Human Rights For Sale (8/01)

In the age of information and globalization, concern for human rights has become a hot potato in the West. A generation ago, people in the world’s democratic nations seldom worried about whether their fundamental human rights were protected. But as globalization proceeds, serious questions are being asked. 

For example, are the basic human rights of individuals or entire populations really protected? And if so, who guards those rights in a globalized world? 

Further, are so-called written and unwritten fundamental rights for real, or merely “a collection of pious phrases”? That’s how Andrei Vishinky described them when he represented the Soviet Union during the 1948 debate over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). 

The signs aren’t promising these days. In the quest for market shares, many Western leaders, like their counterparts elsewhere around the world, are willing to sacrifice the human rights of citizens to advance trade.

In 1997, for example, Canada’s federal government banned the importation of a gasoline additive, MMT, which constituted a health hazard. But the company involved, Ethyl, filed and won a lawsuit against the government for breaching  NAFTA provisions. This forced Canada to repeal the law and pay Ethyl $13 million for lost profits and legal costs. Unfortunately, that violated the right of Canadian citizens to the social security promised in Article 22 of the UDHR, as well as the health and well-being assurances of Article 25. 

In the West, many people consider the governments of China and some African countries the greatest violators of human rights. But in reality, Western governments don’t perform much better. A case in point: the increasing use of the death penalty in many US states and renewed interest in the federal death penalty. 

Both the Geneva Convention and UDHR forbid extra judicial executions, torture, and cruel treatment. Yet, the US Central Intelligence Agency is, at the very least, implicated in the assassinations of several leaders – the Congo’s Partrice Lumumba and Chile’s Salvadore Allende come to mind – as well in as a variety of bloody coups throughout Latin America and Africa in which many civilians have been murdered. 

Canada’s hands aren’t clean, either. When Talisman, a Canadian company, was violating human rights in the Sudan – while a Canadian representative served as president of the UN Security Council – both the UN and Ottawa ignored the situation. Critics called the refusal to sanction the company “a knife in the back” of suffering Sudanese people. 

Talisman is a 25 percent partner in a large oil project in Sudan with the state petroleum companies of China, Indonesia, and Sudan.  Ambassador John Harker’s probe and report, which was submitted to Canada’s Foreign Affairs Ministry in February 2000, indicated that Talisman’s oil operation is fueling Africa’s longest-running and bloodiest conflict in the following ways: 

¥     People are being displaced because of the Sudanese military government’s concerns about oil-field security;

¥     Oil development has intensified the fighting between government troops and rebels in southern Sudan and among different southern groups:

¥      Airstrips and roads built for oil development at the Heglig oil fields are being used by the government for military operations. 

“It is difficult to imagine a cease-fire while oil extraction continues, and almost impossible to do so if revenues keep flowing” to the Sudanese government, Harker wrote. 

Svend Robinson of the Canada’s New Democratic Party said the government was   “shamefully lining up with Talisman to put corporate profits ahead of the human rights of the people of Sudan.” 

Canada also turned a blind eye to the atrocities of DiamondWorks in Sierra Leone. With the full of knowledge of France, Britain, Canada, and the US, the Canadian diamond company stirred up the civil war in Sierra Leone to enhance its access to diamonds. That violated fundamental rights ranging from access to food to life itself. 

In the quest for markets, freedom of association is repressed in many democratic societies. In 1993, for example, Canada’s federal government extended the public service wage freeze introduced in the Public Sector Compensation Act of 1991, thus bypassing the right to collective negotiation. The International Labor Organization’s Committee on Freedom of Association stated in April 1995 that Canada was violating its obligation to protect freedom of association and the right to organize.

Placing statutory limitations on collective bargaining is becoming common practice, noted Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz in “What Happened to Freedom of Association?,” a 1995 article in Canada’s Globe and Mail. 

Only when situations don’t favor them do Western governments complain; when things go their way, they’re apt to stay silent. Since the US and its friends have developed closer economic ties with China, for instance, they’ve been less eager to discuss the human rights abuses that continue apace there.

To avoid criticism within the UN, noted a 1998 article in the pro-business Economist magazine, China “waged a concerted diplomatic campaign in Europe and America, including tours by Chinese leaders and quiet offers of trade deals, to dissuade countries from voting for a resolution critical of it.” 

If human rights and humanitarian laws are to mean anything, all states must develop the political will to incorporate principles of international justice in their domestic laws, including the right to judge war criminals and human rights violators in a tribunals similar to the Nuremberg Tribunal. A clear connection also must be drawn between economic and human rights. 

With a deeper global commitment to human rights, the UDHR may yet become what Eleanor Roosevelt wished it to be more than a half-century ago – a “Magna Carta of all mankind.”