Posts Tagged ‘human rights’

worker-rights

Ambassador Nikki Haley’s decision last week to withdraw the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council is remarkable. The United States is the first nation in the body’s 12-year history to voluntarily remove itself from membership in the council while serving as a member.

Some have alleged that the timing of Haley’s decision is conspicuous. “The move,” read the second paragraph of a CNN report on Haley’s decision, “came down one day after the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights slammed the separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexico border as ‘unconscionable.’”

It’s true the Trump administration has been threatening to leave the Council for much of the past year. And the condemnation of the administration’s policy of separating children from their parents on the border was perhaps the last straw.

However, in my view, at least as important was a report last month by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, on his mission to the United States late last year.*

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Alston’s critique of the economic situation in the United States could not be more pointed.

The United States is a land of stark contrasts. It is one of the world’s wealthiest societies, a global leader in many areas, and a land of unsurpassed technological and other forms of innovation. Its corporations are global trendsetters, its civil society is vibrant and sophisticated and its higher education system leads the world. But its immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live.

For example, more than 40 million Americans live in poverty, with 18.5 million in extreme poverty and more than 5 million in conditions of absolute poverty.

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Then,

The United States has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries. . .The consequences of neglecting poverty and promoting inequality are clear. The United States has one of the highest poverty and inequality levels among the OECD countries. . .But in 2018 the United States had over 25 per cent of the world’s 2,208 billionaires. There is thus a dramatic contrast between the immense wealth of the few and the squalor and deprivation in which vast numbers of Americans exist.

According to data compiled by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman (pdf), between 1980 and 2014, the incomes of those at the top soared (the green bars in the chart above: 616 percent for the top 0.001 percent, 421 percent for the top 0.01 percent, 298 percent for the top 0.1 percent, and 194 percent for the top 1 percent), while the incomes of those in the bottom 90 percent barely rose (the rose-colored bars: 49 percent for the middle 40 percent and 21 percent for the bottom 50 percent).

Both trends—rising poverty and increasing inequality—have been going on for decades now. But, Alston is clear, the situation is only going to worsen under the current administration:

The new policies: (a) provide unprecedentedly high tax breaks and financial windfalls to the very wealthy and the largest corporations; (b) pay for these partly by reducing welfare benefits for the poor; (c) undertake a radical programme of financial, environmental, health and safety deregulation that eliminates protections mainly benefiting the middle classes and the poor; (d) seek to add over 20 million poor and middle class persons to the ranks of those without health insurance; (e) restrict eligibility for many welfare benefits while increasing the obstacles required to be overcome by those eligible; (f) dramatically increase spending on defence, while rejecting requested improvements in key veterans’ benefits; (g) do not provide adequate additional funding to address an opioid crisis that is decimating parts of the country; and (h) make no effort to tackle the structural racism that keeps a large percentage of non-Whites in poverty and near poverty.

What that means is a deterioration of human rights in the United States, because

International human rights law recognizes a right to education, a right to health care, a right to social protection for those in need and a right to an adequate standard of living.

In other words, according to international law, economic rights are human rights. More specifically, worker rights are human rights—and workers are the ones who are suffering from the growth in poverty and the obscene levels of inequality in the United States. Their rights have been violated for decades now, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and the prospect looking forward—under Donald Trump and his Republican allies—is even bleaker.

The solution begins with the recognition that economic rights, especially worker rights, are in fact human rights. And the only way to uphold those rights is to radically transform the existing economic institutions, to give workers the right to participate in making the decisions that affect their lives.

 

*As it turns out, the day after I wrote this post Haley attacked Alston’s report on U.S. poverty:

Haley, the former Republican governor of South Carolina, said she was “deeply disappointed” that the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, had “categorically misstated the progress the United States has made in addressing poverty … in [his] biased reporting”. She added that in her view that “it is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America.”

A former Chilean military official was finally found liable for killing Victor Jara.

A Florida jury on Monday found a former Chilean army officer liable for the 1973 torture and murder of the folk singer and political activist Victor Jara, awarding $28m in damages to his widow and daughters in one of the biggest and most significant legal human rights victories against a foreign war criminal in a US courtroom. . .

Kathy Roberts, legal director of the Center for Justice and Accountability, the California-based human rights group that brought the civil action on behalf of Jara’s British-born widow, Joan Turner Jara, and daughters Amanda Turner Jara and Manuela Bunster, believes the Florida jury’s ruling could now increase the pressure on the DoJ.

“It’s a step on the path towards justice for our clients and for Victor but also for the many other families who lost someone at Chile Stadium so many years ago,” she said after the verdict.

“We presented evidence that started to shed light on what happened there, and we hope that process will continue in Chile and we hope that the United States will extradite Mr Barrientos to face justice in the country where he committed these crimes.”

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We all know that economic inequality has reached grotesque, even obscene, levels around the world. And the gap between a tiny group at the top and everyone else continues to grow.

But is inequality a human rights concern?

As Ignacio Saiz and Gaby Oré Aguilar [ht: ms] explain, the ongoing debates about inequality

have rarely made reference to human rights. In turn, the human rights community has paid very little attention to economic inequality. While inequality on grounds such as gender, race and disability have long been core human rights concerns, gross inequalities in economic status remain largely unchallenged by human rights law and advocacy.

