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James Peck: How The U.S. Govt Co-Opted Human Rights Activism

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Broadcast 8/10/2011 at 21:21:10 (2 Listens, 1 Downloads, 0 Itunes)
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Peck is author of the new book "Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-Opted Human Rights." He was a Senior Editor at Pantheon Books for almost two decades where his authors included J. William Fulbright, Noam Chomsky, George Kennan, and Edward Said. He also worked in China for more than a decade as Executive Director of the US-China Book Publication Project. Peck is the author of "Washington's China" and editor of "The Chomsky Reader." He said today: "The war in Libya today, and calls for intervening in Syria tomorrow, epitomize a tragic development in the human rights and humanitarian ethos: War and various other kinds of overt and covert intervention are being re-legitimized through Washington's human rights rhetoric. Libya tells us everything we should not be seeking to do in Syria and why humanitarian war is a monstrous illusion.

"The widespread support in the human rights community for all kinds of interference from 'democratization,' to 'nation-building,' to promoting the 'rule of law,' now risks blending into rationales for war itself. This is suggestive of nothing so much as a profound failure of the human rights community to expose how and why the U.S. government has fashioned human rights for over four decades into a potent ideological weapon for purposes having little to do with the rights of others -- and everything to do with furthering Washington's strategic objectives.

"The human rights community faces not just the issue of Washington's selectivity of involvement (Why Libya? Why Syria? But why not Bahrain or Gaza?). Though some human rights advocates have tried, the human rights movement has been notably unwilling to make the issue of millions suffering massive starvation in poor countries central to the 'responsibility to protect' ethos. And most human rights groups have refused to highlight a broken UN Security council (as former President Lula noted) where the veto power by five nations makes a mockery of any consistent way to cope with extreme abuses of rights. Taken together, such issues are suggestive of why the human rights movement has ended up as part of a 'coalition of the Western willing' in Libya and elsewhere in fighting wars and taking sides in numerous domestic upheavals --- an outcome now under attack by leaders ranging from former President Lula of Brazil, President Zuma of South Africa, to leaders of India, and non-Western activists in the South.

"Fundamental issues of radical change and sweeping transformations of the structures of wealth and power are back on the agenda in the Middle East and elsewhere. But the human rights community's support for humanitarian war and other varied manifestations of Western interventionism risks legitimizing standing against such change instead of being attentive to the kinds of transformations out of which viable rights can come."

An excerpt of Peck's book is available, titled "Are Your Humanitarian Heartstrings Being Tugged in the Name of Empire?"

See a recent interview of Peck conducted by Jim Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs:

The following paragraphs are excerpted from IDEAL ILLUSIONS: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights by James Peck, published in March by Metropolitan Books

For the history of human rights in the United States --as a movement, as an impassioned language of good intentions, and as an invocation of American idealism-- owes far more to the inner ideological needs of Washington's national security establishment than to any deepening of conscience effected by the human rights move- ment.

Washington set out after the Vietnam War to craft human rights into a new language of power designed to promote American foreign policy . They shed light on the way Washington has shaped this soaring idealism into a potent ideological weapon for ends having little to do with human rights--and everything to do with extending America's global reach.

No other country enjoyed such immunity . Indeed, where the countless human rights abuses committed by the Soviet Union, China, and other nations exposed who they really were, our own were aberrant-- a reflection of who we really weren't.

Even as t he human rights community has methodically focused on Washington's-- and others'--many violations, it has largely recoiled from analyzing the fundamental structures of American power. As a result, it has unwittingly served some of Washington's deepest ideological needs.

Before the major American rights groups were created, Washington's national security managers had been discussing the desirability of a national organization to offset the "foreign" influence of the London-based Amnesty International. Before human rights leaders began advocating for extending the laws of war to outlaw abuses by antigovernment guerrilla forces, Washington pursued the same goal as a way of discrediting almost all insurgency movements. And a new humanitarian ethos legitimizing massive interventions--including war--emerged in the 1990s only after Washington had been pushing such an approach for some time. In short, the vocabulary and the arguments of the human rights movement almost all have significant pre- cursors in Washington's national security concerns.

