by Sara B.
On Tuesday September 25, 2007 the United States President, George W. Bush, addressed the United Nations General Assembly in an effort to motivate promotion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafted in 1948. The President called on every UN member to join in a mission of liberation from tyranny, hunger, disease, illiteracy and poverty. For these great purposes, pleads President Bush, should the great institution of the UN aim for. He continues on to urge the UN members to build a world "where people are free to speak, assemble, and worship as they wish; a world where children in every nation grow up healthy, get a decent education, and look to the future with hope". "America" he states, "will lead toward this vision where all are created equal, and free to pursue their dreams". Quite the compelling plea from one of America's most criticized presidents, accused of heading a military campaign blamed for the killing of tens of thousands of innocent lives, and defending controversial policies such as the use of capital punishment on America's own home front. So how can one assess this seemingly empathetic message? What lays beneath this impassioned speech to the world's head institution for defending human rights? In the paragraphs that follow, I will offer my comments and critique of this address relating to its use and understanding of civil-political, social-economic, and cultural development human rights.
Civil-political rights as defined by Gordon Lauren and David Hollenbach are considered "negative" rights, or those rights which are non-intervention. These rights include (but are not limited to) life, liberty, personal security, freedom from slavery, freedom from torture, recognition and equality under the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest or exile, right to vote, right to assembly, etc. Michael Ignatieff in his Tanner Lectures on Human Values (Princeton University April 4-7, 2000) makes note of the very individualistic nature of such rights. Consequently, then, they act as an effective remedy against tyranny and are a high appeal to those of non-Western origin. Claims to civil-political rights can be used by individuals against larger institutions such as the state or church. In this, human rights are basically morally universal, applicable regardless of culture or nation. Or as Jack Donnelly describes, " there is an international consensus on the system of human rights rooted in the UN DHR is relatively uncontroversial" (40). Donnelly would assert that internationally accepted human rights do not depend on any particular religious or philosophical doctrine, however, he does not believe they are compatible with all comprehensive doctrines (41).
It is in Donnelly's description of civil-political rights that I see president George Bush advocating in his address to the UN. When speaking of the situation in Burma, Belarus, Iran and North Korea he claims "basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and worship are severely restricted" . He continues stating that "terrorists" and "extremists" deny the truth stated in the UD that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". In other parts of the world, AIDS and Malaria are serious health threats which those of more prosperous nations, such as the US, should alleviate. All people, from all parts of the globe, with their own respective religious and philosophical traditions, it would appear the President is saying, have a claim to such civil-political rights.
However, what the President says and what he does lack congruence. It is arguable that he cherry-picks the issues and rights which he can provide evidence for US goodwill and leadership. For example, all people should be free from the use of torture. Yet, frequent independent reports arise revealing torture used at America's Guantanamo Bay, violation of article number 5 of the UDHR. Presently, a cameraman from the Al-Jazeera news network, Al-Hajj, is being held prison at Guantanamo Bay for unknown reasons. Al-Hajj has never been charged with any crime, which is a clear violating of article 9 and 10 of the UDHR. Al-Hajj is currently starving himself in protest. Significant reports shed light on the excess force and indiscriminate killing tactics of American military forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Furthermore, America is one of the new "developed" nations which still employs capital punishment.
Furthermore, President Bush does not seem to believe democracy or the vision of human rights is compatible with those who espouse "terrorism" or "extremism". Such rhetoric conveniently, and self-servingly justifies the President's War Against Terror. Current statistics indicate the loss of over 100,000 Iraqi lives, comprised highly of innocent civilians since the United States led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Also in the Middle East, President Bush makes a mockery of democratic policies in the Occupied Palestinians Territories. When the people of Palestine democratically elected the Islamic political party Hamas in 2005, President George Bush called for a halt of all money flow into the territories from outside nations. This was a significant blow to an area of the world highly dependent on international aid. As a result, many public services were halted in the region, including trash pick-up, and public service workers, such as teachers, were left without pay for months to follow. Israeli military attacks continued on the Palestinians territories and even into Lebanon during the summer months of 2006, killing hundreds of innocent men, women and children. These acts of terror against civilians were carried out not only with Bush sponsored U.S support but also with U.S arms and weaponry. One may ask how actions such as this don't fall under the definition of state sponsored terrorism. George Bush's cry for democracy seems to fit with only those nations and political parties which agree to participate in American foreign policy. Apparently, President Bush does not seem to believe in civil-political rights for those who vehemently oppose his political doctrines.
