Most mainstream human rights organizations place a de facto priority on questions of physical integrity and violations of political and civil rights. Social and economic rights are addressed only insofar as they have a direct bearing on the political and civil issues; labor organizing, for example, is a form of free association, and restraints on culture often involve restraints on conscience and expression. The emphasis on civil-political rights reinforces the dominant US media tendency to define human rights far more narrowly than the UN Universal Declaration. Social, economic and cultural rights are treated as distinctly lesser categories of rights, if at all, in the US media.
Human rights groups and the media both focus largely on abuses wherein the state is directly involved as an active agent of repression. “But what happens,” asks Felice Gaer, director of the New York- based International League for Human Rights, “when the government is a passive accomplice in structural or cultural abuses, rather than an active agent?”
Gaer cites abuses specific to women, which are often deeply entangled in cultural and religious practices, but not attributable directly to government action. Abuses of women fall largely within the social and economic spheres.
Consider, for example, a widespread practice such as genital mutilation of women, a subject almost never mentioned in the mass media. (One suspects more attention would be given if male genitals were being systematically mutilated.) Clitoridectomies, arguably a form of torture, cause life-long pain and life-threatening infections in an estimated 84 million women in Africa and Asia. But this violation of physical integrity isn’t treated as a human rights issue by mainstream human rights groups and the media, in part because governments may not be explicitly involved in perpetrating these acts.
The same logic applies to bride-burning and various forms of trafficking in women. Prostitution, like that servicing Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines–or the “sex tourist” trade in Thailand–could not go on without implicit government sanction.
The widespread sterilization of Puerto Rican and Native American women is largely ignored by the press, even though U.S. government agencies have been involved in promoting such abuses. Other violations committed in the name of population control have received scant media attention.
A recent editorial in the New York Times (4/19/89) strongly criticized the Chinese government for its policy of mandatory abortions. On the other side of the natal coin, Romania has undertaken “an aggressive and intrusive campaign to promote population growth,” according to the U.S. State Department (Country Reports, 1988). Under the Romanian government’s forced natalization program, “abortions and all forms of birth control are illegal. Pregnancy tests and physical examinations continue to be required of female workers…to insure that pregnancies are… carried to term.” Such practices also constitute a violation of human rights, but U.S. journalists, usually quick to condemn Communist abuses, have said little about this.
Then there are human rights abuses committed against people because of their sexual orientation. Even in countries closely scrutinized by the US media, abuses against gays and lesbians have rarely been cited as human rights issues. In Iran, for example, people have been executed for engaging in homosexual relations. In some countries, lesbians and gay men have been incarcerated in camps or mental institutions. Amnesty International is reevaluating its policy of not categorizing prisoners of conscience those imprisoned for their sexual orientation. The Information Secretariat of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, based in Stockholm, acts as a global monitor for human rights abuses against gays and lesbians.
Another ‘omission by definition’ applies to human rights violations committed not by governments but by multinational corporations, which often wield more power than states, or other transnational actors like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose policies cause untold misery for millions of people in the developing world (see Henwood, page 56). Human rights do not figure prominently in international business coverage, except when activists force issues such as divestment from South Africa or the Nestle’s infant formula boycott into public consciousness.
Meanwhile the “debt bomb” is ticking. Third World governments, under pressure from the IMF and World Bank, impose callous policies that exacerbate hardship and discontent, resulting in food riots or rebellions which are invariably quelled by state repression. The debt problem is unquestionably a human rights issue, with direct relevance to political and civil rights.
The suppression of labor unions is severe in countries like Chile, which gears its economy to attracting foreign investment, and South Korea, which keeps a tight lid on workers rights in an effort to promote rapid economic growth. Thus the circle of abused socio-economic and civil-political rights remains unbroken.
Encouraged by mainstream human rights groups, media coverage of human rights focuses mainly on government abuse of individuals. But one doesn’t have to be a political dissident to be a victim of human rights abuse. Poor people around the world are victimized as a class. “Poverty leads millions of Asian kids into slavery,” read a recent Miami Herald headline (7/16/89). And women are victimized on the basis of gender; consequently they own only one tenth of the world’s property, and many are denied property rights and access to credit and education—facts not emphasized on the business pages.
Indigenous peoples, victimized on the basis of race, language and culture, are in some ways the most invisible of all. many are waging a protracted struggle against genocide and ecological catastrophe wrought by the engines of unchecked state and corporate power.
“We cannot separate individual rights from collective rights, because both are needed for there to be social justice,” Argentine Nobel Peace Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel told Extra!. “Social rights cannot be sacrificed in the name of individual liberties or free corporate enterprise. Nor can we accept the denial of individual liberties in the name of social equality.”