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March 19, 2003

Policy Break--The Curious Death of Human Rights


One of the better things about crises is that they often clarify things intellectually. One such moment of clarity seems to have descended on the Left in recent months regarding the whole concept of human rights. To wit: when push comes to shove, the Left doesn’t care about ‘em. The plight of oppressed and terrorized Iraqis counts for, well, nothing, since their oppression doesn’t serve any left-wing political agenda. I quote the ad for Tom Paine on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times:

Go ahead [and invade Iraq]. Saddam will quickly fall, but that won’t make the world safer or more secure.

Hmmm. No discussion of average-Joe Iraqis at all. However, it’s only one ad, and they don’t have room for a lot of copy because they need a big picture of Osama Bin Laden pointing his finger at us like Uncle Sam. The ad, however suggests that one go to to read analyses and alternatives.

Okey dokey. Well the first such analysis is by Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, entitled "Understanding The U.S.-Iraq Crisis: A Primer." In it Ms. Bennis admits that the Iraqi government has long been “brutally repressive towards its own people…” The primer even asks if the Bush administrations concerns over Iraq are valid, including Administration concerns over Iraq’s human rights violations. However, when you read it looking for an answer, it dawns on you that the primer palms this card without providing the obvious answer (an unequivocal “yes,”) and then quickly moves off this subject, never to return.

(Rather ironically, the Institute for Policy Studies website has a page for the Letellier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards, which memorializes the murder of two of their staff members at the hands of Chile’s government in the 1970s). There is also a page about the Institute’s long running attempts to bring Augusto Pinochet to justice. The corresponding lack of interest in bringing Saddam Hussein to justice doesn’t appear to trouble the IPS. Jeeze, if I didn’t know better, I’d conclude that the only way to get yourself on the bad side of these guys—human rights-wise—is to actually bump off some of their staffers. While an understandable attitude, it seems to lack something as a moral principle.)

Well, on to the next link provided by the folks at Tom Paine: "The Thirty-Year Itch," an article by Robert Dreyfuss in Mother Jones, March/April 2003. Perhaps I missed something in this article, devoted to the idea that war with Iraq is the culmination of a 30-year-old conspiracy to seize Middle Eastern oil, but the concerns of brutalized Iraqi citizens didn’t seem nearly as exciting to Mr. Dreyfuss as the machinations of the evil clique running the American (oops, sorry, the Amerikan) Empire.

So I turned to "President Bush's February 26 Speech On The Future of Iraq: A Critique" by Stephen Zunes in Foreign Policy in Focus, March 7, 2003. Here the human rights concerns raised by President Bush are noted, but are rather cleverly sidestepped by a lengthy discussion of the actions of U.S that have caused pain and suffering to Iraqis. The fact that these actions, which include killing Iraqi soldiers and bombing Iraqi infrastructure during the Gulf War, were undertaken in response to the invasion of another country by the Iraqi government certainly is not going to get the U.S. off the hook with Professor Zunes. Nonetheless, it didn’t entirely escape my view that Professor Zunes never really gets around to discussing or sounding terribly concerned about the human rights of the Iraqis, all 24 million of ‘em, when so much more fun is to be had at the expense of President Bush.

Continuing on with "Would War Be Lawful Without Another U.N. Resolution?" we get what is billed on the website as “An Interview with Anthony Dworkin [from the] Crimes of War Project, March 10, 2003,” although in fact it is an interview conducted by Anthony Dworkin with Vaughan Lowe, Chichele Professor of Public International Law at Oxford University. It is the good Professor Lowe’s judgment that U. N. Resolutions 1441, 678 and 681 don’t provide the authority (or at least not strong authority) for an attack on Iraq, although the article rather fair-mindedly notes that British Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, despite rumors to the contrary, decided that the three resolutions did provide such authority. Either way, Iraqi human rights considerations are not an issue.

Plowing manfully forward, I got to "Anger On Iraq Seen As New Qaeda Recruiting Tool" by Don van Natta Jr. and Desmond Butler from the The New York Times, March 16, 2003. Again, this link seems provided by the Tom Paine folks, who ordinarily present themselves as the avatar of moral indignation, not in order to argue a moral or ethical point, but to play on the public’s fears. Geeze, I thought “moral courage” was the whole point of organizations like Tom Paine—maybe I was being a bit naïve. The more I look at it, the more the moral indignation I see looks awfully selective.

There are a number of other links on this page, but I got bored plowing through material that seemed to largely recapitulate what I’ve discussed above, and anyway, none of the articles appeared to be concerned with human rights.

Having been around during the rise of human-rights as a political issue during the 1970s, I am rather bemused at its sudden evaporation a mere 30 years later. If there’s an upside, though, it makes me feel a lot less guilty about Rwanda. I used to feel terrible about the U.S.’s failure to intervene during the genocidal massacres of the Tutsi people by the majority Hutus. But now I can just point to reams and reams of articles on the Tom Paine website and in the European press that demonstrate that such intervention, which would have almost certainly led to a “regime change” would have consequently been, you know, a war crime.



posted by Friedrich at March 19, 2003


It is tiresome, isn't it? People just chirp away, preen and puff their feathers and have no idea at all what any of it means.

When I learned that many many songbirds would, if forced to listen to certain tunes on the edge of their territory, adopt those tunes instead of their typical songbird songs... well, I hadn't realized we had so much in common with mere birds.

Posted by: j.c. on March 19, 2003 4:18 PM

I remember the political issues raised by discussions, then demonstrations during the later 1960s and early 1970s. It seemed (at the time, anyway), that there was more fervor, and willingness to sacrifice something personally (in a positive way) for one's beliefs than anything I have seen since.

I am willing to be convinced otherwise. Partly, my recollections are skewed because I was very young (=idealistic), and partly because my family was in the thick(et) of the movement.

Graduation to adulthood was a disillusioning experience. After realizing over and over that there were plenty of people, very vocal ones, involved in humanitarian movements for un-humanitarian reasons, and seeing first-hand again and again the hideously hydra-like recrudescence of injustice, I find it hurts too much to care.

Ah. That is not quite right. I still care very much. I just can't put my caring on the line anymore. I will call it "getting old and bitter".

Thank you for the post, though. Whenever I find myself ranting in someone's comments, I recognize that the post was meaningful to me.

Posted by: Felicity on March 20, 2003 1:59 AM

You're characterization of the hypocrisy of the Left is certainly fair enough; being a distressed member of the Left myself, I'm probably even more acutely aware of that than you are. But let's be fair and honest here. Bush & Co.'s solicitude for the human rights of the Iraqi people is almost entirely dependent on their perceived strategic value to the U.S. (That "almost" is a reluctant concession, unwarranted by anything I actually know.)

Posted by: John Hinchey on March 21, 2003 1:57 PM

today is my birthday :)

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