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Truthdig Radio: How the U.S. Co-Opted Human Rights

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Posted on May 11, 2011
Photo illustration from an image by Colin Grey

(Page 3)

For example, the human rights movement has developed various things about laws of war; but they’re not against war. They are about—they’re not against occupying other countries; they’re concerned with the laws of occupation. They’re not concerned with the size of military spending, or the pre-eminence of American power. And those kinds of concerns, which had been so central to the issues of Vietnam, were ones that the human rights movement—when it really began to be taken into the national security world—were broken away from. And you see it, as well, in the civil rights movement, because in the last years of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, he had begun to speak very eloquently about the need to link a peace movement with civil rights, and if you broke the two apart, you would end up with neither, because the civil rights movement, in the end, was going to have to deal with issues of inequality and restructuring of American society. And that also, in a way, is what the fundamentals of human rights have broken from.

So what the national security managers basically needed was a new idealism. What they needed was an idealism that said, look: Vietnam was a mistake; if we’d lived up to our ideals, we probably wouldn’t have done it; we’re a different kind of country than that. And that can be sort of the foundation for a new way of re-idealizing American power and asserting a new kind of globalism.

Peter Scheer: I want to—can we jump into China real quick, because you’re also the author of “Washington’s China,” and a China expert yourself. And speaking of human rights, this week Hillary Clinton came out in an interview in the Atlantic and said some nasty things about China’s human rights record, which we’re used to hearing from Washington since 1949. And as we pointed out on Truthdig, it’s awfully hypocritical, considering that the United States is now executing people abroad; it has an island gulag; we have more of our population in prison than any country in the world …

Josh Scheer: Now? [Laughs]

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Peter Scheer:… including China …

Josh Scheer: James’ book is filled with the history of examples of setting up dictatorships, torture …

Peter Scheer: Right, but I’m saying, in pursuit of these wars, we have used the human rights argument. But does it have any credibility at this stage?

James Peck: I think it has a great deal of credibility in the United States, unfortunately. I think its credibility overseas is basically diminished, and is pretty much gone. I mean, I think if we look at what’s happened in the Middle East, I would say one of the overwhelming demands in the Middle East is freedom from us. And it’s not that they don’t want radical transformation and change. But when I talk in the book about two currents of human rights, I show, in part, about how America keeps invoking things about freedom of speech and things like that. But—and those things are very important—but the other issues of radical transformation of wealth and power, of collective mobilization, of a way of reducing American military presence in the Middle East—these issues are now all back on the agenda. And in that context, the traditional human rights language is coming to an end, I think.

Josh Scheer: And you talk in the book about Amnesty International, and talking about—in particular about China, the Chinese revolution being an atrocity, or one huge atrocity; the Iranian revolution being, you know, an atrocity, among others; and then defending some acts of violence as necessary. How do human rights groups like Amnesty International, which I believe you put at 1961, right, as being founded …

James Peck: Yeah.

Josh Scheer: … how do they work with the government? I mean, are they kind of—are they important … or are they doing the government’s work? Are they kind of feeding this war machine?

James Peck: You know, Amnesty … Amnesty is somewhat different than, say, Human Rights Watch, which of course is an American organization; Amnesty was a British. And indeed, when the national security managers were first talking about the issue of human rights, and bringing it into American foreign policy, there weren’t major American human rights groups yet; there was only the British, and they were uneasy about the fact that the only organization … was British. Amnesty has been much more leery of association with the American government than, say, Human Rights Watch, which has a great many people on it who are former national security people. So the linkage is much greater.

On the China issue, I would say the human rights vision basically is the further away you get from the Chinese revolution, the better. And in that way, though there are many egregious problems of human rights in China, it doesn’t give you a lot of insight into what’s happening in the protest movements in China, unless they happen to conform to the language we’re used to. And China, I think, actually is going to surprise a lot of people in terms of the wealth and diversity of its protest movement. But if you’re looking at it through the eyes of the dissidents who’ve been significantly—and they’re courageous, often, people—but if you look at it through the eyes of the dissidents who are known in the West, you probably won’t get what’s really happening in China.

Josh Scheer: It’s funny, because … the different eras, before we started doing human rights—I know Bob would have a fit if we didn’t mention it—but in Iran, and the Iranian revolution … they talk about … a lot of these groups …

Peter Scheer: Were assassinated …

Josh Scheer: … [by] Mossadegh … in 1945. So that was before we started selling human rights, and now we’ve got this problem in Iran, where people do not like their administration; they do have human rights …

Peter Scheer: Well, no, but I mean the irony—you know, in Afghanistan, we were talking about human rights when we were trying to fight the Russians in a proxy war that ended up installing this horribly anti-human-rights regime. And now in the name of human rights against that regime, we are air—you know, firing missiles into wedding parties. So it seems like a big mess all around.

James Peck: One of the things—it’s interesting that you put it that way, because one of the things the U.S. government, oddly enough, can live with is hypocrisy. [Laughter] And I think people underestimate why this is true, so let me give you a very specific example. The laws of war—which the human rights community radically and rapidly developed during the 1980s, during the violent struggles in Central America and the effort to suppress the Sandinistas—were actually strongly advocated by the national security managers, like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams. And one of the things people don’t seem to realize is why so many of the hawks, up to Wolfowitz today, keep pushing for human rights. Well, what they understood in the ’80s was not that the people they were working with weren’t murderous thugs, but they needed to do what they had not been able to do in Vietnam, which is to discredit the struggles against the Americans. And they’ve not been able to do that against the National Liberation Front and the Vietnamese. They tried to label them as terrorists—essentially if you go back and read these documents, there are reams of documents trying to label them as terrorists. But the label didn’t stick.

And so what happened in the ’80s is that the human rights community, on the one hand, started to document the extraordinary atrocities in El Salvador and Guatemala and the death squads. But at the same time they wrote reports about some of the violations—which were true—of some of the resistance movements in El Salvador, and Guatemala, and Honduras. And what the U.S. government did was to say, you see? Everybody … nobody’s really on a good cause here, everybody’s doing these atrocious acts. And it sort of tarnished the whole notion of, well, what is social justice? How do you deal with oppression? And when you’re reading reports about guerrilla groups killing certain people, and you stop there, you lose the mobilizing ability to try and think through, well, what movements do have a certain justice on their side, and which ones are thuggish, and which ones should not be supported? So there’s a case where by spreading the darkness all around, you—in a way, it’s endlessly hypocritical, but it’s also effective.


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