This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Signed by the United States and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948, the document was a great and shining step forward in the articulation of how human beings might organize their social and political systems in accord with democratic and civilized ideals.
The U.S. has long wielded the Universal Declaration (UD) as a weapon to brandish selectively against officially designated enemies. But seven decades after its signing (and trumpeting) the document, American society stands in rarely noted gross violation of the declaration’s key principles.
Take the UD’s first’s article: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
The United States falls far short here. Someone born into one of the 57 percent of U.S. households with less than $1,000 in savings will not enjoy remotely the same amount of “dignity and rights” as those enjoyed by someone born into the top 1 percent of households, which together possess as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of U.S. citizens. Access to basic means of comfort, dignity and freedom—like quality housing, quality education, strong legal representation, leisure, travel, health care, quality food and recreation—is filtered by the militantly disparate distribution of wealth and income in the U.S., the most savagely unequal nation among all Western “capitalist democracies.” Like the polarized and nasty political culture to which it is merged, the nation’s extreme socioeconomic imbalance is inconsistent with calls for conscience and brotherhood.
Article 2 of the UD proclaims, among other things, that everyone is entitled to human rights and freedoms without distinctions of “race, color” and “national or social origin.” Here again, the U.S. stands in stark contravention.
Median white wealth is 12 times higher than median black wealth in the U.S.—a reflection of persistent anti-black discrimination and segregation built into the nation’s social structures and institutions. Reflecting stark racial disparities in arrest, prosecution, legal representation and sentencing, black and Latinos make up 56 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million incarcerated people though they comprise roughly 32 percent of the U.S. population. One in three adult black males is saddled with the crippling lifelong mark of a felony record—a critical barrier to opportunity and full citizenship (even the right to vote in many U.S. states) on numerous levels. Thanks to the racially disparate waging of the so-called war on drugs, one of every 10 U.S. black men in their 30s is in jail or prison on any given day. African-Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African-Americans for drug charges is almost six times that of whites.
Millions of undocumented immigrant workers and residents are unwilling to fight for their “universal human rights” in the U.S. because they reasonably fear arrest and deportation.
The UD’s fourth article declares, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.” Hundreds of thousands of U.S. prisoners—the modern-day and very disproportionately nonwhite human chattel that provides the essential raw material for the self-declared “Land of Freedom’s” curiously gigantic prison-industrial complex—perform labor tasks for tiny levels of compensation and often for no payment at all. The Global Slavery Index estimates that 57,000 people are victims of human trafficking, the modern form of slavery, with illegal smuggling and trading of people, for forced labor or sexual exploitation, in the United States.
Hundreds of millions of nominally free Americans are de facto slaves and servants to employers (upon whom a shocking number of Americans absurdly depend for health coverage), financial institutions, insurance corporations, retail corporations, credit agencies, property associations, government tax collectors, gambling agencies (including state lottery systems), health care providers, lawyers and drug dealers.
The UD’s fifth article says, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Torture and such treatment is endemic across the United States’ vast prison system, the largest in world history. One particularly widespread and egregious form of cruel and inhuman treatment inside that system is solitary confinement—a punishment well known to cause grave damage to its victims’ mental and physical health. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that:
“Over the last two decades, the use of solitary confinement in U.S. correctional facilities has surged … 44 states and the federal government have supermax units, where prisoners are held in extreme isolation, often for years or even decades. On any given day in this country, it’s estimated that over 80,000 prisoners are held in isolated confinement. This massive increase in the use of solitary has happened despite criticism from legal and medical professionals, who have deemed the practice unconstitutional and inhumane.”
Other forms of torture and cruel and inhumane treatment that are common in the nation’s vast archipelago of racially disparate mass incarceration include widespread beatings, rape, ignoring cries for help, overcrowding, underfunding, forcing inmates to fight, dehydration, starvation, denial of medical care, executions (including botched executions) and forced scalding showers.
Article 7 of the UD proclaims, “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.”
