By Margaret Kimberley (Executive Editor and Senior Columnist, Black Agenda Report)
The words human rights are used quite frequently but conditions around the world prove that they are rarely taken seriously. The United States, which claims to be a protector of human rights, has more people imprisoned, some two million, than any other country on earth. Yet it routinely accuses other nations that won’t bend to its will of being human rights abusers. The term has become a weapon of coercion, a means of intimidation. So much so that it will lose all meaning unless those of us who are serious about protecting human rights take up the charge.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a good starting point to determine when and how human rights should be respected and protected. The UDHR confirms that human beings have the right to life and liberty, fair trials, the presumption of innocence, freedom of thought and opinion, living wage work, housing, healthcare, and free education. It condemns arbitrary detention, torture, and any form of discrimination. The U.S. doesn’t do well by any of these metrics. It doesn’t support the rights of its own citizens and routinely deprives others of what it claims to lift up.
Warfare is the ultimate violation of human rights. The United States ended its 20-year long occupation of Afghanistan and immediately confiscated that country’s assets. They bizarrely claimed that families of September 11 victims were entitled to money from a country that didn’t attack the U.S., and they claim that NGOs will provide humanitarian relief that the government there is capable of giving. Poverty-stricken Afghans face hunger and are driven to sell their kidneys in order to survive.
Afghanistan is not alone in being targeted in this fashion. Sanctions, unilateral coercive measures, are imposed upon 39 nations, including Cuba, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Eritrea, and Nicaragua. Citizens of targeted nations are deprived of food and medicine and therefore the “security of person” that the UDHR describes. At least 40,000 Venezuelans lost their lives as a result of just two years of the Trump Administration’s sanctions regime.
Even in what it claims is an effort to bring peace to the conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. uses sanctions against Russia, and admits that in so doing it also seeks to damage Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua in the process. As a Biden Administration official said, “sanctions against Russia are so robust that they will impact those countries that have a relationship with Russia. That is by design.” He added that these nations will “feel the squeeze.”
Human rights cannot exist in a vacuum. They must be an integral part of society. A country like the United States, founded as a settler-colonial state, has a domestic and international history of conquest and aggression. Therefore any claims of adherence to human rights norms are inevitably performative.
The United States is not a signatory of the Treaty of Rome, which brought the International Criminal Court (ICC) into being. Not only is the U.S. not a member state; in 2002 Congress passed the American Service Members Protection Act, popularly known as the Hague Invasion Act, that gives the U.S. the right to extract any American held at the court in the Hague. The removal part isn’t even necessary because the act prohibits the extradition of Americans to the ICC.
It isn’t surprising that a nation that would claim such rights for itself would not follow international law, but would instead follow what it calls a “rules-based order.” This vague term means anything that one wants, and it is therefore dangerous. A claimed “responsibility to protect” led to the destruction of the nation of Libya in 2011 and an ongoing humanitarian crisis. A claim of protection of human rights was a ruse used to commit inhumane acts.
I traveled to Nicaragua as an election companion, acompañante, in November 2021 along with an international solidarity group of more than 200 people. The United States has targeted Nicaragua in vicious ways, during the Contra War of the 1980s, and by instigating a coup attempt in 2018. The RENACER Act passed before the election is intended to harm the Nicaraguan economy and its people. The Biden Administration accuses that government of practicing human rights violations while simultaneously committing its own in order to undo the will of that country’s people.
We see that human rights must be foundational to nations. When they are not, wholesale societal change is required, of the kind seen in the liberation movement of the 1960s. What is often called the Civil Rights Movement was in fact a human rights movement. That is our charge, to make human rights foundational, to put them in the forefront, and not leave them to be cynically twisted for ignoble purposes. Human rights cannot fall victim to the whims of the powerful, who make a mockery of a very high ideal.
Al Jazeera. (2022, February 28). Desperate Afghans sell kidneys amid poverty, starvation. Retrieved April 9, 2022, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/28/desperate-afghans-resort-to-selling-kidneys-to-feed-families
Norton, B. (2022, February 27). U.S. sanctions on Russia over Ukraine also target Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba. Retrieved April 9, 2022, from https://multipolarista.com/2022/02/27/us-sanctions-russia-ukraine-venezuela-nicaragua-cuba
U.S. Department of State Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. (2003, July 30). American Service-Members’ Protection Act. State.gov. Retrieved April 9, 2022, from https://2001-2009.state.gov/t/pm/rls/othr/misc/23425.htm
United Nations. (1948, December 10). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UN.org. Retrieved April 9, 2022, from https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights
Weisbrot, M., & Sachs, J. (2019, April 25). Economic sanctions as collective punishment: the case of Venezuela. CEPR.net. Retrieved April 9, 2022, from https://cepr.net/report/economic-sanctions-as-collective-punishment-the-case-of-venezuela