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America's inhuman rights record

By Arvind Lavakare
May 24, 2004 15:14 IST
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After the recent revelation of the horrors and humiliation inflicted by US soldiers on Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, the American nation has lost whatever pretension it may have had for presenting to the world its state department's annual human rights report that includes everyone else but the US.

And if the US, the arrogant nation that it is, persists in compiling that report, every thinking media outfit must henceforth dump it into the waste paper basket.

The fact of the matter is that the Abu Ghraib episode is not the first of the miserable US track record on human rights. Below is a chronological summary of that record:

  • The US constitution, ratified in June 1788, had no solace whatsoever for the blacks, although African slaves, first brought to Virginia in 1619 as indented servants who could earn their freedom. By the 1660s, African were being brought to America in shackles for a lifetime of involuntary servitude.
  • The ten constitutional amendments that came in December 1791 and became collectively called the Bill of Rights also showed no concern for blacks and black slaves, although the much lauded Bill of Rights was supposedly meant to ensure the fundamental freedoms and rights of the citizens of the US. Indeed, even 30 years after the advent of the Bill of Rights, the Union was admitting in its fold states that openly permitted slavery, and where a planter in the south meant that he was the owner of at least 20 slaves. Thus, in 1819, half of the 26 states in the Union were slave states. It was only after the ratification of the 15th amendment in December 1865 that slavery was constitutionally abolished -- 77 years after the constitution came into being.
  • Since the early 1600s, lands that belonged to the native Indian settlers was relentlessly taken away from them by European settlers first and then by those who were called Americans. This was effected through outright purchase or through the superiority of cannon and cavalry over bows and arrows. By a law in 1887, 54 million acres of land were redistributed to the Northern American tribes like the Cherokee but the land use rights remained with the government, with the money raised from the land being put in a trust for redistribution to the individual land owners. It now transpires that the natives filed a lawsuit in 1996 claiming that they are collectively owed $ 80 billion for farming, timber and oil rights. The strength of this claim? The remark of the US district judge, Royce Lamberth, describing the case as 'the gold standard for mismanagement by the federal government for more than a century.'
  • On May 8, 1945, all that remained of Germany's Third Reich surrendered to the Allied forces of World War II, and Japan was on its knees. Yet, US President Harry S Truman ordered the use of its atom bomb if Japan did not surrender within a week ending August 3, 1945. On August 6, accordingly, Hiroshima was bombed; two days later, it was Nagasaki's turn to suffer the holocaust. Though three years of intensive research in laboratories across the US and a test at Alamagardo, New Mexico, on July 16 had been done, the scientists, the military and the politicians of the US had not cared to assess the awesome destructiveness of the atom bomb. And those Americans, remember, are the ancestors of those of today who write the annual human rights report on the world.
  • More than one million black soldiers fought for the US in World War II, but those who came from the south could not vote. Blacks who registered faced the likelihood of beatings, loss of job, loss of credit and eviction from the land. Lynchings continued to occur even a year after the war and there were laws in place that enforced segregation of the races in streetcars, trains, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, recreational facilities and employment. Ironically, the first documentary use of the expression 'human rights' is to be found in the United Nations Charter adopted at San Francisco on June 25, 1945 and promptly ratified by the US Senate by a vote of 89 to 2.
  • After World War II, the US government became so paranoid over rooting out Communism within the country that the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated the motion-picture industry whether Communist sentiments were being reflected in popular films; when some writers refused to testify, they were cited for contempt and sent to prison. The most militant anti-Communist was Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican. With the help of press and television coverage he indulged in savage attacks on suspected Communists and didn't hesitate to offer scapegoats to heighten fears aroused by the Truman administration's own anti-Communist effort.
  • Segregation of black and white students in schools continued till 1954 when the Supreme Court debarred the practice. Till 1956, segregation in buses of black and white continued till another Supreme Court verdict prohibited it. Till 1957, the US Constitution did not guarantee the right to vote and it was only the Civil Rights Act of that year which authorised federal intervention in cases where blacks were denied the chance to vote. Yet loopholes remained, warranting the Civil Rights Act of 1960 which provided stiffer penalties for interfering with voting, but still stopped short of authorising federal official to register blacks.
  • It was only in 1964 that the landmark Civil Rights Bill was enacted, outlawing discrimination in all accommodations. It was as late as 1965 that the Voting Rights Act came, authorising the federal government to appoint examiners to register voters where local officials made black registration impossible. And in 1968, the Congress passed legislation banning discrimination in housing. (By contrast, each and every Indian citizen of 21 years and more was, irrespective of caste, creed, community, colour, education and income was entitled to vote in every state and national election held from 1952 -- two years after the commencement of the Indian Constitution -- to 1968.)
  • The anti-Communist zest led in 1964 to the prolonged war in Vietnam that cost 58,000 American lives, and the needless invasion of Cambodia in 1970. In both instances, there were revelations of American units engaging in atrocities.
  • The Watergate scandal of 1972 showed that a President of the US could rape human rights to the extent of tapping his rival party's crucial deliberations in a hotel.
  • The Equal Rights Amendment to the US constitution was passed by Congress in 1972  barring denial of a right on account of sex. Even after several years, ratification from the necessary number of states was not obtained. And women secured the right to abortion only by a Supreme Court verdict of 1973 -- the right, though, was restricted to early months of pregnancy.
  • Space constraints demand a jump to 9/11and the bombing of Afghanistan with its big collateral damage. Within two months of that historic date came the US Patriot Act, which allowed the police at any time, and for any reason to enter and search any resident's house, his files, his bank account and not even tell him about it. According to legal experts, the new law effectively nullified at least six amendments of the Bill of Rights addendum to the US constitution. As a result of that law, America became a police state, pure and simple. And President Bush wants to extend the life of that law.
  • 9/11 also meant the ghastly scenario at Guantanamo Bay, near Cuba. Imagine 680 inmates held there in solitary confinement for more than 24 months. No lawyer was allowed to represent an imprisoned suspect at trial unless the lawyer was a US citizen vetted and approved by the US Defense Department; imagine the construction of an execution chamber at site. It's been a new low in human rights -- even for the USA.
  • Finally, there was the invasion last year of Iraq on false pretences and the circulation of pictures of a US female soldier caught by the camera while aiming a rifle at the crotch of a naked male prisoner in Abu Ghraib.
  • No presiding Uncle Sam has described any of the above as 'a national shame' -- not even after Abu Ghraib.

There's no need at all for its state department to give lessons on democracy and social justice to free India that, barring the aberration of the 1975 Emergency, has had a pluralist, liberal and humane constitutional mechanism that is unmatched in the rest of the world.

We have our failings, yes, but we don't need sermons from those who have the blood of slaves on their hands.

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Arvind Lavakare