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The Hijacking of Human Rights

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Posted on Apr 7, 2013
Flickr/Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

Suzanne Nossel.

By Chris Hedges

(Page 2)

Coleen Rowley and Ann Wright first brought Nossel’s past and hawkish ideology to light when she became the executive director of Amnesty International USA a year ago. Rowley and Wright have written correctly that “humanitarian interventionists,” in or out of government, see no distinction between human rights work and the furtherance of U.S. imperial power. Nossel, they noted, “sees no conflict between her current role and having been a member of the executive staff whilst her President and Secretary of State bosses were carrying out war crimes such as drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan and shielding torturers and their enablers in the Bush administration from prosecution.” (For more on this see Rowley’s article “Selling War as ‘Smart Power.’ ”)

Is this the résumé of a human rights advocate in the United States? Are human rights organizations supposed to further the agenda of the state rather than defend its victims? Are the ideas of “humanitarian interventionists” compatible with human rights? Are writers and artists no longer concerned with the plight of all dissidents, freedom of expression and the excesses of state power? Are we nothing more than puppets of the elite? Aren’t we supposed to be in perpetual, voluntary alienation from all forms of power? Isn’t power, from a human rights perspective, the problem?

The current business of human rights means human rights for some and not for others. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, the Peace Alliance, and Citizens for Global Solutions are all guilty of buying into the false creed that U.S. military force can be deployed to promote human rights. None of these groups stood up to oppose the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan, as if pre-emptive war is not one of the grossest violations of human rights.

The creed of “humanitarian intervention” means, for many, shedding tears over the “right” victims. Its supporters lobby for the victims in Darfur and ignore the victims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Gaza. They denounce the savagery of the Taliban but ignore the savagery we employ in our offshore penal colonies or our drone-infested war zones. They decry the enslavement of girls in brothels in India or Thailand but not the slavery of workers in our produce fields or our prisons. They demand justice for persecuted dissidents in the Arab world but say nothing about Bradley Manning.

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The playwright and fierce anti-war critic Arthur Miller, the first American president of PEN International, fearlessly stood up to McCarthyism and was blacklisted. He denounced the Vietnam War. He decried the invasion of Iraq. PEN, when it embodied Miller’s resistance and decency, stood for something real and important. As the U.S. bombed Iraq into submission and then invaded, Miller, who called the war a form of “mass murder,” said indignantly: “It’s a joke that the U.S. government wheels out the Geneva Convention when they themselves have turned away or flouted so many international treaties.”

The posing of government shills such as Nossel as human rights campaigners and the marginalization of voices such as Miller’s are part of the sickness of our age. If PEN recaptures the moral thunder of the late Arthur Miller, if it remembers that human rights mean defending all who are vulnerable, persecuted and unjustly despised, I will be happy to rejoin.

All systems of power are the problem. And it is the role of the artist, the writer and the intellectual to defy every center of power on behalf of those whom power would silence and crush. This means, in biblical terms, embracing the stranger. It means being a constant opponent rather than an ally of government. It means being the perpetual outcast. Those who truly fight for human rights understand this. 

“Whether the mask is labeled Fascism, Democracy, or Dictatorship of the Proletariat, our great adversary remains the Apparatus—the bureaucracy, the police, the military … ,” Simone Weil wrote. “No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this Apparatus, and to trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in ourselves and in others.”


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