I talk to Shiri Pasternak, Research Director at the Yellowhead Institute and author of Grounded Authority: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake Against the State. We cover Indigenous authority, jurisdiction, sovereignty, solidarity, and Canada’s coups d’etat in Indian Country.
Tarantino’s mastery seems to be in reading the mood and making a movie for it. His latest movie is perfect for the Trump era, based as it is in nostalgia for a racially homogeneous Hollywood.
The genre for Once Upon a Time… forces some choices on both the storyteller and the audience. The movie treats the day that actor Sharon Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson, but it reverses that murder and ends with Sharon and friends having a nice drink in her house after the would-be murderers have been eaten by a dog, bashed in on various surfaces of a house, and incinerated by flamethrowers. But the whole hook of the movie is its ability to evoke the Hollywood of 1969, which Tarantino clearly wants us to think was a good time. So, which parts of it were real and which were changed? These were the decisions Tarantino made, the consequences of which moviegoers have to suffer.
Here’s one decision I was wondering about. Since all the protagonists were white, did they not use casual racial slurs in their conversations with one another back then? They certainly are vitriolic towards the “f#@in hippies”. But I didn’t hear them use the n-word even once. No anti-Semitism among these paragons either. At Manson’s ranch, one of the villains, “Squeaky”, or “the red-head” tells Brad Pitt’s character that she “doesn’t want to be gypped” of her time watching TV with George, the ranch’s mostly incapacitated owner. “Gypped” is a racist term that implies that gypsies, or Roma, are thieves. Like the Jews, the Roma were targeted for extermination in the Nazi Holocaust, and indeed, the term “gypped” is used interchangeably with “jewed” by racists. Tarantino inserted the word “gypped”, presumably to add some verisimilitude about the casual racism with which people talked back then. So why no casual anti-Black racism or anti-Semitism, which was also the coin of the realm at the time? Tarantino used to do that, with anti-Black racism at least: Reservoir Dogs is full of n-bombs dropped by the white cast, in all kinds of shameful ways, with deniability for the storyteller to say, hey, I’m not racist, my characters are.
Aside from the protagonists’ hatred of the “f#@in hippies”, the film is all about not showing you anything of the 1960s social movements against the Vietnam War, the effects of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers — or even the East L.A. Walkouts of 1968 or the Watts riots of 1965. The only mention of that context is when one of the Manson-following villains (played by Margaret Qualley), trying to seduce Pitt’s character (a Vietnam veteran), says that “real people are dying in Vietnam”. One of the would-be killers, who gets incinerated by Leonardo Di Caprio, delivers a critique of media violence before her attempted murder and elaborate death. 1969 Hollywood was a better, cleaner place, Tarantino is saying, with the only encroachments on this purity coming via a death cult of “f#@in hippies” (not via any real Black people or people with genuinely held anti-racist values).
On the theme of purity, Tarantino’s camera worships Margot Robbie’s angelic character, Sharon Tate, lingering on her golden hair, her pristine white boots and her beautiful smile as she dances and enjoys the audience reaction to her acting (a significant amount of the movie’s runtime is of Sharon Tate watching her own movie — which means a significant amount of the audience’s time is actually spent watching someone watch a movie). The camera follows Robbie (and Qualley in a different way, since she’s a bad) the way you’d see in a Michael Bay movie or a James Bond film, with Robbie as the good Bond girl and Qualley as the bad one.
And on Bond films: if Once Upon a Time… were a Bond film, the superspy role would go to Brad Pitt’s character, Vietnam veteran and possible wife-murderer Cliff Booth. And the main way we know of Cliff’s superpowers is by way of an encounter with Bruce Lee — for me, the most insulting part of this insulting film.
Bruce Lee is portrayed as a fan of Muhammad Ali, which of course he was. Bruce’s philosophy was to learn about fighting from every possible source. At that time, Muhammad Ali was displaying attributes and skills to astound anyone, but even more so a student of martial arts like Bruce. A story known by every Bruce Lee fan:
Another time Yeung, aka [Bolo] went to see Bruce at Golden Harvest Studios. Bruce was screening a Cassius Clay [Muhammad Ali] documentary. Ali was world heavyweight champion at the time and Bruce saw him as the greatest fighter of them all. The documentary showed Ali in several of his fights. Bruce set up a wide full-length mirror to reflect Ali’s image from the screen. Bruce was looking into the mirror, moving along with Ali.