From the earliest years of the Cold War, Washington predicated its war of ideas on a set of deep divisions: between freedom and equality, reform and revolution, self-interest and collective interests, the free market and state planning, and pluralistic democracy and mass mobilization. American human rights leaders largely, if unknowingly, built on this divide.

look at human rights as two currents

The first current largely embodies the popular American view, which emphasizes civil and political rights and embraces a moderate, democratic, step-by-step incorporation of human needs into a kind of rights-based legalism. Perhaps such rights are eas- ier to understand in terms of individual freedom: they do more to liber- ate individuals from the deprivations of caste than of class, freeing them from archaic restraints and traditions but not from economic subjugation. And the outcome is paradoxical.

Paradoxes: Violations of women's rights, gay rights, and civil rights of all kinds are increasingly attacked while inequality grows. Diversity and multiculturalism are lauded even as the concentration of wealth and power reaches historic levels. The "laws of war" are applauded and efforts to protect the rights of noncombatants flourish even as wars rage and the larger issues of aggression and occupation are ignored.

The second current has less to do with individual freedom and more to do with basic needs. It is associated with popular mass movements, revolution by populations in desperate straits, and resistance.

Central to the second current are challenges to corporate power, state repression, foreign occupation, and global economic inequality, as well as the protection of collective means of struggle, from labor unions to revolution. Historically, this current affirms the mass-based challenges that allowed human rights to emerge in the first place. It is the drive for both freedom and equality, so deeply embedded in diverse revolutionary traditions and popular struggles for emancipa- tion and justice, that galvanizes this vision of human rights. Today, t his current is far more prevalent outside the dominant Western spheres of power.

The second current, then, is less about infusing rights into pre-existing structures of power than about fundamentally altering how power works; it is more about transforming the institutional apparatus and the military basis of political power than about invoking rights to control it.

...human rights textbooks don't devote many pages to the great mass movements--not even the civil rights movement in the United States or the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.5

But law is the language of institutions, courts, and politicians. The teachings of Mohandas Gandhi and King and the language of impassioned justice are notably absent.

wuss humanitarianism-- (rob kall's words)
The movement's deep uneasiness with all forms of radical and revolutionary social change was already evident in 1961, when the newly founded Amnesty International pronounced that no prisoners who advocated violence could be considered prisoners of conscience: thus no revolutionaries--not Nelson Mandela in South Africa, nor even the Berrigan brothers (who had destroyed draft-board records) in the United States. The movement has generally criticized revolutions and decolonializing rebellions as human rights travesties.

The black book of Communism is long and richly illustrated, and the crimes of the new human rights abusers are quickly added in the appendices. But where, we might ask, is the corresponding black book of anticommunism, of United States-- backed "nation building" and "counterinsurgency," with their countless human rights violations, of invocations of the "rule of law" used to legitimize such systemic injustices as wars, occupations, and the eco- nomic violence of the marketplace?

...there is only a thin line between advocating for the laws an occupying power should follow and tacitly legitimizing an occupation by lauding the rights-based methods that sustain it. It is bad enough to legalize some forms of violence with the "laws of war" while ignoring the larger underlying issue of aggression. It is still worse to accept some forms of state violence while outlawing almost all forms of nonstate violence that arise in reaction to it.

...the rise of the American human rights movement since the 1970s has coincided with an unprecedented increase in inequality, with brutal wars of occupation, and with a determination to establish American preeminence via the greatest concentration of military power in history. In the future, the downplaying of the issues of aggression and crimes against peace may not go unnoticed, for it fits with the character of Washing- ton's power and its half-century-long war of ideas.

The world is changing profoundly. Yet the tectonic shifts in global power now under way have barely registered on either the Obama administration or human rights leaders. But as the old world gives way, it is urgent that we rethink the meaning of human rights. And nothing presents a greater hurdle to this task than the human rights community's close if often unwitting links to Washington. Without such a reexamination, the human rights movement may well continue to serve Washington's ideological needs. In the end, the movement must decide: Can it find a way to truly confront the abusive operations of wealth and power in all their many forms? Or will it consent to being a weapon of privileged power seeking to protect its interests--and its conscience?

