What is the power of a single voice? Millions of impoverished cries scream for help. Every single day, sadly, each one screams an individual pain. They are the victims of transnational corporations; corporate expansion; and capitalist negotiation; and worst of all, they are the victims of the power of the state. In his book, International Human Rights, Jack Donnelly states that, ” The term human rights indicates both their nature and their source: they are the rights that one simply has because one is human.
If being human is the only prerequisite for attaining human rights, then human rights are theoretically equally held by each and every person. Deconstructing the term, Donnelly holds that: “Right” may also refer to a special entitlement that someone has to something. In this narrower sense, we speak of having, claiming, exercising, enforcing and violating rights. The focus is on the relationship between the right-holder and the duty-bearer. 2 The term ‘human rights’ defines a relationship between two parties. This relationship is based on a guarantee of equal treatment.
The need for human rights arises when the duty bearer does not effectively respect and assure that the right-bearer is given the rights he/she is entitled to. Henry Shue identifies the four basic rights as security, subsistence, participation and mobility. 3 Gratification of these four fundamental rights is essential to the satisfaction of many other rights. The relationship between the duty-bearer and the right-bearer is based on interactions between the people and the markets, as well as the interactions between the people and the state.
The markets main goal is to procure the highest production level at the lowest price, whereas the state’s objective depending on the ideals of the ruling political party differs through out the world. States and markets often fall short of their duties to uphold fundamental human right of the people in the quest to fulfill their purpose. Millions of unspeakable cases throughout the world demonstrate that the global markets are the culprit in violation of people’s fundamental rights.
In his book Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence and U. S. Foreign Policy, Shue tells a hypothetical story of a flower contractor who enters a village in the third world. He proposes that the peasants use their land to grow large amounts of flowers, with a guarantee that he will buy all the production. This contract is subject to a ten-year lease. The proposition appeals to the peasants, ensuring a fixed income, as well as opportunities to for technological improvement, and lasting financial security for their families. This offer also insures healthy economic gain for the farmers involved for the entire duration of the contract.
Though this is a hypothetical situation, it is clearly reflective of the actions of many corporations, who strive to find the most cost effective production price. Many consequences arise as a result of the business between the flower merchant and the people. Food production declines, as well as the employment rate. The price of food increased, robbing the citizens of the capacity to meet subsistence needs and therefore, violating their subsistence rights. Since all rights are interdependent, these people are deprived of the ability to enjoy many other rights aside from those of subsistence.
The landowners’ living standards rose while the living standard of the landless workers decline steadily. This widens the rift between classes. Furthermore, ethnic tensions between the classes, coupled with a declining economy is breeding ground for corruption and terror, as seen in the massacres that occurred in Rwanda. The holocaust in Rwanda trigged waves of disbelief all over the world. “Rwandan genocide, which claimed the lives of half a million people in a three and a half month period beginning in April 1994, will be remembered as one of the greatest human rights disasters of our time. 4 Through colonialism, the Belgians acquired Rwanda and segregated the society in order to rule more effectively. Ethnic divisions between Hutus and Tutsis were already festering. Ethnic segregation in the reigion proved lethal once the markets became involved. In 1989, International Coffee Market plummeted, collapsing the coffee prices by 50%.
Rwanda, parallel to the flower market account, had dedicated a majority of its agriculture towards the production of coffee. With the International Coffee Market no longer in effect, Rwanda could not compete against manufacturers in developed countries. Coupled with ‘reforms’ imposed by the International Monetary Fund, [the situation] reduced the relatively well-off peasantry to abject poverty. “6 People are deprived of their subsistence rights, rendering thousands malnutritioned and impoverished. Later on, with the thirst for genocide slowly festering in the bellies of the militia, the people were denied their right to “equal protection of the laws and protection against slavery, torture and other inhuman or degrading practices. “7 The deteriorating economic situation pushed the Rwandan society further towards the genocide.
The impact of the coffee market descent in this case is highly worth noting, since once again, the parasitic actions of the corporations have devastating effects. The very absence of human rights legislation attracted transnational corporations (TNC), which are enticed by the notion of lax environmental laws and cheap labor. In the case of two specific TNC’s, Shell Oil Company and Union Carbide, it is infinitely clear that the people of the country will suffer injustice in the face of industrial expansion.
Ken Saro Wiwa, leader of Nigerian delta, bravely accused the government of Nigeria and Shell Oil Corporation for violations of environmental (subsistence) rights. He also blamed the terrible treatment of the Ogoni people on the government and the corporation, calling it “genocide”. He pleaded with the superpowers of the world to take a stand at the “genocide” caused by the Shell Oil Company and the consequences of its existence in the Nigerian delta. As a punishment for his opposition, Saro Wiwa was framed and wrongly arrested for murder. In a shoddy trial, he was found guilty and was hanged.
