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By Stephen Gowans
Whose Rights?

February 25, 2007


It is widely believed in the Western world that respect for civil and

political liberties is more highly advanced in the United States and among

countries of the Anglo-American orbit than it is anywhere else. The idea is

so deeply ingrained that even egregious abuses of human rights by the US

government (most recently in connection with the “war on terror”) are

insufficient to discredit the fiction among US citizens that their

government is the world’s principal human rights champion. While the US

government has been criticized by such human rights organizations as Human

Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the criticisms have been made in the

context of concern that the US is squandering its human rights moral

authority – criticism that serves to reinforce the dogma, not challenge it.

Juxtaposed against the view that the United States is the world’s most

highly committed human rights defender is the view that its official enemies

are human rights monstrosities. This was especially true of the Soviet Union

and is true today of Cuba and north Korea –countries seen to define the

opposite pole of the human rights continuum. Indeed, Western wars of

aggression are often cast as human rights missions – campaigns to deliver

civil and political liberties – free speech, freedom of religion and

multi-party democracy – to the supposedly gagged, subjugated and politically

enslaved people of certain Third World countries the US declares to be its


But while Western discourse on human rights emphasizes civil and political

liberties, it ignores economic rights altogether – the right to a job, to

participate in enterprise management, to free health care, to free education

at all levels, and freedom from foreign economic domination – rights

developed to a significant degree in the communist countries, and to an

admirable degree in some economically nationalist Third World countries

(Iraq, for example, before human development and social welfare were

undermined by war, sanctions and finally abolished by the US occupation


Significantly, economic rights conflict with the profit-making activities of

Western capital. The right to a job conflicts with the right of capital to

hire and fire labor. The right to decent pay conflicts with the right of

owners to minimize wages and salaries to maximize profits. The right to free

health care conflicts with the rights of insurance companies to make a

profit and of doctors to sell their services to the highest bidder. Because

economic rights conflict with profit-making rights, they are not recognized

as legitimate rights in the Western capitalist world. Here, profit is alpha

and omega; all else is subordinate. Instead, civil and political liberties,

which only have substantive meaning to those who have the money power to own

the media, fund think tanks and foundations, pay lobbyists and finance the

campaigns of sympathetic politicians in order to be heard and dominate the

political arena, are elevated to special status. The Soviet Union, east

Germany, Cuba and north Korea, which championed economic rights and pushed

the rights of the many to fore, are given no credit, yet, for most of us, it

is the rights they championed that have substantive meaning. Freedom of the

press means little to those who don’t own one, and much less to those

struggling to get enough to eat.

Rights have a class character. Freedom of expression to persuade others has

little meaning if you haven’t the resources to own and control the mass

media. Freedom to run for elected office has little meaning if you haven’t

the money power to buy high profile advertising, hire pollsters, campaign

strategists and PR firms to persuade voters. Because they often have no

substantive meaning to anyone except the wealthy investors, bankers and

hereditary capitalist families who have the money power to turn them to

their advantage, political and civil liberties have been allowed to flourish

in parts of the Western world that have not been challenged by significant

labor and socialist movements. But when political openness has allowed these

movements to threaten the status quo, civil freedoms and electoral democracy

have been abridged or cancelled altogether (as in fascist Italy and Nazi

Germany; in Chile in 1973; and in countless other countries, usually with

the blessing, if not the assistance, of the US government.)

Despite civil and political liberties being skewed in favour of those who

have economic power, commitment to civil and political liberties is never

absolute. The notion of warranted restraint – that liberties can be abridged

or even denied under certain conditions (freedom of expression does not give

me the right to yell fire in a crowded theatre) – says that formal human

rights are conditional. The conditions are often presented as the need to

strike a balance between liberty and security, but what civil and political

liberties have always been conditional on is the degree of threat they pose

to whatever class dominates the society. Security, it’s true, is relevant –

but whose security?

In the list that follows, you’ll see what appears to be an exposition of the

hypocrisy of Western governments that criticize Third World governments for

human rights breaches, while engaging in the same, or worse, practices at

home or in territories they control. And while the list is indeed an

exposition of the hypocrisy of Western governments, it is important to note

two things. In all of these cases, the human rights breach in question

protects the interests of some ruling class, whether in the West or in the

Third World from a threat posed by an antagonistic class or nation. Or to

put it another way, no right is absolute. Enforcing the rights of a dominant

class or nation means negating the rights of an opposing class or nation.

