The Human Rights Charade
The business of America is business
The Chinese market is huge and its increasing
openness to foreign business has caused a global "gold rush" from which U.S.
business does not want to be excluded. A powerful business lobby has been organized here
to fight for government support for entry into the Chinese market, and that lobby is
extremely impatient with the claims of human rights proponents and their demands for
bargaining in the interest of human rights. The members of this lobby, which includes
Motorola, Boeing, Caterpillar, and several major oil companies, are important sources of
election funding, and given the intense Clinton and Republican focus on fund raising, and
the heavy weight the Clinton administration has given to expansion of trade and foreign
investment in its economic program, that lobby’s demands will be met, and human rights
concerns will not be permitted to stand in the way of the important values at stake.
Because the Chinese recognize the dominance of economic interests over human rights
values, they have even toyed with U.S. officials, and as Chomsky has pointed out,
"seemed to enjoy watching their partners twist in the wind." This was notable in
the negotiations for renewal of China’s Most Favored Nation status in June 1994, where the
Clinton administration kept urging China to make a small move that could be cited (an
"indication of direction"–as in the U.S. certification of El Salvador’s human
rights "improvements" in the 1980s, based on alleged small reductions in army
and death squad murders) to justify serving the administration’s business constituency.
The Chinese dragged their feet even on gestures. The media of course missed the hypocrisy
and cynicism of this game. The business community and politicians have a rationale for
doing little or nothing on behalf of human rights in a country like China–namely, that
greater trade and investment will itself serve to democratize China. This is a wonderfully
convenient argument, unproven, and somewhat illogical as greater trade and investment
strengthens the existing political regime and gives it greater freedom of action. It is
also interesting that this argument is not applied to Cuba and Iran, nor to Nicaragua
during the years of Sandinista rule–in those cases desired change was thought to follow
from reducing trade and investment. The mainstream media don’t discuss this double
standard and its meaning.
Why bother with the charade?
Why do Clinton and the media engage in the human
rights charade? In part, because the public values human rights and the United States is
supposed to be in favor of human rights and democracy, so that a show of concern by our
leaders is required to demonstrate our high moral character. This display of concern is
not necessary if there is little public interest in or knowledge about the abusing country
and its victims. Whether the public is informed on these matters is, of course, affected
by what government, business and the media choose to publicize, and these conjointly tend
to play down abuses by regimes that serve U.S. business and strategic interests. They have
successfully minimized publicity on human rights in most non-enemy states (the examples of
Saudi Arabia and Indonesia are discussed below).
But publicity regarding China’s human rights abuses got out of control–the Tiananmen
Square massacre received intense coverage and has not been forgotten, and the occupation
and abuse of Tibet, the sweatshops and prison labor, China’s rapid imposition of features
of authoritarian rule on Hong Kong, have all caused exceptional attention to Chinese human
rights issues. Furthermore, China was long an enemy state–"Red China"–and much
of the attention to its abuses has reflected the standard media practice of focusing on
enemy villainy. Many conservatives and members of the media continue this focus in the
mistaken belief that China is still a communist (rather than plain authoritarian) state.
The human rights double standard
That the focus on Chinese human rights violations on
the part of the U.S. politicos and mainstream media reflects exceptional circumstances
rather than a devotion to human rights, is clearly evident in their disinterest in serious
human rights violations by amenable clients. Take Saudi Arabia, a theocratic/authoritarian
state that discriminates harshly against women, crushes any dissent by police force, has
no free elections, and represents one variant of the dread "Islamic ideology" in
official practice. However, this massive human rights violator allows privileged U.S.
access to its oil and serves U.S. (oil company) interests well. The United States
therefore not only remains silent on Saudi human rights violations, it maintains thousands
of military personnel in Saudi Arabia and actively supports and protects the regime. No
fuss here about human rights, no problem of "clashing civilizations," and the
mainstream media cooperate by ignoring Saudi abuses and failing to point out the hypocrisy
of the official U.S. focus on Cuban electoral failings and simultaneous active help in
sustaining authoritarian rule in Saudi Arabia.
