Albion Monitor /News

1996 Profits Won Over Human Rights, Group Says

The United States and other western powers failed to act strongly on behalf of human rights in key parts of the world during 1996, often sacrificing their stated concerns to doubtful, long-term objectives or business profits, according to a U.S. human rights group.

In its seventh annual "World Report on Human Rights Practices," the New York-based Human Rights Watch charges that "the major powers settled far too often in 1996 for the facade of a human rights policy rather than a genuine effort to promote human rights."

The 383-page report, issued in advance of Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, covers the human rights performance of 74 countries.

Gowing consumer backlash against companies which exploit child labor and workers' rights

It is particularly blistering about western indifference to abuses in Chechnya, China, Bosnia, the Middle East, and to efforts to bring the worst rights abusers in Bosnia and Rwanda.

"The major powers regularly argued that immediate defense of human rights must give way to the task of creating conditions which, over the long term, would guarantee respect for human rights."

"Until human rights becomes an integral and immediate part of the quest for peace, trade and democracy, the world will remain plagued with the intolerance, repression, and violence that underlie many of today's crises," the report concludes.

But all was not gloomy on the human rights front in 1996, according to Human Rights Watch, which cites important rights advances in a number of developing countries and in the growing consumer backlash against companies which exploit child labor and workers' rights.

The agency lauds South Africa's National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, which, armed with subpoena and amnesty power, became "the most powerful (truth commission) ever established" and offers the prospect of a detailed accounting of apartheid's abuses.

It also praises India for taking important steps to address communal violence, for obtaining the first murder conviction stemming from attacks against Sikhs in Delhi after Indira Gandhi was assassinated, and for reinstating an investigation into the killing of more than 1,000 people in the 1992-93 Bombay riots.

Guatemala's President Alvaro Arzu is also recognized for "bold actions" in purging the country's army and police forces, moving the country to end the Central America's oldest civil war, and in publicly acknowledging that gross abuses had been committed by security forces for decades with total impunity.

"Multinational corporations have been linked to human rights abuses in ever more public ways"

The report also cites what it calls a "surprising new source of support for the human rights cause" in the growth of consumer and press interest in labor rights in parts of the world which have previously been ignored.

"Because the goods purchased in one country may be produced by victims of repression in another, the very act of consumption can be seen as complicity in that repression," the report says.

"Surprisingly, the global economy is...establishing new and immediate connections among distant people," it goes on, adding, "Multinational corporations have been linked to human rights abuses in ever more public ways."

The resulting pressures have achieved significant results, Human Rights Watch says, noting that consumer campaigns in the United States and Europe led Heineken, Carlsbert, British Home Stores and Liz Claiborne to withdraw from Burma.

Elsewhere, Royal Dutch/Shell faced strong condemnation for its complicity with the Nigerian regime of Gen. Sani Abacha; mining giant Freeport McMoRan and Nike have suffered embarrassment over their role in Indonesia; Disney for its exploitation of labor in Haiti; and Zenith and General Motors for discriminating against women in their Mexican plants.

In addition, official actions such as UNICEF's decision to boycott products made with child labor; the World Bank's sponsorship of a joint project with India to eradicate bonded child labor; and the U.S. Labor Department's issuance of a report criticizing Mexico's labor adjudication system under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) all point to new approaches for enforcing rights, according to Human Rights Watch.

Western powers declined to stop the bloody campaign in Chechnya to save Boris Yeltsin's presidency

But these bright spots in the human rights picture barely pierce the dark clouds of Western excuses for tolerating continuing abuses in key lands, according to the report.

In China, for example, the major powers have argued that too much criticism about the repression of dissidents or Tibetan nationalists could backfire, aborting economic reforms that would eventually expose the Chinese people to new ideas and loosen the control of the Communist Party.

By the end of 1996, however, "there was no sign of progress on human rights. On the contrary, Chinese leaders were given every reason to conclude that, for the rest of the world, access to Chinese markets far outweighs the rights of Chinese citizens," the report says.

In Bosnia, the West warned that arresting indicted war criminals, returning displaced people to their homes, and guaranteeing a free press should take a back seat to elections and a peace process which may have entrenched "rabid nationalists" in power.

Western powers declined to exert strong public pressure to stop its bloody campaign in Chechnya in the interests of saving Boris Yeltsin's presidency, the report argues. In the Middle East, abuses by the Palestinian Authority, Syria, and Israel, including the indiscriminate rocketing of southern Lebanon, were downplayed in the interests of keep the Oslo peace process alive.

This approach "presumes that respect for human rights can be bought on the cheap, that the inconvenience of upholding rights today can be dispensed with in the name of a pain-free deliverance tomorrow," the report says. "It cannot."

Other low points for the year included the opposition by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to the creation of a permanent International Criminal Court; the "constructive engagement" policy towards Burma pursued by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); and the failure of western powers to impose tough sanctions against Nigeria after last year's execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists.

Human Rights Watch also decries German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's leadership of a delegation of more than 50 business executives to Indonesia despite Jakarta's recent crackdown against dissidents.

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Albion Monitor December 14, 1996 (

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