excerpts from the book

Ideal Illusions

How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights

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 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.

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 DeGaulle

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 nation.

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 issues.

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 by ideology.

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 Committees.

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 human rights.

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 other countries.

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 words.

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 countries.

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.

Human Rights

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