For example, the freedom of expression rights of Iraqis to persuade others

to join the resistance movement to end the occupation of their country, or

the political freedom of the Ba’ath party to run candidates in elections to

restore the status quo ante, have been denied by the US government to secure

the right of US capital to economically reorganize Iraq. That a ruling class

of any class society, whether feudal, capitalist or socialist, will limit

the civil and political liberties of its enemies, where those liberties

become a threat to the dominant economic class, can be posited as an

inexorable law.

Most Leftists in the Anglo-American world, however, are committed to a

different view, not one that recognizes rights as class-defined and as

relative rather than absolute, but one that is ultimately moralistic and

tied to dogma congenial to the economic elite of Western societies. In this

view, the problem is not the human rights rhetoric of Western governments,

but the failure of those governments to live up to it; the goal of Leftist

forces is not the promotion of the rights of oppressed class and peoples

over (and hence the denial of) those of oppressing classes and nations, but

the expansion of civil and political liberties for all. It is, for this

reason, that the soft Left has often had difficulty identifying with

socialist and national liberation forces which operate in a real world of

right against right, where conflict among classes and nations is inevitable,

and where the elevation of the rights of one class or nation inevitably

means the negation of the rights of another class or nation.

Moralist positions on human rights are not only beside the point; they’re

nonsensical, inasmuch as they assume rights are absolute and that

antagonisms between the rights of oppressor classes and nations and the

classes and nations they oppress can be mediated. In the real world, it is

not possible to build a socialist society if the capitalist class is allowed

the freedom to organize to restore its power. It is not possible for a

government of national liberation to achieve its country’s independence if

it grants political and civil liberties to all, including agents of the

oppressor nation who seek to restore that nation’s formerly privileged

position. It is inconceivable that a revolutionary socialist government

would tolerate a multi-party democracy that allows pro-capitalist parties to

operate openly, just as it is inconceivable that the post-war east or west

German governments would have allowed the Nazi party to run candidates, or

that the revolutionary US government would have allowed pro-British

monarchist parties to stand for election, or that the US occupation

authority in Iraq would have allowed the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein to

contest elections.

The battlefield of human rights isn’t one in which the object of Left forces

should be the securing of absolute rights for all (for there is no such

thing as liberty and democracy for all) but the securing of the rights of

oppressed classes and nations at the expense of those of their enemies. The

right of the sheep to be free from predation comes at the expense of the

wolf’s right to eat the sheep. The question is never whether you’re for

human rights or not. The question is always whose rights are you for?

Public Advocacy Rights

While much is often made of China blocking access to websites, little is

ever said about south Korea’s blocking access to more than 30 pro-DPRK

websites. (1) US ideologues sometimes argue that respect for civil and

political liberties is inextricably linked to capitalism, and conversely,

that socialist regimes are repressive by nature. We might expect China,

then, to be repressive in this way, but not south Korea. The truth of the

matter is that the ruling class of any class society is repressive toward

its class enemies, and only opens space for the exercise of political

freedoms where and when its class enemies are weak and pose little threat.

Capitalism, socialism or the peculiar form of socialism practiced by the

Chinese Communist Party have nothing to do with it. That class societies are

antagonistically divided, does.

Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez is criticized for refusing to renew the

license of RCTV, a private television station that colluded in the

short-lived April 2002 coup, but the closing of news media by the US or

governments under its control are barely acknowledged. For example, the TV

station Al Zawra was banned in Iraq for broadcasts said to “promote attacks

against the Americans and the Shiite militias.” (2) Iraqi government forces

raided and shut down the station’s offices when a newscaster wore black

mourning clothes following the execution of the country’s legitimate

president, Saddam Hussein. (3) While Chavez is criticized by US ideologues

as being repressive, anti-democratic and dictatorial, he is none of these

things. On the contrary, Chavez can be criticized for not being repressive.

The country’s dominant economic interests have plenty of room to organize

their return to political power. Chavez’s socialism for the 21st century –

nothing more than Western social democracy circa 1965 built on oil wealth –

will almost certainly fail to come off for allowing the opposition (to use a

hockey term) to stick around in the game too long. That’s not to say that

Chavez has a lot of options and that he can make history just as he pleases.