The same point applies to Indonesia. For more than two decades it has been in violation
of a UN ruling to get out of East Timor, and its ongoing abuses there and violations of
human rights at home are severe. Its elections are controlled, free unions are not
permitted, and there are still numerous prisoners incarcerated from the time of the coup
and mass murders of 1965-66. However, this authoritarian state allows Western access to
its oil, timber and other resources, and has long been supported and protected by the
United States and its allies. Thus, Suharto, whose killings of innocent civilians at home
and in East Timor easily rivals or exceeds those of Pol Pot, is treated rather
differently, as a "statesman" and "reformer," even if regrettably a
bit old-fashioned in respect of democratic niceties. The West gives Indonesia large annual
gifts, lends it huge sums of money, competes to provide it with arms, and is now bailing
the dictatorship out with U.S. and IMF funds. When Suharto visited Washington in 1995,
there were the public remarks about our deep human rights concerns, but the visit was
cordial, and a senior Clinton official enthused that Suharto is "our kind of
guy," and that here was a relationship that we would like to duplicate with China.
That is, issue a few human rights words and gestures, but concentrate on hard business
dealing unencumbered by "domestic political pressures." The media have played a
critical role in containing domestic political pressures and preserving our cordial
relationship with the Suharto regime. Noam Chomsky and I showed back in 1979 how the New
York Times’s coverage of the Indonesian invasion and holocaust in East Timor facilitated
the human rights violations by misrepresentation and eye aversion. The paper swallowed the
Indonesian official view that Indonesia was intervening in a civil war (that war was over
before Indonesia invaded), and most important, as the massacres intensified the paper’s
coverage declined to zero in 1978. This is a microcosm of the overall media treatment of
this approved human rights violator, continued to this very day, with underreporting of
unpleasant facts, sufficent to keep public attention below the level that would have
On September 19, 1997, the Indonesian security forces broke up a Congress of the
Indonesian Welfare Trade Union, detaining 11 local labor activists, two Australian
unionists and two Dutch journalists. This brave union group, trying for years to organize,
has been subjected to continuous police harassment, arrest and violence. It has also tried
to build international support for basic trade union and democratic rights, but the New
York Times and other mainstream U.S. media failed to report this event, as their past
actions, thereby helping prevent any global campaign from emerging and keeping Indonesian
human rights issues out of sight. In short, the media continue to perform their
"societal purpose" of serving the important interests of this country, that
Clinton likewise supports in cultivating Suharto and Jiang and pursuing his "fast
Favoring human rights abusers
The mainstream media can hardly even perceive that
official and business elites are not sincerely devoted to human rights; and the idea that
they might positively favor human rights violations and violators is completely outside
their frames of thought, by ideological premise. Yet they are occasionally puzzled by
"investor" preference for authoritarian regimes. The most recent illustration is
an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Free To Choose: Investors often pick
authoritarian over democratic countries" (Sept. 18, 1997).
The mainstream media simply refuse either to look at the record or explore the dynamics
of foreign investment and its political consequences. As to the record, the United States
has given frequent and enthusiastic support to the overthrow of democracy in favor of
"investor friendly" regimes, including Marcos’s Philippines in 1972, Pinochet’s
Chile in 1973, and that of the Brazilian generals in 1964; and it has often shifted policy
from the support of friendly fascists like the Somozas in Nicaragua and Ubico in Guatemala
to hostility and active subversion of successor reformist or radical democrats like the
Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Arevalo and Arbenz in Guatemala. The World Bank, IMF, and
private banks have consistently lavished huge sums on terror regimes, following their
displacement of democratic governments, and a number of quantitative studies have shown a
systematic positive relationship between U.S. and IMF/World Bank aid to countries and
their violations of human rights (see Herman, Real Terror Network chap. 3). The scholar
Lars Schoultz, for example, concluded that the correlations between "United States
aid to Latin American countries and human rights violations…are uniformly
This makes complete sense if we recognize that U.S. business wants a "favorable
climate of investment" abroad, and that military regimes that will crush labor unions
and otherwise serve foreign business meet that demand. In my favorite classic, Business
Week reported back in 1972 that dictator Ferdinand Marcos told one U.S. oilman:
"We’ll pass the laws you need–just tell us what you want." The magazine stated
that "American businessmen have become increasingly sanguine about their future"
in the Philippines. The point that the mainstream media can’t face up to is that Marcos,
Pinochet, and the Argentinian and Brazilian generals created a favorable climate of
investment by massive human rights violations, and were therefore greatly appreciated and
given enthusiastic support by U.S. businessmen and officials (see accompanying box).
