The Rise and Rise of Human Rights

Kirsten Sellars

Sutton Publishing, Thrupp, 2002

ISBN 0 –7509-2755-0

The Cold War philosopher Isaiah Berlin also argued that the doctrine [of human rights] is "comparatively modern", noting that "Condorcet had already remarked that the notion of individual rights was absent from the legal conceptions of the Romans and the Greeks; this seems to hold equally of the Jewish, Chinese and all other ancient civilizations that have since come to light. The domination of this ideal has been the exception rather than the rule, even in the recent history of the West."--[T]he concept is not an eternal truth, but originated in response to social upheavals--p. viii

When Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped on to the podium to address delegates of the 1995 UN Women’s Conference in Beijing. … Human rights advocates protested that her presence in China conferred legitimacy on those responsible for Tiananmen square and the oppression of Tibet. And Conservatives complained that she was endorsing a conference that they said promoted radical feminism and undermined family values (Jesse Helms, Chair of the Senate’s powerful Committee on Foreign Relations, got particularly hot under the collar about the NGO-organized "Lesbian Flirtation techniques’ seminar). The First lady had her work cut out to placate these critics, but she managed it in audacious style – by attacking the Chinese on their home turf. [her] address was not, in the first instance, targeted at the Chinese, but at the audience back home. It had been crafted phrase by phrase to appeal to all shades of American political opinion, from anti-abortionists and anti-gay moralists all the way through to pro-choice activists and lesbian feminists. … On this occasion she did not displease [the feminists]. They pounded their desks in delight after she finished speaking, and kept cheering for twenty minutes – longer than the duration of the speech itself. … Afterwards, Hillary Clinton was warmly congratulated by the delegates of a state that is virtually defined by its opposition to abortion and contraception: the Vatican. And back home, even Senator Jesse Helms was moved to commend her "very interesting and ineffective speech."p. 158

Sudan is an obvious target. The National Islamic Front under president Omar Hassan al-Bashir is waging extremely brutal civil war against the Dinkas and other groups in the South and West of the country. … This situation has, by all accounts, contributed to the persistence of intermittent hostage-taking, forced labor and actual slavery. Of all the horrors visited on Sudanese civilians, the Christian human rights groups have seized upon slavery and made it the focus of their campaign. … Why is it so pre-occupied with slavery? After all, as the NGO African Rights has pointed out with regard to Sudan "slavery is neither the largest cause of human suffering, nor is it integral to central government policy." But, as is usual with human rights campaigns, this one is driven by concerns that have little to do with the actual situation within the target country. Campaigners have latched on to slavery because it is an emotive issue, especially in the United States, and, even more to the point, it is an issue that resonates most powerfully among a very special constituency – black Americans. By no coincidence, it is this very constituency that is being assiduously courted by the Christian right. p. 171

The self-preoccupation of the most powerful states explains the fickleness of their human rights campaigns. Victims of repression abroad are the pretext for intervention, rather than the reason for it. They thus become expendable once they served their purpose. The list of such forgotten victims is a long one. Russian Jews, Nicaraguan Indians, Iranian Baha’is, Ethiopian farmers, Polish trade unionists, Tibetan nuns, Argentine radicals, Soviet camp inmates, Kosovar rape-victims, Chinese dissidents, Iraqi Kurds, and Tutsi refugees are just a few of the groups that have had their fifteen minutes of fame. Presidents and Prime Ministers, fund-raisers and relief agencies, foreign correspondents and war photographers, pop stars and catwalk models, have all beaten a path to their door. Then, when the spotlight moved on somewhere else, they were all plunged back into obscurity once again. Little attention is paid to their subsequent plight. p.195

So why did the United States delegates sulk in Rome [at the conference for establishing the International Criminal Court] ? Their negative vote was mere brinksmanship, designed to wrest a few final concessions, and to mollify conservative critics at home…. Yet the diplomatic smoke and mirrors should not blind us to the court’s real purpose. America’s war crimes supreme David Scheffer, described it as "the shiny new hammer" in the "civilized world’s box of foreign policy tools." The major powers have drawn up a statute that virtually guarantees that none of their citizens will ever be prosecuted. This will leave it free to carry out its intended function: meting out punishment to alleged transgressors from the war-ravaged and judicially-challenged pariah states. When it comes to global justice, it is always better to give than to receive. p. 192

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