Circumstances limit his room for manoeuvre, but even so, that doesn’t

gainsay the regularity of reformist and social democratic movements being

swept away by resurgent Rightist forces that have been given time to

recuperate their strength. Fascism, it has been said, is punishment meted

out to those who fail to go far enough because they naively believe

capitalism can, in time, be peacefully transformed into socialism from

within while the Right stands by passively and allows it to happen.

Cuba is often taken to task for jailing dissident journalists. However, the

Cuban case rarely gets a hearing. The journalists were arrested for what

they wrote, yes* (though that is often denied), but more importantly for

taking money from the US government to further the project of overthrowing

socialism and restoring US hegemony over Cuba. The job of the US is to

provide funding and support to the journalists to allow them to amplify

their anti-socialist, pro-capitalist views. The job of the dissident

journalists is to persuade others. The job of the Cuban government is to

protect Cuba’s socialism and political independence. While the jailing of

the Cuban journalists is fairly widely known, what is barely known is that

the US jails journalists in Iraq and holds them without charge. The US

arrested at least three Reuters journalists in Iraq and held them without

charge for eight months. (4) The US feared the journalists were materially

aiding the resistance, and therefore were acting to thwart US goals related

to re-organizing Iraq economically to the benefit of US corporations. The

Cuban government feared Cuban journalists, materially aided by a hostile

foreign power, were acting to undermine the socialist economic organization

of Cuba and its political independence. In both cases, the battlefield

pitted right against right.

On June 10, 2003, the US occupation authority in Iraq proclaimed Order #14,

prohibiting “media activity” which “incites violence against Coalition

Forces” or the occupation authority or “advocates the return to power of the

Iraqi Ba’ath party, or makes statements that purport to be on behalf of the

Iraqi Ba’ath party.” In late 2005, an Iraqi court disqualified 90

candidates because they had ties to the Ba’ath Party. (5) The US pushed

sectarian and ethnic-based parties to the fore, part of a project of

re-organizing Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines (the usual conquering

nation ploy of divide and rule.) US forces routinely close newspapers that

express views that get in the way of pacifying opposition. The offices of

al-Arabiya were shut down as was the al-Hawza newspaper, published by the

Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. (6) The US government clearly regards the

Ba’ath party as a threat to its designs on Iraq. Likewise, the Chinese

government regards the Falun Gong movement as a threat to its particular

view of socialism. In both cases, the repression is carried out to limit

opposition to the dominant authority in the country.

A British Muslim who led a crowd in chants of “Bomb, bomb Denmark, bomb,

bomb USA’ in protest over the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons

mocking the prophet Muhammad was found guilty of incitement to murder. (7)

Two Canadian newspaper columnists who called upon the United States to

launch a nuclear strike on Iran were neither charged by Canadian authorities

nor found guilty of any crime. Any demand that they be charged with

incitement to murder would be dismissed as frivolous, and an attack on

freedom of speech.

Twenty countries prohibit Holocaust denial, including Germany, Austria,

Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland,

Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland and Israel. (8) Holocaust denial laws

often appear together with laws prohibiting Nazi or neo-Nazi parties. The

intent is to designate certain political views as being beyond the pale and

inimical to the smooth functioning of a country’s social order. These

prohibitions are regarded, in large measure and even among Leftist forces

that define the aim of socialism as enlarging democracy and civil and

political liberties for all, as being legitimate and as warranted restraints

on rights of free speech and political association. Conversely, laws enacted

in revolutionary societies which ban political parties that call for the

restoration of class oppression or oppression by former colonial or foreign

powers, or prohibit the advocacy of such restoration, are regarded in the

West, including by large parts of the Left, as illegitimate, despotic and

authoritarian. Clearly, they are despotic and authoritarian, in the same

manner Holocaust denial laws are despotic and authoritarian, but they are

not illegitimate from the point of view of the formerly oppressed class or


In this respect, Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF government comes to mind. ZANU-PF was a