Bruce’s right hand followed Ali’s right hand, Ali’s left foot followed Bruce’s left foot. Bruce was fighting in Ali’s shoes. “Everybody says I must fight Ali some day.” Bruce said, “I’m studying every move he makes. I’m getting to know how he thinks and moves.” Bruce knew he could never win a fight against Ali. “Look at my hand,” he said. “That’s a little Chinese hand. He’d kill me.”
Bruce was a keen teacher, and a great showman (see the videos of his martial arts demonstrations), but he was no braggart and he spent all his time picking apart and analyzing fighting methods, practicing them, and teaching them to others. So, of course, Tarantino portrays him exactly as a loudmouth braggart and a bully, who picks a fight with Brad Pitt’s strong, silent character on a set. The fight starts when this cartoon Bruce (in direct defiance of what the real Bruce believed and said) tells someone that he would turn Muhammad Ali “into a cripple” if they fought — this, Brad Pitt’s character cannot abide. So Bruce — who in real life reluctantly accepted challenges on-set from blowhards (ie., who was much more like Pitt’s character was portrayed) — fights Cliff, who gives the foreign braggart a good old-fashioned American beating.
In the real world, Bruce Lee faced a glass ceiling in the racist Hollywood of the time, despite his extraordinary gifts. Playing Kato in the Green Hornet, the story goes that Bruce refused the plan in a crossover episode to have his character defeated by Batman’s sidekick, Robin. No one would have believed it. Screenwriters changed the fight to a draw.
So, how would Brad Pitt’s character, a stuntman and Vietnam veteran, have approached a fight with Bruce? Presumably he would have been trained in the Army Combatives system at the time — a system Bruce knew and studied. Maybe Cliff also even knew American boxing and wrestling — which would have been no surprise to Bruce, who taught American students with these backgrounds. So, would Bruce have opened with a lot of fancy movement and kiai sounds and a flying sidekick, like he does in the movie? Would he have done that same kick after challenged by Cliff to do it again? What we know of how Bruce behaved in sparring situations says no (look at this YouTube MMA analyst’s breakdown of a sparring session). Nor would Bruce have reacted to Cliff’s attacks with stunned surprise: he was an experienced fighter who would have seen it all before.
It gets worse. Because in the fight choreography Tarantino chose for the scene, Pitt’s character actually uses wing-chun style close-quarters hand-fighting for a portion of the fight (this was the first style Bruce studied before developing his own). Pitt’s stance and movement incorporate moves that were introduced to North America by (the real) Bruce Lee, who did a lot to change and improve both real martial arts training and fight choreography. While disparaging the real Bruce, Tarantino freely uses his martial arts to make his movie look cool.
In the end, Bruce is just a stepping stone, a foreigner whose fancy moves are no match for the all-American hero, a foil to show the invincibility of the white protagonist. The very role the real Bruce chafed against his entire career.
There’s more to say about the class dynamics of the movie, the way in which Pitt’s working class character knows his place and is uncritically loyal and ever-grateful to Di Caprio’s upper class character. But I’ll leave that for someone else. I’ll just say that while this movie rewrites a gruesome murder and spares the actual victims, it is also an attempted murder on, among other historical realities, the real Bruce Lee.
The ICC provides no legal counterbalance to the arrogance of an empire’s power. It is the empire’s court.
In June, a group of international lawyers sued the European Union for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The lawyers claim that when the EU switched to a policy of deterring refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2014, in particular trying to prevent Libyan refugees from fleeing their destroyed state, they killed thousands of refugees and sent tens of thousands more back to Libya to be enslaved, tortured, raped, and killed.
As a symbolic gesture, the lawsuit is powerful. But the possibility of getting justice for Libyan refugees from the ICC is practically nonexistent.
