The U.S. does not respect the right to health care, housing, employment, or education while making war on the rest of the world. What does the idea of human rights amount to in this country?
“…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world (preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
December 10th is recognized globally as International Human Rights Day (IHRD) to commemorate the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. But how does the U.S. state celebrate this day? Two days before the day of recognition, legislators in the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the $858 billion dollar National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which also specifically earmarked another $800 million for the Ukraine war.
On IHRD itself, the Biden Administration announced a new set of sanctions while also justifying the continuation of sanctions against 44 nations, thereby contradicting the entire premise of the human rights frame and idea.
The working class and poor in the U.S. never recovered from the 2008 capitalist financial crisis before having to face the devastation of the covid pandemic 10 years later. Unlike the People’s Republic of China and most of the socialist oriented societies that were able to mitigate the loss of life and economic suffering of their populations, the particularly brutal and heartless character of U.S. capitalism meant that there were very few state mechanisms in place to protect the population, especially the most vulnerable from the ravages of the pandemic and the financial crisis alike.
Tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths were the result along with millions who lost their jobs, faced evictions, lost subsidized lunches when schools closed down and got sick because there was no social distancing in houses and apartments where three generations were forced to live together because of soaring rents. For those workers who did not lose their jobs the label “essential workers” was slapped on them and they were forced to work in unsafe conditions that often led to hospitalization and even death.
Similarly, for the peoples residing in nations sanctioned by the U.S. and their Western allies, death and sickness were the results. The callous and cruel policy of denying nations the ability to secure medicines, food, and basic energy needs for their people could only be characterized as state sanctioned murder, and, yes, a violation of human rights speciously upheld by the United Nations. Sanctioned states such as Venezuela, Iran, and Nicaragua were forbidden to engage in international trade making it enormously difficult to house, cloth, educate, and feed their populations, nor adequately tend to them when they became sick.
Incredibly, the U.S. still attempts to portray itself as a paragon of human rights – and gets away with it! Why? Because liberal human rights have been politicized, distorted and weaponized.
Humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect, the 21st century version of the “White man’s burden” to save and protect the non-European natives, often from themselves, is evoked with devastating effectiveness. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the expansion of AFRICOM were framed not as the imperialist adventures that they were, but as benevolent interventions to bring God, light and civilization to the mass of savages. The U.S. proxy war with Russia and the burgeoning plans for a military intervention of Haiti are all framed as altruistic, reluctantly carried out in order to enforce global order by the global cop – the United States of America has successfully completed an elite capture of the entire premise of human rights!
The Imperative to Decolonize Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is seen as a revolutionary development that for the first time clearly expressed minimum normative standards for the protection of human rights and a measurement for assessing the performance of states in living up to those standards.
The principles reflected in that document represented the tensions and subsequent compromise between the two competing visions of human rights represented by the Soviet Union with its emphasis on collective, economic, social and cultural rights and the U.S. commitment to the “liberal” emphasis on individual civil and political rights. Both sides, nevertheless, were supposed to be committed to the further development, but even more importantly, the protection of human rights as one of the cornerstones of the newly established United Nations and its charter.
That did not happen.
Articles 22 through 28 of the UHDR enumerated provisions that reflected the basic rights that define a dignified life freed from the material deprivations that usually will compromise dignity - the right to “social security,” not just in old age but throughout one’s life, the right to a living wage, to leisure, education, housing, food, health, and even protections against unemployment – rights never recognized as rights by capitalists in the U.S. Henry Wallace’s “Century of the Common Man” was never realized and remains a perpetual dream deferred.
In fact, as the human rights framework was further defined and expanded by instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR) that provided a legally binding foundation to economic, social, and cultural rights, the U.S. state adamantly refused to ratify the covenant. Anything that went beyond the basic civil and political rights - like the right to vote and free speech were not seen as rights but as “aspirations.”
The ESCR covenant as well as most of the other human right treaties like the Conventions on the Rights of the Child and on the rights of women have languished for decades in committees in the U.S. Congress.
In fact, the U.S. has actually only signed and ratified three of the more than one dozen major human rights treaties developed over the last seventy years of the United Nations. The argument the U.S. makes to explain its abysmally poor record of human rights ratifications is that U.S. laws and practices take precedent over international law, including international human rights law.
Double standards and the cynical ideological manipulation of liberal human rights has resulted in a crisis of legitimacy for many peoples and nations in the Global South. Yet, from W.E.B. Dubois and Claudia Jones, to Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and on to the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights of today, the radical Black movement still frames crucial elements of the struggles being waged by Africans within the vocabulary of human rights. Are Africans in the U.S. mistaken by using terms like human rights or are we operating from a different framework?
I have argued that from the moment that Black activists first articulated a position on human rights in 1945 that made the fundamental connection between the need to eradicate racial oppression and exploitation in the U.S. and European colonialism as a prerequisite for the realization of human rights, we were operating from a different framework, a framework I labeled as a “People(s)-Centered Human Rights (PCHRs) framework. The assumption of the PCHRs frame is simple and clear. If human rights are to have any relevance for the oppressed, they must be “de-colonized” and given meaning by the oppressed themselves.
And what are People(s)-Centered Human Rights (PCHR)?
They are, “those non-oppressive rights that reflect the highest commitment to universal human dignity and social justice that individuals and collectives define and secure for themselves through social struggle.”
This definition is a description of a process and an ethical framework as opposed to a pre-figured list of items defined as representing human rights. This is one of the key differences between the liberal framework and PCHRs. The PCHR approach asserts that human rights must be created from the bottom-up.
The PCHR framework rejects the idea that human rights only emanate from legalistic texts negotiated by states, as important as some of the principles represented in some of the texts. PCHRs are a creation of struggle and emerge from the people in formation. Unlike the liberal frame that elevates mystical notions of natural law (which is really bourgeois law) as the foundation of abstract rights, the “people” in formation create the ethical foundation and are the source of PCHRs.
The Biden Administration like every administration before it made a choice: Profits over the People, Planet and Peace
The Democrats played games with the Build Back Better (BBB) legislation. The so-called progressives – current democrat party sheepdogs – helped to kill that legislation while not acknowledging the legal basis of some of the protections as human rights, still would have mitigated some effects of the economic crisis of the last few years. For example, one of the benefits that ended when BBB was not enacted into law was the Child Tax Credit. This program provided a monthly payment for the poor, primarily women with children, that lifted over four million children out of poverty and if it had been expanded to another 19 million children who had not received full benefits it would have cost just 12 billion a year. But the program was not expanded and millions of children fell back into poverty.
Recently, the U.S. was outraged that railroad workers were denied seven days of sick leave. However, there was nothing unusual about the plight of these workers. Millions of workers do not have that basic right in the U.S.
From the city streets in the U.S. to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the peoples’ money will continue to go to war and domestic repression. To Ukraine and the wars beyond, while over 140 million low-wage workers live in fear, insecurity and silence more than sixty percent of the discretionary national budget goes to nourish the war machine that feeds the rapacious and gluttonous appetite of the military/industrial/complex instead of the needs of the people.
These will continue to be the policy realities until the people understand the terms of the war that capitalism is waging against them and they decide to fight. That day, however, will never come as long as the peoples’ vision of what is possible is delimited by a rapacious ruling class that would rather destroy the world than give up power.
Ajamu Baraka is the national organizer of the Black Alliance for Peace and an editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report. Baraka serves on the Executive Committee of the U.S. Peace Council and leadership body of the U.S. based United National Anti-War Coalition (UNAC) and the Steering Committee of the Black is Back Coalition.