leading force in the armed struggle of the Black majority to wrest political

control from the White minority Rhodesian settler regime. While the Black

majority achieved a kind of formal political independence, de facto

independence has always been limited by the reality that the White minority

remains economically dominant. The land seizures were a way of carrying

forward the revolution to its logical conclusion in the absence of Harare

having the wherewithal to buy out the White settlers and absentee British

landowners. While the confiscation of land was, on the one hand, a denial of

the previous owners’ rights to make a profit, it was, on the other, a

reclamation of a right to land that had been stolen by colonial plunder -- a

war of right against right (with the soft Left in the West, sadly, though

predictably, aligning itself in the war with the landowners.) Zimbabwe is

not, however, a one-party state, and nor is it a country in which those with

money power are prohibited from buying mass media or funding opposition

political parties to oppose the government. For this, Zimbabwe too, along

with Venezuela, can be criticized for failing to be repressive enough, and

yet it is revolutionary and national liberation movements that fail to

repress their enemies with sufficient zeal and that allow ample opportunity

for their enemies to marshal a counter-strike, that are often the most

vigorously reviled by the soft Left (and perhaps because part of the

counterstrike is PR campaigns mounted in the West to discredit the regime in

question – campaigns the soft Left has always shown a particular

vulnerability to.) Whatever repressive measures ZANU-PF takes toward its

opposition must be understood in the context of the history of the struggle

for national liberation and of the alliance of the main opposition party,

the MDC, with Britain and the White settlers.

Police States

The Soviet Union, east Germany, Cuba and north Korea are often thought of in

the West as police states. To deny the reality that the USSR and east

Germany were, and that Cuba and north Korea are, police states would be

disingenuous. But at the same time, to deny the reality that the US,

Britain, Canada, Australia and other Western countries are also police

states would be equally disingenuous. It is only the power of

anti-communist propaganda that allows the socialist east German Stasi to be

invested with a unique menace while any recognition that an equally

repressive police state apparatus existed in capitalist west Germany is

entirely suppressed.

• “Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the (US National Security

Agency) monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail

messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people inside the United States

without warrants.” (9) The New York Times held back this story for a year,

after Washington asked that it not disclose the violation of its own laws to

spy on its citizens.

• Canada’s RCMP and intelligence services amassed files on 800,000 Canadians

(Canada’s population is only 30 million) and secretly monitored thousands of

organizations, including church and women’s groups. For over three decades,

the Mounties spied on Tommy Douglas, esteemed by Canadians for his role in

creating public health insurance, even when Douglas was leader of the social

democratic New Democratic Party and a Member of Parliament. (10)

• In Mexico, more than 700 people were assassinated by the state and many

tortured, from the late 60s through the early 80s, as part of a secret

campaign to eliminate militant leftists. Successive governments used

“massacres, forced disappearances, systematic torture and genocide, in an

attempt to destroy the part of society it considered its ideological enemy.”


These examples, drawn from recent newspaper reports, only scratch the

surface. You could write tomes and tomes on US police state activities

(COINTELPRO being one of the more infamous programs to neutralize class

enemies), and many have been written. But it’s not the reality that the US

government conspicuously parades around the world as human rights champion,

when it’s just as repressive, when circumstance demand, as any other state,

that is important. Nor should the failure of Western governments to live up

to their human rights rhetoric hold our attention. Human rights rhetoric is

based on the idea that rights are absolute, not relative, and that different

groups of people don’t have antagonist interests, based on their economic

positions and role as either exploiter or exploited. And we certainly

shouldn’t expect that states can be pressured to live up to their rhetoric,

anymore than we should expect that lions can be pressured to give up meat

for grazing on grass. Have they ever? All states are police states, and

always will be, so long as antagonist classes exist. The antagonism is

played out on many battlefields, human rights among them. In battles over

human rights, we shouldn’t ask whether rights, as an absolute, are being

denied, for rights are never absolute. We should ask whose rights are in

conflict with who else’s, which rights are our own, and whether sheep can be

faulted for denying wolves their flesh.

1. Reuters, January 27, 2007.

2. New York Times, January 21, 2007.

3. New York Times, January 2, 2007.

4. New York Times, January 23, 2006.

5. New York Times, December 25, 2005.

6. Antonia Juhasz, “The Bush Agenda: Invading the World One Economy at a

Time,” Regan Books, 2006, p. 205.

7. Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2007.

8. William Blum, Anti-Empire Report, November 19, 2006; New York Times,

December 21, 2006.

9. New York Times, December 16, 2005.

10. Globe and Mail, December 18, 2006.

11. New York Times, November 23, 2007.

* Had they written in favour of Cuban socialism, they would never have been

arrested, even if they were taking money from Washington. To say what they

wrote had nothing to do with their jailing, then, is absurd, and has more to

do with pandering to liberal prejudices than anything else.

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