In fact, the ICC bears some responsibility for the destruction of the Libyan state that led to the refugee crisis in the first place. When the United States decided to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011, it had the UN Security Council make a “referral” of the Libyan situation to the ICC. There were some peculiarities in the details of the referral as well: the ICC was directed to investigate the situation in Libya, exempting non-state actors, since February 15, 2011. “It would appear,” scholar Mark Kersten writes in a chapter in the 2015 book “Contested Justice” (pg. 462), “that the restriction to events after 15 February 2011 was included in order to shield key Western states… In the years preceding the intervention, many of the same Western states that ultimately intervened in Libya and helped overturn the regime had maintained close economic, political and intelligence connections with the Libyan government.” The African Union, led by the South African president, tried to broker a peace deal between Gaddafi and the rebels: Gaddafi accepted, but the rebels refused. For them, Gaddafi had to go. And the ICC investigation strengthened their hand. In Libya, the ICC was harmful to a negotiated solution.
In general, the ICC prefers war to negotiated peace. As scholar Phil Clark pointed out in his 2018 book “Distant Justice” (pg. 91): “… the ICC has expressed immense skepticism toward peace negotiations involving Ugandan and Congolese suspects whom it has charged — especially when those talks involve the offer of amnesty — but has strongly supported militarized responses to these suspects and their respective rebel movements. In short, the ICC has viewed ongoing armed conflict rather than peace talks as more useful for its own purposes.” The president of the DR Congo’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission told Clark in an interview (pg. 223): “The ICC came up forcefully in our discussions with several rebel leaders… We would start talking to them, make good progress, then the conversation would stop. They didn’t want to incriminate themselves, even when we stressed that the amnesty was in place.” In the DR Congo, the ICC made offers of amnesty less credible. Rebel leader Mathieu Ngudjolo was pardoned in 2006, integrated into the army, promoted to the rank of colonel, and then arrested on an ICC warrant 18 months later: the government’s “duplicity toward an amnesty recipient undermined the broader use of amnesty as an incentive for members of rebel groups to disarm” (pg. 203).
The ICC’s careful selection of when it investigates crimes (like limiting its Libya investigation to crimes after February 15, 2011, or its predecessor the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda limiting its investigation to crimes committed after the assassination of the Rwandan president on April 6, 1994) is mirrored in its careful selection of where it investigates and where it ignores. Take the DR Congo again: the ICC limited its mandate to the province of Ituri. Horrific violence took place in Ituri, but there was less violence overall than in the Kivu provinces (especially North Kivu). Why didn’t the ICC investigate in the Kivus? Because in the Kivus, the worst crimes were committed by armed groups supported by Rwanda and Uganda, favored U.S. allies in the region. When Sri Lanka’s government killed tens of thousands of people at the end of its counterinsurgency war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009, the ICC wrung its hands: Sri Lanka wasn’t a signatory to the Rome Statute that empowered the ICC.
The ICC gets even twistier when it comes time to prevent accountability for Israel. After the Goldstone report on Israel’s massacres in Gaza in 2008/9, Palestinians tried to bring a suit to the ICC against the Israeli generals and politicians who organized them. David Bosco reports in his book Rough Justice(pg. 162) that the Israelis met with Ocampo and “pressed Moreno-Ocampo to determine quickly that Palestine was not a state and that the court could therefore not accept its grant of jurisdiction.” The Americans told Ocampo “that they saw little value in ‘criminalizing the world’s longest running and most intractable regional dispute.’” Moreno saw the light: “The prosecutor’s long-awaited decision on Palestine — released in April 2012… more than three years after Palestine asked the court to investigate, the prosecutor decided that it was not his role to determine Palestine’s legal status.” The massacred Palestinians were colonized, and therefore stateless. Only states can sign the Rome Statute and bring the ICC in. Therefore, the ICC had no jurisdiction over the 2008/9 massacres of the Palestinians.
When the U.S. and UK saw no benefit to having the ICC involved in Afghanistan, the ICC prosecutor (Bosco, pg. 163): “limited himself to occasional private requests and put no pressure on involved states. That approach contrasted sharply with his willingness to sharply chastise states for their failure to enforce existing arrest warrants.”
