The Guardian August 8, 2001

Imperial human rights

"An empire founded by war has to maintain itself by war."
Montesquieu (1689  1755), French philosopher.

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by Mumia Abu-Jamal Few nations speak as loudly or as often of human rights than does the United States. Some American presidential administrations have been dedicated to the promotion and preservation of human rights. It is common for us to hear national elites talk about human rights, but what does it really mean, in the real world? Many nations in the real world, members of the UN Human Rights Commission, apparently think such sweet talk doesn't really mean much, for the Commission recently removed the US from its membership. Done by secret vote, the reasons for the expulsion of the US aren't really known. Perhaps it was international anger at the incessant preaching of the US on the issue. Perhaps it was a global reaction to how the US actually acts internationally. Perhaps it was the recognition of the blatant contradiction between what a nation says and what an empire really does. For nations must recognise some limit to what they can do beyond their national borders while empires, by their very definition, dominate other nation-states, through economic or military means, to achieve imperial interests. The British historian Arnold J Toynbee likened the United States to the ancient Roman Empire: "America is today the leader of a world-wide anti-revolutionary movement in the defence of vested interests, She now stands for what Rome stood for. Rome consistently supported the rich against the poor in all foreign communities that fell under her sway; and, since the poor, so far, have always and everywhere been far more numerous than the rich Rome's policy made for inequality, for injustice, and the least happiness of the greatest number." Much is made of human rights within the empire, but no claim is made for those in foreign lands. Like in ancient Rome, America sees people abroad less as people than as subjects. They are expected to work (for US-based corporations) for less pay, with no environmental protections, and even less worker rights. In times of armed conflict (precipitated by corporate interests) the civilian populations are targeted. Who can deny this after Hiroshima or Nagasaki? After the carnage of Vietnam? After the ongoing devastation visited upon Iraq now? Within that empire, with all the dialogue about human rights, where is the human right to a house? Where is the human right to a job? Where is the human right to an education? In the United States, where there is more wealth than any empire that came before, talk of human rights echoes amidst gripping homelessness, biting poverty, and schools that are but training grounds for prisons. How can a nation that prides itself on "human rights" be the world's major arms dealer, and sponsor of most of the world's dictatorships and torturers? >From South Africa to Chile, from Cambodia to Colombia, the US has trained, funded, supported and praised some of the world's most repressive governments against their own people. As for international law, the American Empire could care less, as political scientist C Douglas Lummis notes: "It is a scandal in contemporary international law, don't forget, that while 'wanton destruction of towns, cities and villages' is a war crime of long standing, the bombing of cities from airplanes goes not only unpunished but virtually unaccused. Air bombardment is state terrorism, the terrorism of the rich. It has burned up and blasted apart more innocents in the past six decades than have all the anti-state terrorists who ever lived. Something has benumbed our consciousness against that reality." The very notion of empire rebels against any constraints placed upon it by external forces. It is a law unto itself. It is a manifestation of the powerful and wealthy who employ them against the weak and poor. For human rights are an updated version of the old "divine right of kings", for it is but the right to exploit. Being an empire means never having to say you're sorry.
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Granma International

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