End of excerpting

VERY Rough Interview Notes
above excerpts were read or referred to in interview.
IN the 1990's humanitarianism was first invoked to justify military intervention.

Human rights movement is not against war. Has not stand on aggression, take no stand on military industrial complex.

Main partsof humanitarian movement:
Human Rights Watch in NYC and Amnesty international in London.
These are the ones that get the public attention and lobby.

There is no empathy,

Long, tortuous, but ultimately radically transformative process. The US and its allies are concerned that it will get out of hand.

70% of the people on the planet live less well off than the bottom 5% of Americans.

NATO powers should not have intervened in Libya.
As former president Lula said, "The security council of the United Nations is broken."

Ultimately people have to fight their own struggles.

The US has a history, since 1945, in the middle east of attempting to intervene and dominate.

Article by Peck, includes characterization of what it would like if the same was done to the US that is done to other nations.
Tugging Humanitarian Heartstrings In the Name of Empire

Peace Prize winner in China

Known in China as someone who takes $25-30K per year.

Egyptian leaders can use NGO funding by US for their reactionary reasons, but also,

I call the book Ideal Illusions because they ideals are illusionary in their impact.
One should have no illusions that people in Washington consider this.

Scene in book-- Carter is President, Zbigniew Breszinski said we have to help set up the humanitarian movement, create language, set up university chairs
Why did one of the Hawks of hawks, Breszinski, Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams- get behind human rights-- because they knew it could be used as a weapon that it could be turned against certain kinds of sweeping change-- anything that threatens corporate investments, allocations of government controlled resources...

Big problem in 30s, 40s was what to do with intellectuals in these countries...
In 70's on, characterized them as academics--

Saw intellectuals as people trying to get the picture-- often with highly critical of the US.

In seventies on, began to create a policy that appealed to intellectuals and academics, but not in terms of change in their countries.

AFter Viet Nam war, anti-communism had failed. They needed a cover, a similar kind of infrastructure-- a world in which human rights would be the new language and American power would be the new embodiment.

If Bradley Manning was in China and was treating him the way we are in the US, we'd say, "See, that's how China really is."

Amnesty International ?

Most of the human rights movement in the first current is a western movement.

We are coming into a world that is less west-centric.

You have to make human rights tied into economics and jobs.

Have to develop a language that is not Washington's
That's a dangerous situation... all encoded with repressive moments.
rule of law
transparency phrase from world bank used to see where their money went.
humanitarian intervention
it creates a fog, not transparency the loss of a biting edge.

There is more language out there if you look at the World Social Forum--
Arundati Roy.

MLK's Riverside church speech-- you find a different language-- a language of empathy, of repression-- a very different way of thinking.

Soros gave $100 million to human rights watch.
They endorsed military actions against Libya.... is an indication of a very limited future...
A human rights policy that is so close to Washington policy will be seen as not different than washington's power.

Syria-- humanitarians should go after keeping weapons from Syria, should cut back on munitions availability throughout the world overall.

In Egypt US is looking for ways to stabilize the situation. That stability will not meet the needs of the vast majority of the Egyptian people.

Discuss Wall Street Journal Article:
egypt incites anti-U.S. trend
Article reports that orgs accepting money from US are being treated as traitors.

Peck Cites Fulbright, who he edited. "I've never understood why the US can't live with nations that want to control their own national resources."

Doctors without borders has NOT been co-opted. They have explained what has gone with human rights.

Torture is hard for humanitarian orgs to reconcile but have called for investigating Bush torture.

They're giving Obama a pass. Why aren't they lobbying re Obama's torture connection?

Metropolitan Books is his publisher.

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Rob Kall is the host of the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360, where he discusses how the bottom up mind and bottom up revolution are reaching different areas of the world, of life, of politics, business, society and anywhere else.

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