Given the proclivity of the Western coalition in Afghanistan for bombing weddings and operating death squads (sometimes euphemistically called “kill teams”), their squeamishness in the face of potential legal probes is understandable. The ICC, like its predecessor tribunals on Rwanda and Yugoslavia, fully understands that the U.S. and UK are exempt from its brand of justice. Bosco (pg. 66) quotes British Foreign Minister Robin Cook speaking about the international tribunal after the Kosovo war in 1999: “If I may say so, this is not a court set up to bring to book Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom or Presidents of the United States.” Legal scholar Hans Kochler, writing in 2003 (pg. 178), quoted NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, who responded, when asked if he would accept the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY)’s jurisdiction over NATO officials: “… I think we have to distinguish between the theoretical and the practical. I believe when Justice [Louise] Arbour starts her investigation, she will because we will allow her to. It’s not [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic that has allowed Justice Arbour her visa to go to Kosovo to carry out her investigations. If her court, as we want, is to be allowed access, it will be because of NATO… So NATO is the friend of the Tribunal, NATO are the people who have been detaining indicted war criminals for the Tribunal in Bosnia.”
NATO’s spokesman reminded the world that as a “practical” matter, since it was Western militaries and police services that provide the law enforcement services to the ICC, these Western militaries wouldn’t subject themselves to the ICC’s justice. The second ICTY prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, admitted her dependence on NATO forces and the partiality of justice that ensued (quoted in Bosco pg. 66): “if I went forward with an investigation of NATO, I would not only fail in this investigative effort, I would render my office incapable of continuing to investigate and prosecute the crimes committed by the local forces during the wars of the 1990s.”
The ICC’s prosecutors depend on Western forces to make arrests and renditions. The ICC also recycles intelligence material from these Western countries into evidence against ICC suspects. This should be a legal problem: intelligence material is not evidence. There are many people trapped in Kafkaesque situations precisely because courts used intelligence materials — which are best guesses and probabilities used to inform police and military actions usually before events occur — as evidence, which should consist of provable facts intended to hold people accountable after the fact. Canadian academic Hassan Diab — imprisoned in France based on a similar-sounding name in a notebook from an intelligence agency interrogation — is just one example.
There was a time, decades ago, when the ICC was forming, when American and Israeli officials were actually worried about the prospect of a court that had universal jurisdiction. Suddenly, U.S. officials talked about national sovereignty. At that time you could hear John Bolton arguing that it was a bad idea “assert the primacy of international institutions over nation-states.” Bolton was very explicit about his problems with the U.S. being a party to the ICC, as quoted by Mahmood Mamdani in 2008:
“‘Our main concern should be for our country’s top civilian and military leaders, those responsible for our defense and foreign policy.’ Bolton went on to ask ‘whether the United States was guilty of war crimes for its aerial bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan in World War II’ and answered in the affirmative: ‘Indeed, if anything, a straightforward reading of the language probably indicates that the court would find the United States guilty. A fortiori, these provisions seem to imply that the United States would have been guilty of a war crime for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is intolerable and unacceptable.’ He also aired the concerns of America’s principal ally in the Middle East, Israel: ‘Thus, Israel justifiably feared in Rome that its pre-emptive strike in the Six-Day War almost certainly would have provoked a proceeding against top Israeli officials. Moreover, there is no doubt that Israel will be the target of a complaint concerning conditions and practices by the Israeli military in the West Bank and Gaza.’”
Near the end of his term, Clinton signed the Rome Statute. At the beginning of his term, George W. Bush had Bolton “unsign” it, and negotiate bilateral agreements with the countries of the world that they would never hand Americans over to any international courts. The U.S. went even further, passing in 2002 the Armed Service-Members Protection Act, which includes the line: “The United States is not a party to the Rome Statute and will not be bound by any of its terms. The United States will not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court over United States nationals.” Then the U.S. got the Security Council to pass resolutions enshrining U.S. immunity.
Israel also never signed the Rome Statute, which is why its officials are now arguing that the ICC has no jurisdiction in an ICC suit about another massacre it committed, this time on a boat trying to relieve the Gaza siege in 2010.
The powerful are exempt from the ICC’s justice. But the U.S. does believe in a kind of universal jurisdiction: its own. Kochler (2003, pg. 106) cites an internal Department of Justice memorandum from the George H.W. Bush era stating the opinion that the FBI has the power “to apprehend and abduct a fugitive residing in a foreign state when those actions would be contrary to customary international law.” That memo was from 1989, and it was about arresting Manuel Noriega, the president of Panama who fell afoul of the U.S., whose country was bombed and invaded, and who was taken away to jail.
