by Ramsey Clark

from the book - Acts of Aggression, Seven Stories Press, Open Pamphlet Series, 1999


"The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. " So observed Abraham Lincoln at, for him, the darkest moment of the American Civil War. He had just received reports of the massacre of 800 Union soldiers, former slaves whose ancestors were brought from Africa in chains. They were the first such unit to be engaged in combat. Caught and overwhelmed at Ft. Pillow, Tennessee on the Mississippi river by a much larger Confederate cavalry force under Nathan Bedford Forrest, every man was killed. Forrest reported the river ran red for hundreds of yards. After the war Forrest was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan and engaged in racist violence for two decades.

Four score and four years after the Ft. Pillow massacre, in the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly found "a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance," and proclaimed its declaration in order to provide "a good definition."

The Universal Declaration was dominated by the experience, concerns, interests and values of a narrow segment of the "people of the United Nations," primarily the governments of the rich nations, primarily the United States, England and France. It emphasized political rights developed over centuries from their histories with little concern for economic, social and cultural rights. Still it was and remains an important contribution in the continuing struggle for justice.

In the fifth paragraph of its preamble the Declaration notes the United Nations has affirmed "... the dignity and worth of the human person and the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom." Article 1 provides "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Article 5 states, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Article 25 declares, "(l)Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care..."

The United States government pays lip service to the Declaration, but its courts have consistently refused to enforce its provisions reasoning it is not a legally binding treaty, or contract, but only a declaration. This ignores the fact that international law recognizes the provisions of the Declaration as being incorporated into customary international law which is binding on all nations.

The most fundamental, dangerous and harmful violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on its fifteenth birthday is economic sanctions imposed on entire populations. The United States alone blockades eleven million Cubans in the face of the most recent General Assembly resolution approved by 157 nations condemning the blockade, with only the United States and Israel in opposition. The entire population of Cuba and every Cuban has had the "right to a standard of living adequate for health and well being... including food, clothing, housing and medical care" deliberately violated by the United States blockade.

Security Council sanctions against Iraq, which are forced by the United States, have devastated the entire nation, taking the lives of more than 1,500,000 people, mostly infants, children, chronically ill and elderly, and harming millions more by hunger, sickness and sorrow. The sanctions destroy the "dignity and rights" of the people of Iraq and are the most extreme form of " cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, " which are prohibited by the Declaration.

Despite the cruelest destruction of the most basic human rights and liberties of all the people in Iraq, including rights to medicine, safe drinking water and sufficient food, the United States government, with the major mass media in near perfect harmony, proclaims itself the world's champion of liberty and human rights. The problem as Lincoln surely knew is not merely one of definitions. It is a problem of power, will and accountability. The United States intends to have its way and serve its own interests, with Iraq, Cuba, Libya, Iran, the Sudan and many other countries whatever the consequences to the liberties and rights of those who live there.

The United States control over and its concerted action with the mass media enables it to demonize such countries, its victims, for "terrorism, "threats to world peace and human rights violations at the very time it rains Tomahawk cruise missiles on them and motivates and finances armed insurrections and violence against them. At the same time the United States increases its own staggeringly large prison industry, with more than a million persons confined, including 40 percent of all African-American males between 17 and 27 years old in the State of California. Simultaneously the United States spends more on its military than the ten largest military budgets of other nations combined, sells most of the arms and sophisticated weapons still increasing worldwide while rejecting an international convention to prohibit land mines and an international court of criminal justice. And the United States maintains and deploys the great majority of all weapons of mass destruction existent on earth, nuclear, chemical, biological and the most deadly of all- economic sanctions.

It is imperative that clear definitions of all fundamental rights of people, be clearly inscribed in international law, including economic rights which are most basic to human need and on which all other rights are dependent and rights to freedom from military aggression by a superpower or its surrogates.

But without a passionate commitment by the people of the United States and other major powers to stop their own governments from violating those definitions of human rights, hold them accountable for their acts and to prevent their own media from seducing them into acceptance or complacency, there will be no protection for the poor and powerless and no correspondence between the words of rich and powerful nations and their deeds.

We can be thankful for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but together the people of the world must do better to define and protect the humanity of the people.


RAMSEY CLARK is an attorney, teacher, and writer. He served as Attorney General of the United States during the Johnson Administration. He is actively engaged in practice of law in fields of law, peace, disarmament, human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, voting rights, health, education and others. In 1991 he founded the International Action Center .

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