Rights and Wrongs

Each year, the New York-based Human Rights Watch issues a report on the state of human rights around the world. The first thing that usually catches the eye of a reader leafing through the report are the stories individual flickers of light on political or religious or ethnic repression that have been put out.These are stories that one rarely sees in the newspaper or on the television news: human-rights activists gunned down in Colombia, United Nations staffers ambushed and killed in Rwanda, a teacher and human-rights activist murdered in Ethiopia. The names are unfamiliar: Mario Calderon, Aimable Nsensiyumvu, Assefa Maru. Their deaths seem far-off and not immediately relevant.But after the names, and the stories, a bigger picture starts to appear. It's a picture sketched out in the Human Rights Watch's introduction to the 1998 report: "The universality of human rights," the report observes, "came under sustained attack in 1997."All these tiny, tragic moments add up, it appears. But more surprising is where this year's report places most of the blame -- not on those far-away nations with difficult-to-pronounce names, but right here in the West.The 1998 Human Rights Watch World Report singled out Western nations, and the United States in particular, for "great power arrogance" in its refusal to submit itself to human-rights standards and institutions and for its efforts to block several important human-rights initiatives.Human Rights Watch noted three particular cases in which the U.S. fell short in promoting broader human-rights concepts, including obstructing the campaign to ban anti-personnel land mines, weakening the powers of a proposed international criminal court, and the United States' refusal to ban those under 18 years of age ("child soldiers") from serving in its own military. (Approximately 1 percent of the U.S. military, according to the report, is made up of 17-year-olds, enrolled mainly to make Pentagon recruiting goals more accessible.) Most citizens of this country would argue that the United States although not perfect isn't exactly the worst human-rights offender. So why the markedly increased Human Rights Watch criticism this year?Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Liz Reynoso says, "Over the years, our organization has been criticized for covering other nations' human-rights abuses and not looking within our own nation." Human Rights Watch began, she adds, with an emphasis on Eastern Europe and gradually extended its scope to the Americas and the rest of the world.Art Sandler, local human-rights activist and Webster University professor, notes other factors in the sharper criticism of the United States this year."The United States came in for a lot of criticism during the Reagan administration," Sandler says, "because of the support for right-wing dictators." The end of the Cold War lessened American interest in those relationships, and when the U.S. dropped their support of those regimes, Sandler observes, "we looked better for awhile."The focus of the human-rights community is shifting, continues Sandler, in a direction that makes the United States look worse. "Our oldest traditions," he says, " and what we are best on, is the observance of civil and political rights. We don't have a good history protecting economic and social rights. The global triumph of neoliberalism is shifting wealth from the poor to the rich, and there's a move in the human-rights community for a shift in focus. We don't look as good."The Human Rights Watch report also points to that post-Cold War shift as a bigger impediment to the universal application of human-rights standards. "The major powers," the Human Rights Watch report argues, "showed a marked tendency to ignore human rights when they proved inconvenient to economic or strategic interests an affliction common to both Europe and the United States."Note the placement of the words "economic" and "strategic" in that sentence. One might argue that it marks the consolidation of a paradigm shift that has been occurring for the last eight years, since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. For the major powers in 1997, it appears, the end of the Cold War has merely shifted the basis for large-scale ignorance of human-rights black holes from arms to cash.Sandler says, "We've decided that our security' lies in the ascendance of a particular economic system."The results are most notable, argues Human Rights Watch, in the West's policy toward China. Admitting that China is a difficult case, the report nonetheless observes that although "the question of striking the right balance between economics, security, and human rights was a real issue ... some countries seemed more concerned about striking deals."The report contrasts China's "shuttered civil society, pervasive torture, extensive religious repression and thousands of political prisoners" with the $867 million in Japanese aid to China, the $685 million worth of contracts to American aerospace giant Boeing and $2.8 billion in World Bank loans.In the aftermath of the 1989 democracy protests and subsequent massacre in Tiananmen Square, the United States and other Western governments were much more pointed in the use of their rhetoric and in linking economics to reform. "Now," observes Sandler, "we're completely willing to overlook things. The kinds of things that were criticized in 1989 won't be criticized now."The shift in paradigm from national security to security by way of economics has also shuffled the players and the pressure points in the human-rights struggle. In the era of security considerations, much of the pressure was applied by governments on other governments, and criticisms were leveled at countries on the basis of their signatures on human-rights accords. It was a simpler, more straightforward game in many ways.In the new era of security through globalization and capital, multinationals have become more significant players in human-rights cases as in the case of Shell Oil's refusal to use its considerable ability to pressure Nigeria and block the execution of author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1996.Sandler observes that the emergence of multinationals in the human-rights arena has two aspects. "They're harder to influence," he notes, "because you're trying to hit a moving target. They can reorganize, adopt different names."But in a lot of respects," Sandler continues, "they're more vulnerable at least the corporations with consumer interface are more vulnerable."Reynoso agrees with Sandler about the difficulties and the opportunities for nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to monitor multinationals and to inform consumers who may bring pressure for increased corporate sensitivity to human rights."We are seeing more and more multinationals involved in human-rights issues," Reynoso says, "and the NGOs are also becoming actors in filling consumers in on human-rights abuses. It's easier now for normal U.S. citizens to see how they're affected, and they can affect the multinationals."The news in the Human Rights Watch report however dismal in places is not entirely bad news. The report notes that the Asian countries' attempts to counter the universality of human rights by insisting on a separate and more restrictive "Asian" concept of human rights has "lost luster" in light of the "economic and environmental crises" there this year.The report also celebrates the election of Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations, and the appointment of former Irish president Mary Robinson as U.N. high commissioner for human rights. " Human rights are part of human security' is a phrase that (Annan) coined and repeatedly used, including in a speech in Shanghai," the report states. Robinson, the report adds about her tenure as Irish president, "skillfully used a ceremonial office to make high-profile statements on a range of important human rights issues."Looking at the human rights movement historically, says Sandler, also offers some context for current difficulties and hope for future progress."When you look at a lot of issues," he argues, "there have been failures. But look where these issues were 30 years ago. Amnesty International started out as eight people taking out an ad. Now there are 20,000 to 30,000 organizations devoted to human rights, with 30 to 40 million people involved worldwide."You can read a detailed summary of the 1998 Human Rights Watch World Report at the organization's Web site (www.hrw.org).


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