The ICC won’t be doing anything for Libyan refugees or the victims of Israel’s massacres, but it continues to make strong statements about Sudan’s now ousted president Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for crimes committed as part of a counterinsurgency campaign in Darfur. The trial of an African leader from an enemy state, more than a decade after the crimes took place: now this is where the ICC shines.
In 2008, writing about the ICC’s arrest warrant for al-Bashir, Uganda-based scholar Mahmood Mamdani warned that the ICC was becoming a tool of neocolonial domination. The theory implicit in the ICC’s interventions, he wrote, “…turns citizens into wards. The language of humanitarian intervention has cut its ties with the language of citizen rights. To the extent the global humanitarian order claims to stand for rights, these are residual rights of the human and not the full range of rights of the citizen. If the rights of the citizen are pointedly political, the rights of the human pertain to sheer survival… Humanitarianism does not claim to reinforce agency, only to sustain bare life. If anything, its tendency is to promote dependence. Humanitarianism heralds a system of trusteeship.” And what is an empire if not a system of trusteeship?
The ICC provides no legal counterbalance to the arrogance of an empire’s power. It is the empire’s court.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Far from precision-guided munitions, sanctions are weapons of starvation, which target the most vulnerable civilians for slow and painful death by deprivation of food and medicine
After withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran last year and resuming sanctions last November, the White House in April announced that its goal was to “drive Iranian exports to zero.” To make this drive happen, the White House stopped allowing (my emphasis) countries like India, China, Japan, Turkey, and South Korea to import Iranian oil: dictating to sovereign countries whom they can trade with.
The dictating doesn’t stop there. Last December the United States had Canadian authorities detain and imprison a Chinese executive, the chief financial officer of telecom company Huawei. Meng Wanzhou is currently on trial in Canada, on the allegation that her company violated U.S. sanctions against Iran. Not content with having told China that it cannot trade with Iran, the United States has gotten a third country, Canada, to take a Chinese corporate executive captive in what Trump suggested was leverage for a trade deal: “If I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made, which is a very important thing—what’s good for national security—I would certainly intervene, if I thought it was necessary,” he told Reuters in December.
The trade deal with China didn’t come through, and a “trade war” has begun. Meng Wanzhou is still stuck in Canada. And the blockade against Iran is still tightening. Economist Mark Weisbrot assessed some of the damage to the Iranian economy in a recent segment on the Real News Network, noting that when sanctions were imposed in 2012, oil production dropped by 832,000 barrels per day and GDP by 7.7 percent; when they were lifted in 2016 in the nuclear deal, production increased by 972,000 barrels per day and GDP increased by 12 percent that year. In 2018 when sanctions were imposed, oil production fell dramatically again and inflation rose by 51 percent; shortages of dozens of essential medicines, according to a study at the University of California, have followed.
Some basic economics are in order here. A country that does not need to import or export is called an autarky, and in today’s global economy there are no autarkies. All national economies depend on trade: they export, earn foreign currency, and use that to import what they cannot produce. Driving a country’s exports to zero means destroying the country’s economy, and depriving the country’s people of necessities.
Sometimes billed as an alternative to war, sanctions are in fact a weapon of war. Far from precision-guided munitions, sanctions are weapons of starvation, which target the most vulnerable civilians for slow and painful death by deprivation of food and medicine. They are an alternative to war in the sense that unlike the invasion of ground troops or even the dropping of bombs, they pose little risk to the aggressor. This is their appeal to someone like Trump, who revealed the genocidal intent behind the Iran sanctions when he threatened (on Twitter) “the official end of Iran.”
In the 1990s, one focus of the antiwar movement was the impact of the genocidal sanctions against Iraq, which killed 500,000 children (a “price” that Madeleine Albright famously said was “worth it”). Antiwar activists feared that the sanctions were part of a military strategy that would end in even more devastating shooting war. Those fears proved true. Today’s sanctions seem to draw from the same playbook.
International law recognizes that sanctions are a form of warfare, and places the use of the sanctions weapon in the hands of the United Nations Security Council. And so it happened that between the 1990 and 2003 U.S. wars on Iraq, the UN played the shameful role of administering the Iraq sanctions. But today’s unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. circumvent any UN legalities. In the same Real News segment, UN Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Coercive Measures Idriss Jazairy noted that about one-quarter of the world’s population is under some form of unilateral sanctions. Iran, Venezuela, Syria, Cuba, Sudan and others are under various U.S. sanctions regimes. Yemen is fully blockaded by the U.S., UK, and Saudi Arabia; Gaza and the West Bank are completely sealed in by Israel; Qatar is blockaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the list goes on.
