The Umbrella of U.S. Power – The universal declaration of human rights and the contradictions of U.S. Policy (Noam Chomsky) [1999]

umbrella of US power

So much of this man’s work is based on juxtapositions. Here, he sets the Declaration of Human Rights, which the UN General Assembly approved on December 10, 1948 (incidentally, the day before it passed Resolution 194,  which calls on the infant state of Israel to let Palestinian refugees return to their homeland) next to the actual record of the US government’s state violence abroad and negligence of its own people’s basic rights domestically.

I have just recently discussed the Declaration of human rights (seldom read, often lauded – usually when an official enemy disrespects them) with a group of students as part of an ethics discussion group, and I was quite struck by their resistance to the social and economic rights in the declaration (but not the civil and political). These would include the right to employment, housing and the right to leisure. As I read The Umbrella of U.S. Power, I realized this division of the rights has its own history:

The UD also recognizes a second category: Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. These are largely dismissed in the West. U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick described these provisions of the UD as ”a letter to Santa Claus… Neither nature, experience, nor probability informs these lists of ‘entitlements,’ which are subject to no constraints except those of the mind and appetite of their authors.”

In fact, this neat pamphlet reflects that discrepancy, when Chomsky in the final paragraphs writes:

With regard to civil-political rights, the U.S. record at home ranks high by comparative standards, though a serious evaluation would have to take into the account the conditions required to enjoy those rights…

So, in a reflection of the power balance within society between capital and workers, civil and political rights are to be ‘promoted’ abroad, whilst economic and social rights are to be undermined at home (this sums up the requirements for NATO membership, as it happens). The former have been won through centuries of struggle, the latter have been going down a slippery slope for the past 40 years.

For those familiar with Chomsky’s writing, there is nothing new per se, but managing to give such a far-reaching depiction of the behavior of the superpower of our times, in so few pages, is a feat in itself. Great as gift.

Anecdotal facts:

  • In the United States, subjected to similar policies [Thatcherite], 30 million people suffered from hunger by 1990, an increase of 50 percent from 1985… Forty percent of children in the world’s richest city fell below the poverty line.
  • [On the very ironic debt of the US to UN (membership fees):] ”Our doors are kept open,” Secretary General Kofi Annan writes, ”only because other countries in essence provide interest-free loans to cover largely American [sic] shortfalls – not only NATO allies… but also developing countries like Pakistan and even Fiji.”
  • [On the prison population as workforce:] It is disciplined, publicly subsidized, deprived of benefits, and ”flexible” – available when needed, left to government support when not.
  • In 1976, the U.N. General Assembly called on the IMF to ”refrain forthwith from extending credits to South Africa.” The next day, at U.S.-U.K. initiative, South Africa was granted more IMF funding than all of the rest of Black Africa, in fact more than any country in the world apart from Britain and Mexico… After much delay and evasion, sanctions were finally imposed in 1985 and (over Reagan’s veto) in 1986, but the Administration ”created glaring loopholes” that permitted U.S. exports to increase by 40 percent between 198 and 1988… 
  • Drug offenders constituted 22 percent of admissions in federal prisons in 1980… 58 percent in 1992… [though] the Justice Department estimates the cost of corporate crime as 7 to 25 times as high as street crime. Work-related deaths are six times as high as homicides, and pollution also takes a far higher toll than homicide.


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