This principle, too, is brazenly violated in the purported homeland and headquarters of global freedom and democracy. Many Americans are familiar with the old working-class aphorism that “money talks and bullshit walks”—meaning that the wealthy few hire high-priced lawyers to enhance their chances and power in the courts while everyday people do far less well with fewer resources to pay for legal representation. It’s no joke. As the Georgia gubernatorial candidate and former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams noted last February, people with money “artfully navigate the criminal justice system and maybe even avoid it altogether,” but those who are poor are overwhelmed.
Wall Street chieftains who threw millions of Americans out of work and destroyed billions of dollars in lost savings through their reckless and often criminal practices have escaped prosecution while the nation’s jails and prisons are loaded with disproportionately black, Latino and poor people serving long terms for comparative small-time drug offenses. Hundreds of thousands of Americans rot in jail prior to conviction for the simple reason that they lack the financial resources to “make bail.” Abrams reports, “The majority of Georgians incarcerated in local jails have never been convicted of crime. They are simply too poor to pay their bail.”
The UD’s ninth and 10th articles say that “[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” and “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.”
The 11th article says, “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”
The “land of freedom” contravenes these core civil-libertarian principles without the slightest hint of embarrassment. The U.S. National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorizes the indefinite military detention, without charge or trial, of any person labeled a “belligerent”—including an American citizen. The legislation overrides habeas corpus, the critical legal procedure that prevents the government from detaining you indefinitely without showing just cause.
In addition, the federal government has used the post 9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) law to justify the direct killing (without a trial or verdict) of anyone proclaimed an “enemy combatant” in the global war on terrorism. The AUMF is unbound by geographic or time limitations. U.S. citizens are not exempted, nor is U.S. territory.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported last January, “For the third year in a row, [U.S. local and state] police nationwide shot and killed nearly 1,000 people. …” Police killings, disproportionately inflicted against poor people and people of color, amount to executions, without trial or verdict.
The presumption of innocence does not prevent hundreds of thousands of American from experiencing the torture of incarceration simply because they cannot pay bail while awaiting trial.
The UD’s 12th article proclaims, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.” So what? Americans are subject to a vast private and public surveillance apparatus that has essentially abolished privacy in the name of “national security.” As the ACLU reports:
“Numerous government agencies—including the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and state and local law enforcement agencies—intrude upon the private communications of innocent citizens, amass vast databases of who we call and when, and catalog “suspicious activities” based on the vaguest standards. … Innocuous data is fed into bloated watchlists, with severe consequences—innocent individuals have found themselves unable to board planes, barred from certain types of jobs, shut out of their bank accounts, and repeatedly questioned by authorities. Once information is in the government’s hands, it can be shared widely and retained for years, and the rules about access and use can be changed entirely in secret without the public ever knowing.”
Article 15 of the UD says, “Everyone has the right to a nationality” and “No one shall be deprived of the right to change his nationality.” Millions of “illegal” immigrants in flight from impoverished and repressive regimes supported by the United States are stateless people, too afraid of deportation to declare their foreign citizenship or to fight for decent conditions inside the U.S. They are not free to change their nationality by becoming U.S. citizens.
The UD’s 19th article declares, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference.” That’s nice. Millions of U.S. citizen-subjects know very well that they cannot write or say (or sing or post or march on behalf of) what they believe without putting their livelihoods at risk by offending or otherwise concerning their employers and other authorities. And in the United States, where health insurance is strongly and absurdly tied to place of employment, putting one’s job at risk also endangers a person’s and his or her family’s access to health care.
Freedom of expression is strictly qualified, to say the least, in the hidden and despotic abode of the capitalist workplace, where most working-age Americans spend most of their waking hours under managerial supervision.
Even tenured academics can be fired for expressing their opinions. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fired tenured professor Steven Salaita over his personal tweets criticizing Israel’s mass-murderous 2014 assault on Gaza. The prolific radical Native American author Ward Churchill was stripped of his tenured professorship on trumped-up grounds because of political comments he made on the 9/11 terror attacks.