U.S. sanctions against Venezuela have already killed 40,000 people between 2017 and 2018, according to a report by Mark Weisbrot and Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs. The more intense sanctions imposed in 2019 will kill still more. Venezuela’s electrical grid is damaged, most likely because of sabotage. Maintenance of potable water pumps has become impossible without imported spare parts, leaving millions without water. A Venezuelan professor of economics, Pasqualina Curcio, told a delegation of the End Venezuela Sanctions coalition that sanctions have cost the country $114 billion, “which is nearly equal to one year’s worth of Venezuelan GDP at a typical oil price, or 26 years’ worth of medical imports.”
One of the tactical arguments anti-sanctions campaigners sometimes make is that sanctions “don’t work.” And for their declared purpose of “regime change,” indeed they do not. But when a policy is so widespread, such a first resort, perhaps the declared purpose is not the real purpose. If the purpose is to destroy economies, isolate countries, coerce allies, keep tensions near boiling and maintain a constant threat of war, sanctions are successful. It has been shown time and again that torture “doesn’t work” for obtaining information. But torture is not a technique for obtaining information. It is a technique for breaking a person and, when practiced on a mass scale by an apartheid state or dictatorship, for breaking a society. Sanctions are similar: the point is to break the society, not “regime change.”
Sanctions are Trump’s favorite weapon, but good Democrats are no different. Obama oversaw the destruction of Syria, Clinton laughed about the murder of Gaddafi and the destruction of Libya, and Albright said that 500,000 Iraqi children’s deaths were “worth it.” For the empire, genocide, like aggression, is a normal part of politics. Nuclear planners plan how to commit it. Sanctions officials administer it. And for the most part, human rights organizations take no position on it.
It is possible that at some point sanctions could become self-limiting. If enough countries are sanctioned, they might of course decide to trade with one another. In attempting to isolate so many big countries, the United States could isolate itself, creating a kind of “coalition of the sanctioned.” But from the U.S. perspective, with Brazil, India, and Egypt (the biggest countries in Latin America, South Asia, and the Arab world) all utterly subservient, perhaps this looks like a good moment to try to pressure China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. Trump’s planners can rest assured that it is not them, but millions of innocents in those countries who will pay for their power plays.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
I talk to Max Blumenthal, author of The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State fueled the rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump. We begin with the latest coup attempt in Venezuela and go from there to talk about anti-imperialist politics, the need to rebuild an antiwar and anti-imperialist mentality, and the hunger for such a perspective – as evidenced by the positive reaction to Max’s book – despite it being pushed away from the mainstream.
By Justin Podur (1)
Source: Independent Media Institute
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Who can we believe? Political parties and partisan organizations now present not only their own opinions but, as the old joke goes, their own facts as well. Are the Palestinians being shot at the Gaza fence trying to invade Israel, as the Israeli Army shooting them claims, or are they trying to protest their confinement in the open-air prison in which they are being slowly starved, as their spokespeople argue? Is Venezuela’s president Maduro a dictator, as Trump says, or did he win a fair election, as the country’s electoral council states?
The news reader faces diametrically opposed versions of truth, and on matters of life and death. A natural instinct would be to look for neutral, non-partisan voices—to find arbiters of truth that are not on one side or another, but seek only to adhere to matters of high principle. And what principle is higher than that of human rights, the idea that we all have rights solely because of our common humanity? Surely in the fog created by self-seeking politicians, armed groups that use deception as a weapon of war, and careerist journalists who climb the ladder by serving the powerful, organizations dedicated to human rights—like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—can serve as beacons of light.
Sadly, they cannot. The very authority that human rights organizations own, their appearance of principle and neutrality, has become a commodity too valuable for the powerful to pass up. The result? Human rights organizations have sacrificed their credibility and become a sophisticated part of the U.S. foreign policy machine—or, to put it more bluntly, a part of the U.S. empire. Things have been this way for longer than most “people of conscience,” to use a human rights word, realize.
