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Chomsky: The Most Powerful Country in History Is Destroying the Earth and Human Rights as We Know Them

"Sophisticated westerners" are currently standing in the way of trying to find a sustainable and humane approach to organizing human life.

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Looking over the history of African-Americans from the first arrival of slaves almost 500 years ago to the present, they have enjoyed the status of authentic persons for only a few decades.  There is a long way to go to realize the promise of Magna Carta.

Sacred Persons and Undone Process

The post-Civil War  fourteenth amendment granted the rights of persons to former slaves, though mostly in theory.  At the same time, it created a new category of persons with rights: corporations.  In fact, almost all the cases brought to the courts under the fourteenth amendment had to do with corporate rights, and by a century ago, they had determined that these collectivist legal fictions, established and sustained by state power, had the full rights of persons of flesh and blood; in fact, far greater rights, thanks to their scale, immortality, and protections of limited liability.  Their rights by now far transcend those of mere humans.  Under the “free trade agreements,” Pacific Rim can, for example, sue El Salvador for seeking to protect the environment; individuals cannot do the same.  General Motors can claim national rights in Mexico.  There is no need to dwell on what would happen if a Mexican demanded national rights in the United States.

Domestically, recent Supreme Court rulings greatly enhance the already enormous political power of corporations and the super-rich, striking further blows against the tottering relics of functioning political democracy.

Meanwhile Magna Carta is under more direct assault.  Recall the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, which barred “imprisonment beyond the seas,” and certainly the far more vicious procedure of imprisonment abroad for the purpose of torture -- what is now more politely called  “rendition,” as when Tony Blair  rendered Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj, now a leader of the rebellion, to the mercies of Qaddafi; or when U.S. authorities  deportedCanadian citizen Maher Arar to his native Syria, for imprisonment and torture, only later conceding that there was never any case against him.  And many others, often through Shannon Airport, leading to courageous protests in Ireland.

The concept of  due process has been extended under the Obama administration’s international assassination campaign in a way that renders this core element of the Charter of Liberties (and the Constitution) null and void.  The Justice Department explained that the constitutional guarantee of due process, tracing to Magna Carta, is now satisfied by  internal deliberations in the executive branch alone.  The constitutional lawyer in the White House agreed.  King John might have nodded with satisfaction.

The issue arose after the presidentially ordered assassination-by-drone of Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of inciting  jihad in speech, writing, and unspecified actions.  A  headline in the  New York Times captured the general elite reaction when he was murdered in a drone attack, along with the usual collateral damage.  It read: “The West celebrates a cleric’s death.” Some eyebrows were lifted, however, because he was an American citizen, which raised questions about due process -- considered irrelevant when non-citizens are murdered at the whim of the chief executive.  And irrelevant for citizens, too, under Obama administration due-process legal innovations.

Presumption of innocence has also been given a new and useful interpretation.  As the  New York Times reported, “Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” So post-assassination determination of innocence maintains the sacred principle of presumption of innocence.

It would be ungracious to recall the Geneva Conventions, the foundation of modern humanitarian law: they bar “the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”