Even if I had done all the things the prosecution says I did, I would still not be guilty of any crime, because I am fighting against colonialism. We have heard such arguments in recent years from a variety of sources: IRA bombers, African National Congress supporters (bishops and necklacers), and Marxist rebels all over the world. However, on this occasion, the warriors against colonialism were a group of Puerto Rican nationalists accused of robbery and murder.
The announcer on National Public Radio did not even have to swallow hard or clear his throat. For years NPR has regularly aired the claims of would-be rebels against the American empire: leaders of the American Indian Movement, college-kid Marxists out on a spree, incarcerated armed robbers who suddenly “discover” that they are political prisoners—anyone, in other words, brave enough to shoot an FBI agent from behind a tree.
Most conservatives and liberals alike are willing to debate the fine points of right and wrong in the specific cases of El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan, but hardly anyone is willing to challenge the basic assumptions of the argument: that there is an international code of human rights which all nations are obliged (read: can be compelled) to live up to.
Human rights and democratic globalism were the trump card of the Reagan Administration’s foreign policy. With it, the President took a propaganda trick or two from the Soviets; in Central America, however, it led to one problem after another as Assistant Secretary of State Abrams received his on-the-job training in Realpolitik. (The communists still run Nicaragua, and an increasingly anti-American Noriega remains the ruler of Panama.) The lofty rhetoric of human rights was used, under Presidents Carter and Reagan, as a pretext for deserting or even undermining three allies of the United States (the Shah of Iran, Somoza, and Marcos) and for pressuring virtually every friendly regime outside of Europe and North America: Chile, South Africa, South Korea, and Israel, to name only the most obvious. Any government that fails to live up to the professed ideals of Scarsdale or Brookline Young Democrats is put on notice: do as we say (but not as we do) or face the consequences.
Where would anyone get such zany ideas? Christians and Jews, of course, acknowledge certain standards of morality as the basis for social and political ethics, but the lawyers, activists, and criminals who make pronouncements on human rights are only occasionally men of religious conviction. Besides, it is entirely inappropriate—worse, it is ethnocentric—to expect Moslems, Hindus, and demonworshipers to live up to the standards of Christian civilization, especially when some of these standards were discovered only in comparatively recent times and never applied, even in Sweden, with any consistency.
As John Randolph observed in 1806, when America was preparing for war with Britain because of her violations of our neutrality: “A great deal is said about the laws of nations. What is national law but national power guided by national interest?” What, indeed? So, I repeat, where would anyone get the idea that these sovereign United States were bound to respect some standard of political morality invented by professors of international law?
Consider the following flights of fancy, all of them asserting the dignity of international law:
1) “Genocide means . . . causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group. . . . Persons charged with genocide . . . shall be tried by a competent tribunal of the State in the territory of which the act was committed, or by such international penal tribunal as may have jurisdiction.”
2) “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members in the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”
3) ” . . . to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”
The first of these fantasies is found in the Genocide Convention; the second is from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the third is, of course, from the first paragraph of the UN Charter. Taken together, these passages add up to an international commitment to an ideology of rights that confounds genocide with the mental anguish caused by ethnic jokes and virtually commits the signatories to something like the Equal Rights Amendment. Worse, these proclamations challenge the very idea of state sovereignty and could turn potentially vital areas of domestic policy and national interest over to the decidedly anti- American United Nations. It used to be argued that a system of international law could be built on the foundations of natural law, and I continue to believe in that possibility, but such a system would have to recognize a few facts of life, such as the inviolability of the family, the sovereignty of the nation state, and the historical/cultural roots of Anglo- American civil rights.
The most puzzling aspect of this human rights business is the fact that grown men—including the bureaucrats and politicians who seek high office—actually approved and signed these documents on behalf of the United States. It is as if a group of Mafia dons were to join an organization that rehabilitated drug addicts and redeemed fallen women.