In his 2010 book Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, author James Peck describes how Cold War U.S. officials searched for an ideological slogan that could rival the appeals to equality and anti-imperialism that were offered to the world’s downtrodden by communist revolutionaries. Anti-communism worked well enough at home, but it was a negative slogan—against communism, sure, but what would the U.S. be for? U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in a letter to Carter that a U.S.-based, quasi-governmental human rights foundation could promote “a worldwide constituency for human rights,” while being “insulated from direct dependence” on the United States, providing a voice “independent from, and in some cases more credible than, the U.S. government.” A broad definition of human rights, Brzezinski argued, would “retain for us the desirable identification with a human cause whose time has come.”
Human Rights Watch (called Helsinki Watch at its founding) came to serve exactly this purpose. Peck writes that in the 1970s “as Helsinki Watch worked closely with dissidents in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it found itself emulating long-standing American government practices.”
Amnesty International took a more independent path, focusing on specific practices like torture, political prisoners, and genocide. In doing so, one of its founders argued, Amnesty appealed to those “tired of the polarized thinking which is the result of the Cold War… but who are deeply concerned with those who are suffering simply because they are suffering.” But despite this beginning of trying to find and appeal to universals and avoid contentious and partisan issues, Amnesty quickly found itself in the middle of just such a controversy: according to Amnesty’s definition, prisoners of conscience could not be advocates of violence; Nelson Mandela hadn’t renounced violence; therefore Mandela wasn’t a prisoner of conscience. In this way, Amnesty ended up on the wrong side of one of the most historic struggles of the time.
In practice, these human rights organizations consistently find themselves on the side of the empire, despite the contradictions and contortions that such a stance requires.
Amnesty failed to give Chelsea Manning the “prisoner of conscience” designation. Amnesty representatives told journalist Joe Emersberger in 2013 that its investigation was ongoing, and that it wasn’t sure if Manning had “released information in a ‘responsible manner,’” and wasn’t sure if the government was punishing her “in order to prevent public knowledge of human rights abuses.” By contrast, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who led multiple violent coup attempts against the government, was quickly given prisoner of conscience status by Amnesty. Were Lopez’s violent coup attempts less violent than Mandela’s refusal to condemn anti-apartheid violence? Were his coup attempts conducted in a more “responsible manner” than Manning’s whistleblowing?
In 2006, Jonathan Cook pointed out how Human Rights Watch researcher Peter Bouckaert told the New York Times that “it’s perfectly clear that Hezbollah is directly targeting civilians, and that their aim is to kill Israeli civilians. We don’t accuse the Israeli army of deliberately trying to kill civilians… so there is a difference in intent between the two sides.” Cook pointed out that “just as Bouckaert is apparently sure that he can divine Israel’s intentions in the war, and that they were essentially benign, he is equally convinced that he knows Hizbullah’s intentions, and that they were malign. Whatever the evidence suggests—in a war in which Israel overwhelmingly killed Lebanese civilians and is still doing so, and in which Hizbullah overwhelmingly killed Israeli soldiers—Bouckaert knows better.”
This is an amazing two-step process: First, the human rights organization suggests that effects (vastly disproportionate civilian deaths) matter less than intent. Second, the human rights organization assigns bad intent to the weaker side and good intent to the stronger, claiming in essence the ability to read minds. The emphasis is on (presumably telepathically discovered) intent—which for the U.S. or its allies is always good and for its enemies is always bad. The emphasis is away from disproportion, since the casualty ratios of U.S. wars are monstrously disproportionate (that is, the United States and its allies kill many more civilians than their enemies).
Such an argument, Cook goes on to point out, “legitimises the use of military might by the stronger party, thereby making a nonsense of international law and the human rights standards HRW is supposed to uphold.”
It also legitimizes the stronger party to focus on individual cases and avoid discussing the numbers. When human rights organizations argue that every individual case of torture or violation of human rights is a crime, they are completely right. But by failing to note that one side is killing 10, 100, or 1,000 times more than the other, they fail to bring their readers to any conception of who is responsible for these conflicts and where to apply pressure that could save lives.