The question then is, is it possible or even desirable to make inequality a central concern of the global human-rights movement?

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The problem is that human rights have mostly been articulated in terms of individual rights—such as in the “right to life, liberty, and security of person” (as in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And inequality raises a very different set of questions, not about individual rights but about economic and social relations, about the relationshop between smaller and larger groups of people within society. Ultimately, growing inequality challenges the idea of “just deserts” and raises the prospect that one small group on top is “ripping off” everyone else, who are forced to have the freedom to continue to work for their benefit.

That’s what Samuel Moyn is getting at when he argues that “even perfectly realized human rights are compatible with radical inequality.”

The assertion of human rights in the 1940s began as one version of the update to the entitlements of citizenship on whose desirability and necessity almost everyone agreed after depression and war. Franklin Roosevelt issued his famous call for a “second bill of rights” that included socioeconomic protections in his State of the Union address the year before his death. But in promising “freedom from want” and envisioning it “everywhere in the world,” Roosevelt in fact understated the actually egalitarian aspirations that every version of welfarism proclaimed. These went far beyond a low bar against indigence so as to guarantee a more equal society than before (or since). His highest promise, in his speech, was not a floor of protection for the masses but the end of “special privilege for the few”—a ceiling on inequality.

But the harmony of ideals between the campaign against abjection and the demand for equality succeeded only nationally, and in mostly North Atlantic states, and then only partially. Whatever success occurred on both fronts thus came with sharp limitations—and especially the geographical modesty that the human rights idiom has since successfully transcended. It is, indeed, as if globalization of the norms of basic protection were a kind of reward for the relinquishment of the imperative of local equality.

Even the decolonization of the world, though unforeseen at the time of the Universal Declaration that accommodated itself to the empires of the day, hardly changed this relationship, since the new states themselves adopted the national welfarist resolve. The burning question was what would happen after, especially in the face of the inability of the global south to transplant national welfarism and the wealth gap that endures to this day between two sorts of countries: rich and poor.

The fact is, while the gap between countries has decreased somewhat (at least in terms of national income per capita), the gap within countries (especially within the North) has been growing—and the human-rights movement has mostly been “a helpless bystander of market fundamentalism.”

Philip Alston offers a very different view:

the human rights community needs to address directly the extent to which extreme inequality undermines human rights. One starting point is to clearly recognize that there are limits to the degree of inequality that can be reconciled with notions of equality, dignity and commitments to human rights for everyone. Governments should formally commit to policies explicitly designed to eliminate extreme inequality. Economic and social rights must become an integral part of human rights programs. A concerted campaign to ensure that every state has a social protection floor in place would signal a transformation in this regard. That concept—initially elaborated by the International Labour Organization, subsequently endorsed by the UN and now even by the World Bank—draws upon the experience of a range of countries around the world that have successfully tackled poverty in terms of programs with universal coverage, formulated in terms of human rights and of domestic legal entitlements.

But, in all honesty, the challenge facing the human-rights movement is to pick up where Alston stops. He leaves us with the idea of a “social protection floor,” which is pretty much where we were at when Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented his “second bill of rights” in 1944.

The real obstacle is to make sense of the conditions and consequences of the social “ripping-off” that serves as the basis of the extreme and growing levels of inequality we are witnessing today. The human-rights community has succeeded in making it obvious that we need to eradicate traditional forms of slavery as a violation of fundamental human rights.

As I see it, the human-rights movement now needs to take a step forward and confront the modern problem of class exploitation based on the continued existence of wage-slavery.

According to Greg Grandin [ht: sb],

“I didn’t know absolutely nothing.” That double negative is from Sergio de Castro, talking about the killing, disappearances, and torture that took place when he served as Chile’s economic and finance minister during the Pinochet regime’s most brutal period. It’s from a great documentary that premiered this week in Chile, Chicago Boys, made by Carola Fuentes, a journalist, and Rafael Valdeavellano, a filmmaker.

Less than a month later, a former conscript in the Chilean army, Guillermo Reyes Rammsy, was charged with murder after confessing on a live radio phone-in to participating in the deaths of eighteen opponents of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The extraordinary confession began on Wednesday afternoon when a man called in to Chile’s most famous talk show “Chacotero Sentimental” (Loving Betrayal) and told host Roberto Artiagoitía that he was considering suicide.

After briefly describing a frustrated romance, the caller went on to describe his involvement in a string of human rights crimes. He said that, as a conscript, he had participated in 18 executions, following Pinochet’s military coup against the government of president Salvador Allende.

“The first time [I killed someone] I cried but the lieutenant was saying: ‘Good soldier, good soldier, brave soldier.’ Then ‘Pow. pow,’ again,” he said. “The second time I liked it. I enjoyed it.”

Over the next 20 minutes, the caller described a string of human rights abuses that he had witnessed during his time in the army. “I participated in 18 executions … We shot them in the head and then blew up the bodies with dynamite, there was nothing left, not even their shadow,” he said.

Reyes’s arrest “was cheered by human rights group who have long fought for a better understanding of how the Chilean army killed then destroyed the bodies of the victims.”

One can only hope the confessions in the Chicago Boys will help bring the other—the free-market criminals—to justice.

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