Article 20 of the UD says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”
These rights are strictly qualified in the U.S., where public assembly is controlled by onerous permitting processes and fees and peaceful protest gatherings commonly face militarized police forces that make random arrests, infiltrate marches and meetings, target organizers, give protesters petty charges (and deadly criminal records) and rough-up protesters. Numerous Republican-controlled states have passed bills that increase penalties for public protest in the wake of the many protests that accompanied Donald Trump’s election and inauguration.
Workers are fired for trying to organize unions in the U.S., where once union-friendly labor laws have been eviscerated.
The UD’s 21st article proclaims that “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
The reality of U.S. politics and policy stands in brazen defiance of this universal human right. As the distinguished liberal political scientists Benjamin Page (Northwestern) and Marin Gilens (Princeton) showed in their expertly researched book, “Democracy in America?” last year:
“[T]he best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have little or no impact on the making of federal government policy. Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups—especially business corporations—have had much more political clout. When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general public has been virtually powerless. … The will of majorities is often thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves. … Majorities of Americans favor … programs to help provide jobs, increase wages, help the unemployed, provide universal medical insurance, ensure decent retirement pensions, and pay for such programs with progressive taxes. Most Americans also want to cut “corporate welfare.” Yet the wealthy, business groups, and structural gridlock have mostly blocked such new policies [and programs].”
“Elections alone,” Page and Gilens note, “do not guarantee democracy.” Majority U.S. opinion is regularly trumped by a deadly complex of forces in the nation’s politics, including:
- The campaign finance, candidate-selection, lobbying and policy agenda-setting power of wealthy individuals, corporations and interest groups
- The special primary election influence of full-time party activists
- The disproportionately affluent, white and older composition of the active (voting) electorate
- The manipulation and restriction of voter turnout
- The widespread dissemination of distracting, confusing, misleading and just plain false information
- Absurdly and explicitly unrepresentative political institutions like the Electoral College, the unelected Supreme Court, the over-representation of the predominantly white rural population in the U.S. Senate and the one-party rule in the House of “Representatives”
- The fragmentation of authority in government
- Corporate ownership of the reigning media, which frames current events in accord with the wishes and world view of the nation’s real owners—its “unelected dictatorship or money”
- Americans get to vote but mammon reigns nonetheless in the United States, where, Page and Gilens find, “government policy … reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.
You wouldn’t know a thing about these and other brazen violations of the UD (you can find supplemental text on U.S. “homeland” violations of UD articles 22, 23, 24, 25, 27 and 28 on my website) by reading the U.S. State Department’s recently released annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Abuses.” Beyond two disturbing novelties—the deletion of most prior reporting on women’s rights and reproductive rights and the redaction of the term “Occupied Territories” from the report’s description of Israel and its, well, occupied territories—the Trump-era rendering of the annual State Department document (this year’s is the first put together entirely by the Trump State Department) runs in four familiar grooves. Consistent with previous versions, it fails to acknowledge the United States’ longstanding political, economic and military backing of governments whose human rights abuses it mentions—as if Washington had nothing to do with them.
We learn, for example, that Saudi Arabia kills civilians in Yemen and carries out “unlawful killings, including execution for other than the most serious offenses and without requisite due process; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of lawyers” in its own territory. The report says nothing about how Washington considers the Saudi regime one of its most prized allies. Or that it equips the absolutist Saudi state (whose crown prince was recently hosted by Donald Trump, who boasted during the royal’s visit of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia) with tens of billions worth of lethal military equipment. Nor does it say anything about the United States’ own direct egregious abrogation of human rights through things like its horrific torture camp at Guantanamo Bay and its ongoing arch-criminal drone war program of “targeted assassination” (execution without trial) Noam Chomsky has called “the most extensive global terrorism campaign the world has yet seen.”