There are more biases in practice. As the U.S.-led coup against Venezuela continues to unfold, recall HRW’s performance last month when the organization endorsed the U.S. attempt to force entry into Venezuela with “humanitarian aid” (Venezuela has been accepting humanitarian aid from other countries the whole time, while refusing aid from the U.S., citing the coup attempt). Adam Johnson from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted on Twitter that HRW “never technically endorse regime change but pass along every misleading, distorted shred of propaganda required for regime change then, when pressed on this, insist they’re just calling balls & strikes.” HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth justified the coup attempt directly, calling it, “sad testament to… Maduro’s destruction of Venezuelan democracy that the opposition leader must resort to appeals to the military.” Roth’s obsession with Venezuela has gone on for years, during which serious violations of human rights and democracy in other Latin American countries, notably Honduras, were neglected by HRW.
Amnesty performed little better. On its list of 10 elements of the Venezuelan crisis, Amnesty found it in its heart to include as the 10th and final element, the “Damaging US sanctions.” The sanctions, which a U.S. official likened unironically to Star Wars villain Darth Vader choking someone to death using the force, may have deserved top billing, given its effects, which now extend to the theft by the U.S. and UK of billions of dollars of funds belonging to Venezuelans—harming Venezuela’s oil production, its energy sector, and even its health system.
The U.S. campaign against Venezuela today echoes the campaign to overthrow Salvador Allende in 1973, when Nixon ordered the CIA director to “bring the Chilean economy under Allende to its knees,” and when the U.S. ambassador to Chile told Henry Kissinger, “Not a nut or bolt will be allowed to reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to the utmost deprivation and poverty, a policy designed for a long time to come to accelerate the hard features of a Communist society” (quoted on Peck p. 57).
Inconsistencies in practice are matched by problems of human rights theory, as Amnesty and HRW are not against aggressive war on principle. The post–World War II international legal framework defined aggressive war as the supreme crime from which all other crimes of the Nazi regime followed; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared social and economic rights to be human rights. But past executive director Aryeh Neier of HRW argued that “the concept of economic and social rights is profoundly undemocratic” and that HRW “has never labeled any party to any conflict as an aggressor, holding that the concept of aggression is poorly defined. As Israel and the United States argued at the Rome conference in 1998… it is impossible to come up with a definition of aggression that is not politically controversial” (quoted on Peck pp. 95 and 227, emphasis mine). But aggression is no more poorly defined (and no more disputed) than other human rights concepts—genocide, democracy, dictatorship, political prisoner, even torture. The refusal of human rights organizations to oppose aggression leaves them in a demeaning position of begging aggressors to try to conduct their bombing campaigns in a way that minimizes harm to civilians—as any reader who grimaced their way through HRW or Amnesty reports about the Saudi/U.S./UK war on Yemen, or Israel’s bombings of Gaza, knows.
This is no way to take a stand on principle. But what to do? Discovering the bias of human rights organizations is even more demoralizing than discovering the propaganda power of social media. It is impossible to find a democracy and critical-thinking nourishing set of globally connected social media, and it is impossible for a person of conscience to find an unbiased comprehensive global database of human rights violations. On the other hand, the solutions may be similar: the creation of real-world connections, contacts, and ultimately movements.
In Ideal Illusions,
Peck contrasts the legalistic, bureaucratized, and ultimately co-opted
human rights organizations to the peace movements that rose and fell
over the same decades.
The alternative to these captured organizations is just such a peace movement: one that’s against war on principle, against aggression, wants to dismantle the war economy, understands the difference between the powerful and those resisting, and uses people power and not legal arguments and pleas to the powerful.
In this episode I talk to Sardar Saadi about Turkey’s invasion of Afrin in Syrian Kurdistan. We recap the past few years of Syrian Kurdistan and the many players in the Syrian Civil War, and lament the continuing absence of an antiwar movement that could address the escalating and neverending wars in the region.
I talk to Greg Wilpert, founder of venezuelanalysis and author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, about the Venezuela Crisis, the Constitutional Assembly, and possible ways out of the crisis. We started with a detailed discussion of the economic crisis in Venezuela that I think will be of great interest.
I talk to Maria Paez Victor of the Canadian, Latin American, and Caribbean Policy Centre and the Louis Riel Bolivarian Circle about Venezuela’s revolution, Chavismo, Maduro, the Venezuelan opposition, and the idea of the upcoming Constituent Assembly.