It is also important to evaluate President Bush's speech in regards to social-economic rights. Although the President does not make direct reference to issues of social security, work, work conditions, etc., he does make reference to Article 25 stating "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food and clothing and housing and medical care". President Bush attempts to provide evidence for how his country is upholding and promoting this clause of the Declaration. He mentions how America purchases the crops from African farmers, donates billions of dollars to help combat the AIDS epidemic and Malaria, and has donated textbooks and trained hundreds of thousands of teachers. America, he states, has "dramatically increased our own development assistance". This would include the signing of free trade agreements with Peru, Colombia, Panama and South Korea, striving for the alleviation of weapons of mass destruction, and open market talks.
Superficially, President Bush seems to be contributing to the social-economic rights of people of various nations all over the world. He has stated a myriad of ways in which the U.S has "aided" the under developed nations of the world. However, no amount of monetary hand-outs or altruistic aid can right the systematic injustices and human right abuses the capitalistic system espoused by the U.S president. One must ask, what type of history are those American bought textbooks teaching to children of other nations, what kind of training are these "teachers" receiving and what are they teaching these children. Why is free-trade the way to go, and if it is why is there so much widespread poverty in North America following the signing of NAFTA? President Bush doesn't ask the question of what kind of working environments or economic conditions free-trade is fueling in various countries. Or, for that matter, if the President Bush is so adamant about peoples' right to adequate health care, a fair paying job, and sufficient living conditions, why is his own country plagued with so many people homeless, jobless, and without proper health care? What policies can the President point to domestically that resemble the values of the UNDHR? Again, the dichotomy between what President Bush says and does is evident and needn't be overlooked. Structural injustices will not be overcome with hand-outs and good-will offerings.
The final component to human rights being analyzed here is that of cultural development. Jack Donnelly would assert that cultural rights are those that protect a communal way of life, focusing on the individuals in cultural communities, ensuring they are protected from the state and the majority culture (219). Ishay would attest that they are a stepping stone to universal rights and a way by which to protect the rest of the world from Western domination (5). As a whole, cultural rights are a right to self-determination.
President Bush does not directly address the issue of cultural or development rights in his speech to the UN. In fact, many could read the Presidents speech as a candy-coated imperialist ploy. Only once does the president speak of protecting the desires, autonomy, or culture of the nations in current "need". He states that "ethic minorities are being persecuted". The President is right, ethic minorities are being persecuted, on American soil. Legislation promoted by President Bush, such as the Privacy Act, and Anti-Terrorist Act has allowed racial profiling, and resulted in other major offenses to those of Arab descent and Islamic allegiance. Minority groups have not been protected, but insulted and suspected. Further America has trained, America was distributed textbooks, countries are trading with America, America is the "promoter" of democracy, so the President claims. Where is the respect for the will of other countries? Why are only minority groups which uphold American foreign policy given protection? For example, President Bush offers support for the "brave citizens" of Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq who are making a "choice for democracy". What does that make the other citizens of those countries? It is clear that, once again, the President is drenched with hypocrisy, half-truth statements, and misrepresentation.
The conclusion is clear: President Bush's speech to the UN may make mention of civil-political, socio-economic, and cultural development rights, but the onus is on President Bush to justify his disparate record of foreign and domestic policy. Individuals of America and elsewhere must take President Bush's speeches with a grain of salt, bearing in mind his attempts to promote American-military sponsored "democracy" and arbitrary enactments of human rights. We must not let a few examples of American good-will to paint our view of the Bush administration or his presidency. Instead, we must examine the structural components that make up a system that leads the global economy today in light of the extreme poverty and utter disdain for human rights it seems to promote.