Still better as an analogy: imagine the Soviet leadership embracing the language of humanitarianism. What could be more preposterous than a general secretary of the Communist Party proclaiming that the USSR is committed to “international cooperation on humanitarian problems, and these are not mere words. . . . Human rights is . . . one of the components of the all-embracing system of security.” Those inspiring words, of course, were addressed by Mikhail Gorbachev to French President François Mitterrand in the summer of 1986. “A man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds.” Whether Mr. Gorbachev’s promises will turn out to be as empty as Mr. Khrushchev’s, it is simply too early to tell. Glasnost is, so far, little more than rhetoric.
For three decades US and Soviet leaders have been signing proclamations, accords, and protocols designed to guarantee rights of self-determination, religious freedom. and every other civil right which Britons and Americans shed their blood to secure. Even as they were signing the Helsinki agreement in 1975, the Soviets were at that very moment violating key provisions of that solemn assurance of “human rights and fundamental freedoms” in their oppression of religion, their suppression of a free press, and their treatment of minorities, to say nothing of the atrocities committed in Afghanistan.
In a very thoughtful and restrained contribution to the first issue of Ethics and International Affairs (published by the Carnegie Council), William Korey points out the difficulties of our situation: we sign agreements with the Soviets, who not only proceed to violate the letter and the spirit, but actually use the agreement to attack human rights violations in the US. The UN General Assembly now must listen to pious Soviet harangues on homelessness in America, our world-threatening commitment to SDI, our interventions in Central America.
The whole Helsinki process is a “hair-raising absurdity” according to Enoch Powell, who pointed out that “[t]he relationship of the Russian state to its subjects has remained unchanged . . . to try to shame or cajole or negotiate the Russian state into abandoning these convictions is like standing by the Volga inviting it to be so obliging as to flow north instead of south.”
When has the Kremlin ever abided by an agreement on “human rights”? Do Hungary and Czechoslovakia have the right to self-determination? Or the Ukraine and Byelorussia, both of which are voting members of the UN? We had high hopes for the United Nations and even succeeded in organizing the Korean War under its banner (the Soviet delegation was absent when the vote was taken). But since Korea the tide has turned against the United States and its allies, and the United Nations has turned into a US-subsidized platform for Third World goons and Warsaw Pact thugs. So end the hopes and dreams of world peace that were cherished by so many decent, if unrealistic, Americans since the 1920’s.
The terrible truth is that on this side of the moon there is no peace, no human rights. As Will Percy wrote in one of the most moving hymns of this century:
The peace of God it is no peace
but strife closed in the sod. . . .
The doctrine of human rights is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. Of course, man the political animal must live by political myths. From the very beginning he has buttressed his social systems with semireligious ideologies. His kings were children of the gods; his patricians had direct access to powerful divinities and could not marry with lesser folk; his modern governments have been based on the divine right of kings or on the divine right of the people.
Since the later Middle Ages, the people’s right to make and unmake a government has rested on the very ancient idea of the social contract. In his primitive state man, so the story goes, had been free to do as he liked. Sensing the inconveniences of their situation, our distant ancestors wisely decided to sacrifice some of their freedom in return for the blessings of orderly government.
As a serious political theory, the social contract has been dead for centuries. Where do these rights come from? Is a state of nature even conceivable? Can our distant ancestors have bound us to any agreement they might have made? Can anyone imagine any circumstance under which any group of men would voluntarily and unanimously surrender their liberties? Recognizing the absurdity of the myth, the most prominent living natural rights philosopher reduces the story to a hypothetical “original position” in which all men and women are presumed equal. How our actions can be governed by a Harvard professor’s hypothesis, John Rawls has never said.
For all its manifest absurdities, natural rights theory has, however, lived on in disguise. Marx played his one trick of standing theory on its head: government is not legitimate, because there was no contract, only a usurpation enacted by patriarchal capitalists. The utilitarians (and their libertarian descendants) simply chopped the contract into pieces before swallowing it whole: each individual enters into an engagement with society, but only so long as the cost-benefit ratio is favorable.