Similarly, Mexico, Indonesia and China today systematically attack attempts at independent
labor organization, thereby helping provide a favorable climate of investment, and
attracting U.S. business in good part for this reason.
But the establishment can’t admit that it is the human rights violations that make the
countries attractive to business–so history has to be fudged, including denial of or eye
aversion from our support of regimes of terror, along with the terror practices that
provided favorable climates of investment, and our destabilization of democracies that
didn’t meet that standard of service to the transnational corporation (in the mythology,
we destabilized because of the Red Menace, not the "threat of a good example").
And today, the actors strutting across the stage in the human rights charade, and their
media flunkies, must pretend that we really regret the repression of labor in Mexico,
Indonesia and China, as do our humanistic businessmen rushing in to take advantage of
repressed labor and the non-enforcement of environmental rules. Despite their actions and
lobbying efforts, they are really devoted to human rights and are doing their bit by
investing in sweatshops of human rights violators, bringing not only jobs but our
democratic example to those benighted places, as we do in Saudi Arabia as well!!!
U.S. BUSINESS AND OFFICIAL ACCOLADES TO HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATORS (TINY SAMPLE)
Argentina: "Finally Argentina has a regime which understands the private
enterprise system." (Chase-Manhattan Bank CEO David Rockefeller, 1977; a military
regime of terror took over in 1976)
Brazil: The 1964 military takeover was "totally democratic " and "the
single most decisive victory for freedom in the mid-twentieth century" (Lincoln
Gordon, U.S. Latin America official, later president of Johns Hopkins University, 1966).
Chile: "The recent return of Citibank to Santiago most certainly is an act of
faith in Chile’s economic future. We believe that matters are being handled very
efficiently and with a great sense of responsibility" (Citibank official, 1976; the
Pinochet dictatorship took over in 1973).
"The present Chilean regime is clearly in the best interests of the world compared
with the Marxist regime of Allende….we are trying to move Chile back to freedom"
(William Simon, 1976).
Dominican Republic: "Raphael Trujillo is a splendid president, who is outstanding
among all those in the American nations" (Secretary of State Cordell Hull, 1937).
Guatemala: Speaking to the press on Dec. 4, 1982, President Reagan said that President
Rios Montt was "a man of great personal integrity and commitment" who
"wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans," and was getting a
"bum rap" on human rights (two months earlier, an Amnesty International Report
had described army attacks on 60 Indian villages, with over 2,500 civilians killed).
Iran: The "progressive administration" and "stability" under the
Shah "is a great tribute…to your leadership, and to the respect, admiration and
love which your people give to you" (Jimmy Carter, shortly after the Shah had gunned
down thousands of demonstrators, and shortly before his ouster, 1978).
Nicaragua: "He’s a sonofabitch [dictator Somoza], but he’s ours" (President
Franklin Roosevelt, 1939).
Philippines: Ferdinand Marcos is "pledged to democracy," has performed great
"service to freedom," and we Americans "love your adherence to democratic
principle and to the democratic processes" (George Bush in Manila, 1981).
Thailand: Phibun Songkhram, the first pro-Axis dictator to regain power after World War
II, was given the Legion of Merit award by President Eisenhower in 1955 for his services
in "the cause of freedom."
Zaire "[U.S.] Ambassador Timberlake was exuberant at the collapse of Congolese
democracy. ‘Even the local clerks who worked for Lumumbavitch [sic] are being methodically
arrested,’ he cabled Washington cheerily on September 16 , as the Congolese finally
learned the meaning of political freedom, U.S.-style. Timberlake described Mobutu–who
after a decade of public service would credibly come to call himself the third richest man
in the world–as ‘completely honest.’" (Jonathan Kwitny, Endless Enemies, 66).