it greater freedom of action. It is l also interesting
that this argument is not applied to Cuba and Iran, nor to Nicaragua
during the years of Sandinista rule-in those cases desired change
was thought to follow from reducing trade and investment.
Why the Charade?
Why do Clinton and the media engage in the human rights charade?
In part, because the public values human rights and the United
States is supposed to be in favor of human rights and democracy,
so that a show of concern by our leaders is required to demonstrate
our high moral character.
This display of concern is not necessary if there is little
public interest in or knowledge about the abusing country and
its victims. Whether the public is informed on these matters is,
of course, affected by what government, business, and the media
choose to publicize, and these conjointly tend to play down abuses
by regimes that serve U. S. business and strategic interests.
They have successfully minimized publicity on human rights in
most non-enemy states.
But publicity regarding China's human rights abuses got out
of control-the Tiananmen Square massacre received intense coverage
and has not been forgotten, and the occupation and abuse of Tibet,
the sweatshops and prison labor, China's rapid imposition of features
of authoritarian rule on Hong Kong, have all caused exceptional
attention to Chinese human rights issues. Furthermore, China was
long an enemy state-"Red China"-and much of the attention
to its abuses has reflected the standard media practice of focusing
on enemy villainy. Many conservatives and members of the media
continue this focus in the mistaken belief that China is still
a communist (rather than plain authoritarian) state.
The Double Standard
That the focus on Chinese human rights violations on the part
of the U. S. politicos and mainstream media reflects exceptional
circumstances rather than a devotion to human rights, is clearly
evident in their disinterest in serious human rights violations
by amenable clients. Take Saudi Arabia, a theocratic/authoritarian
state that discriminates harshly against women, crushes any dissent
by police force, has no free elections, and represents one variant
of the dread "Islamic ideology" in official practice.
However, this massive human rights violator allows privileged
U.S. access to its oil and serves U.S. (oil company) interests
well. The United States not only remains silent on Saudi human
rights violations, it maintains thousands of military personnel
in Saudi Arabia and actively supports and protects the regime.
No fuss here about human rights, no problem of "clashing
civilizations," and the mainstream media cooperate by ignoring
Saudi abuses and failing to point out the hypocrisy of the official
U.S. focus on Cuban electoral failings and simultaneous active
help in sustaining authoritarian rule in Saudi Arabia.
The same point applies to Indonesia. For more than two decades
it has been in violation of a UN ruling to get out of East Timor,
and its ongoing abuses there and violations of human rights at
home are severe. Its elections are controlled, free unions are
not permitted, and there are still numerous prisoners incarcerated
from the time of the coup and mass murders of 1965-66. However,
this authoritarian state allows Western access to its oil, timber,
and other resources, and has long been supported and protected
by the United States and its allies. Thus, Suharto, whose killings
of innocent civilians at home and in East Timor easily rivals
or exceeds those of Pol Pot, is treated rather differently, as
a "statesman" and "reformer," even if regrettably
a bit old-fashioned in respect of democratic niceties. The West
gives Indonesia large annual gifts, lends it huge sums of money,
competes to provide it with arms, and is now bailing the dictatorship
out with U.S. and IMF funds. When Suharto visited Washington in
1995, there were the public remarks about our deep human rights
concerns, but the visit was cordial, and a senior Clinton official
enthused that Suharto is "our kind of guy," and that
here was a relationship that we would like to duplicate with China.
That is, issue a few human rights words and gestures, but concentrate
on hard business dealing unencumbered by "domestic political
pressures." The media have played a critical role in containing
domestic political pressures and preserving our cordial relationship
with the Suharto regime. In 1979 the New York Times's coverage
of the Indonesian invasion and holocaust in East Timor facilitated
the human rights violations by misrepresentation and eye aversion.
The newspaper swallowed the Indonesian official view that Indonesia
was intervening in a civil war (that war was over before Indonesia
invaded), and most important, as the massacres intensified the
paper's coverage declined to zero in 1978. This is a microcosm
of the overall media treatment of this approved human rights violator,
continued to this very day, with underreporting of unpleasant
facts, sufficient to keep public attention below the level that
would have political consequences.
On September 19, 1997, the Indonesian security forces broke
up a Congress of the Indonesian Welfare Trade Union, detaining
eleven local labor activists, two Australian unionists, and two
Dutch journalists. This brave union group, trying for years to
organize, has been subjected to continuous police harassment,
arrest, and violence. It has also tried to build international
support for basic trade union and democratic rights, but the New
York Times and other mainstream U.S. media failed to report this
event, thereby helping prevent any global campaign from emerging
and keeping Indonesian human rights issues out of sight.
The mainstream media can hardly even perceive that official
and business elites are not sincerely devoted to human rights;
and the idea that they might positively favor human rights violations
and violators is completely outside their frames of thought, by
ideological premise. Yet they are occasionally puzzled by "investor"
preference for authoritarian regimes. The most recent illustration
is an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Free To
Choose: Investors often pick authoritarian over democratic countries"
(September 1S, 1997).
The mainstream media refuse either to look at the record or
explore the dynamics of foreign investment and its political consequences.
As to the record, the United States has given frequent and enthusiastic
support to the overthrow of democracy in favor of "investor
friendly" regimes, including Marcos's Philippines in 1972,
Pinochet's Chile in 1973, and that of the Brazilian generals in
1964; and it has often shifted policy from the support of friendly
fascists like the Somozas in Nicaragua and Ubico in Guatemala
to hostility and active subversion of successor reformist or radical
democrats like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Arevalo and Arbenz
in Guatemala. The World Bank, IMF, and private banks have consistently
lavished huge sums on terror regimes, following their displacement
of democratic governments, and a number of quantitative studies
have shown a systematic positive relationship between U.S. and
IMF/World Bank aid to countries and their violations of human
rights. The scholar Lars Schoultz, for example, concluded that
the correlations between "United States aid to Latin American
countries and human rights violations...are uniformly positive."
This makes complete sense if we recognize that U. S. business
wants a "favorable climate of investment" abroad, and
that military regimes that will crush labor unions and otherwise
serve foreign business meet that demand. In my favorite classic,
Business Week reported back in 1972 that dictator Ferdinand Marcos
told one U.S. oilman: "We'll pass the laws you need-just
tell us what you want." The magazine stated that "American
businessmen have become increasingly sanguine about their future"
in the Philippines. The point that the mainstream media can't
face up to is that Marcos, Pinochet, and the Argentinian and Brazilian
generals created a favorable climate of investment by massive
human rights violations, and were therefore greatly appreciated
and given enthusiastic support by U.S. businessmen and officials.
Similarly, Mexico, Indonesia, and China today systematically attack
attempts at independent labor organization, thereby helping provide
a favorable climate of investment, and attracting U.S. business
in good part for this reason.
But the establishment can't admit it is human rights violations
that make the countries attractive to business-so history has
to be fudged, including denial of our support of regimes of terror
and the practices that provide favorable climates of investment,
and our destabilization of democracies that didn't meet that standard
of service to the transnational corporation (in the mythology,
we destabilized because of the Red Menace, not the "threat
of a good example").
Today, the actors on stage in the human rights charade, and
their media flunkies, must pretend that we regret the repression
of labor in Mexico, Indonesia, and China, as do our humanistic
businesspeople rushing in to take advantage of repressed labor
and the non-enforcement of environmental rules. Despite their
actions and lobbying efforts, they are really devoted to human
rights and are doing their bit by investing in sweatshops of human
rights violators, bringing not only jobs but our democratic example
to those benighted places, as we do in Saudi Arabia as well.
Human Rights, Justice, Reform