The world has every reason to respond to the State Department’s report with another old maxim: “Don’t piss on my boots and tell me it’s raining.”
The Country Reports document continues the United States’ longstanding practice of selective criticism, playing up violations in rival and enemy nations over those in allied nations. Relying on just the document’s country-level write-ups, one would think that human rights are no better in Iran and Cuba than they are in Saudi Arabia and Honduras. You’d never know that the Saudis make Iran look like a bastion of civil liberties, women’s rights and democracy by comparison. Or that ordinary Cubans enjoy remarkable guaranteed incomes and access to educational resources and health care services that are unrivaled across Latin America and especially in right-wing Latin American states like Honduras, where a vicious right-wing regime was installed with no small help from the U.S. nine years ago.
The State Department report vastly understates the scale of the Saudis’ U.S.-backed and U.S.-equipped crimes in Yemen. It gives no sense that the U.S.-Saudi war on that small nation has created there one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes (replete with a mass outbreak of deadly cholera) in recent history.
In rolling out the report, John Sullivan, Trump’s then-acting secretary of state, singled out Russia and China as leading “threats to global stability,” claiming that their poor human rights records put them in the same dastardly club as evil Iran and North Korea. Where, one might well ask, should we rank U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, Honduras, Egypt and Israel? The last country has recently and openly slaughtered unarmed Palestinians who were peacefully protesting along its border with Gaza, which is essentially an open-air Palestinian prison subjected to a vicious blockade by Israel and Egypt since 2007. What about other U.S.-allied states like the Philippines, whose strongman president Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the death-squad killings of drug dealers and drug users and been praised by Trump for doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem”?
It has not been lost on properly critical observers that that the Trump administration has curiously designated the American Empire’s top strategic rivals—China, Russia, Iran and North Korea—as the world’s worst human rights violators.
As per usual, the latest State Department global human rights report ignores positive human rights accomplishments of states on the wrong side of Uncle Sam’s division of the world into friend and enemy. It has nothing to say, for example, about Cuba’s remarkable achievements in reducing poverty, providing health care, educating its citizens and developing its economy and society with a low-carbon footprint that reduces its contribution to the greatest problem of our times, one whose advance is being led by the United States: anthropogenic climate change.
Last, but not least, this year’s version of the report has, as usual, absolutely nothing to say against or about egregious and endemic human rights abuses carried out by (both at home and abroad) and inside the United States—the supposed “beacon to the world of the way life should be,” to quote former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (currently Trump’s permanent representative to NATO) in a fall 2002 speech in support of Congress authorizing George W. Bush to criminally invade Iraq if he wanted to (he did). The State Department’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Abuses” covers every country on the planet but one: The most powerful nation on earth, the headquarters of a historically unparalleled global empire that most of the world’s politically cognizant populace has long and with good reason identified as the leading threat to peace and stability on earth. Fully 194 countries are covered in the reports, just not the world’s only superpower, itself home to 4.4 percent of the world’s population but 22 percent of the world’s prisoners—quite an accomplishment for the self-declared homeland and headquarters of global freedom and democracy.
As far as the State Department, Washington and the nation’s reigning corporate, financial, and imperial power elite is concerned, the violations of the UD outlined at the outset of this article (and in my linked supplemental text) belong down George Orwell’s memory hole, consistent with the principle that history is written by and for the winners and Big Brother’s maxim: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
It’s nothing remotely new or distinctive to the Trump era. The United States sees itself as an inherently splendid and humanitarian City on a Hill, fit to judge other nations, particularly those it deems as rivals and enemies, while giving itself an “exceptionalist” free pass because, as Bill Clinton’s Secretary State Madeleine Albright once explained, “The United States is good.” That’s no way to get its human rights reports taken seriously by world citizens familiar with the timeworn adage that “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
Originally published at Truthdig, May 2, 2018
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Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of seven books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); (with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Paul writes regularly for Truthdig, Telesur English, Counterpunch, Black Agenda Report, Z Magazine and Dandelion Salad.
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