So long as the myth of natural rights cut against the power of government and in favor of the citizen, there were hardly any practical objections. The language of rights did not begin to lose its appeal until it was employed by Congress and the federal courts as a major weapon in their unremitting war against the family, private property, and local self-government.
Every right, it has always been understood, conveys an obligation, and in modern times that obligation implies the power of government. If homosexuals have rights, that means the federal courts can compel you to employ them, house them, and admit them into your once-private clubs. If children have rights, then state welfare agencies can monitor and regulate parents as they go about the difficult task of rearing their offspring.
If all peoples everywhere on the globe have inalienable rights, then it can only be up to the United Nations and to the International Court of Justice to decide who gets what. If colonialism is a “slavery-like” crime, as the UN has declared, then it really should be up to the International Court of Justice to decide the cases of Puerto Rican anticolonialists, black separatists, and Red Power activists. (It does no good to say that most Puerto Ricans, blacks, and Indians prefer their “slavery-like” condition, because slaves cannot be expected to know their own minds: they have been conditioned.)
There are political analysts in America, conservative as well as liberal, who believe South Africa must be pressured into changing its political system—this, despite Article 2, paragraph 7 of the UN Charter:
Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. . . .
The answer to that is provided by one of America’s leading experts on international law, Richard Falk. Falk argues, in essence, that apartheid is inherently unstable and constitutes an open invitation to a civil war that will draw in the superpowers. As a threat to world peace, therefore. South Africa’s domestic political system should be cleaned up by the UN.
For some liberals, that may be going a bit far, but writers like Falk and Leo Kuper (the author of Genocide) have other ideas that strike closer to home. The Vietnam War, for example, was genocidal; America’s participation in the arms race is criminal madness; the US is riddled with anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance. If South Africa is a candidate for takeover and reform, why not the United States?
The only answer we can make is that in our own self-interest the US reserves the right to veto any such nonsense in the Security Council and to refuse jurisdiction to the ICJ—as we did when Nicaragua accused us of mining her harbors in defiance of international law. If our goal in signing international agreements is to win propaganda victories against the other side, so blatant an exercise in hypocrisy does us no good. Of course, we do have the will and the power to defend our interest, but with “national power guided by national interest” we are back to the language of John Randolph.
The United States really needs to rethink its whole position in the international community. Even under President Reagan we signed (cynically, I hope) the Genocide Convention. What would we do if a President Dukakis or a President Simon decided to take it seriously? Would we, for example, turn over the Yonkers City Council to an international tribunal? It sounds ridiculous, but in the Massachusetts of Michael Dukakis, crimes involving ethnic prejudice fall into a special category. Throw a rock through a window, and pay a fine or hear a judge’s lecture. Throw the same rock through an Asian’s window and shout “Cambo,” and you go to jail. If internationalists like Dukakis have their way, the jail may be in Cambodia.
Under a system of government like ours, we cannot afford to let one party sign an agreement that the other party may force the nation to live up to. Rhetorical nightmares have a way of coming true. Few American politicians took the UN rhetoric very seriously before the election of Jimmy Carter. Under his enlightened leadership, the US sacrificed, time after time, its national interest on the altar of human rights.
In the hostile world in which we find ourselves, the relative efficiency of the UN staff is of even less consequence than the UN diatribes against America. President Reagan’s decision to release $188 million of withheld payments (with a promise of $520 million in the future) may be the predictable end-result of the internationalist rhetoric we have indulged in for decades. It may also be the fitting conclusion to a bipartisan coalition (in Congress and in the State Department) that signed the Genocide Convention and wagered the national security on the good faith of Mr. Gorbachev.
The Soviets, of course, know the score. In every international debate over human rights, they have managed to equate US unemployment with Soviet oppression, ethnic prejudice here with ethnic extermination over there. They succeed, because unlike us they are actually internationalists at heart; because there is one form of internationalism that always works. It is called empire; and no matter what smiling faces preside over the Kremlin, Moscow will never renounce its claim to be the Third Rome.