His death caused uproar in the international community, precisely as a violation of human rights. His political activism and undying passion for humanity forced the actions of the Shell Oil Corporation into broad daylight, attempting to bring justice to the people of the Nigerian delta. Critical scrutiny revealed that Shell Oil Corporation is a primary operator, and primarily responsible for a majority of the environmental and subsistence rights abuses in the region. The Ogoni people, who live in the delta, have no revenues from this resource-consuming rig.
It is tragic because the land is resourceful, yet there are no schools, or hospitals available. There is no running water and no electricity, clearly a violation of vital subsistence rights. 8 The environmental violations are horrendous. Oil blowouts, leakages and spills are common occurrences. Acid rain occurs as a result of spillage into the soil (evaporation) and burning. The ground absorbs the returning acid, making it barren. Instead of proper disposal, the Shell Oil Company found it to more cost effective to bury toxic waste into the ground, which may leak into drinking water.
These are all offences against the human rights of the Ogoni people. 9 Another case, the Union Carbide Chemical Plant in Bhopal India is equally shocking and unjust. “The disaster at Bhopal occurred when a large quantity of methyl isocyanate leaked from a pesticide plant and drifted over a densely populated suburb of the city of Bhopal. Methyl isocyanate is one of the most toxic substances in the world – serious injury or death may result from exposure to minute quantities. “10 Thousands died overnight and hundreds of thousands were permanently disabled.
Once again, the market trampled over the lives of the poor, and left them to wallow in pain and misery. The reports on the flower merchant, Rwanda and both TNC cases all presented situations in which there was a predictable outcome, and therefore, a preventable outcome. The people of the country experience abuses while the world turns a blind eye to the parasitic actions of markets and corporations. Unfortunately, no one is really held accountable for these horrific occurrences. The legal aspect is biased, inconsiderate of the true victims. International Human Rights Laws apply to states and not to persons.
A corporation is tried as a person, yet are not subject to International Human Rights law because that law only influences the state. 11 This concept is grossly unfair since some corporations maintain a larger GDP than many states. (See Table 1. 1) The evidence indicates that in 1999, General Motors had a higher GDP than 26 countries in the top 100 economies. All of these corporations operate in magnitudes larger than many countries, yet are not considered under International Human Rights Laws, and therefore cannot be held accountable under those laws.
This leaves the victims with no venue for compensation. The states, in some unfortunate cases are the offenders in human rights violations. A critical comparison between China and India shows the negative effect of a government’s suppression of citizens’ participation rights. China and India are both populous, both are large countries and both endured a similar food distribution situation. The differences between them lie within political and economic organization. Between the years 1958-1961 China faced a devastating famine, which took the lives of about 29. 1 million people. 12 What was lacking when the famine threatened China was a political system of adversarial journalism and opposition. The Chinese Famine Raged on for three years without it even being admitted in public that such a thing was occurring, and without there being an adequate response to threat. 13 With the participation rights of the public being suppressed, the Chinese government controlled the media, and diminished any notions of a political opposition. Silencing the citizens had dire penalties, as revealed by the astounding number of deaths.
India, in comparison, encouraged open journalism and held politicians accountable for decisions they made. A famine was highly reported, and the government instilled “a worked-out procedure for entitlement protection through employment creation. “14 This provided the people of India with a direct a source of income, and allowed the economy to gain a new momentum. India did suffer through chronic hunger, but endemic hunger is much more of a difficult task to bring forward, since it is a common occurrence and not “big news”.
The contrast between China and India indicates the power of participation to gain accountability through free media and government opposition. 15 Furthermore, a colonial government may not respect representation rights or the subsistence rights of the citizens. The capacity and political will of the public is much better in independent countries than in colonial countries. (See Table 2. 1) Independent India managed to avert the famine, as well as independent Cape Verde. British India, Communist China and Portuguese Cape Verde all did very poorly with regards to managing the famine.
The act of censoring the media plays a large role in the handling and the outcome of famine. It not only notifies the state of what is occurring, but also allows people to realize the extent of the famine and possibly shorten it. The states in the Southern Cone of South America (Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and South Brazil)16 are National Security States in which the military-style government opposed the uprising of any budding opposition. The military was seen as the central institution of government, and was responsible for elimination of “subversive threat”. A diagram used at Argentina’s Air Force Academy lists subversives as:
Marxists, Zionists, members of the freemasonry, Progressive Catholics, human rights organizations, women’s rights workers, the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, Communists, Socialist Parties, Liberal Democrats, Members of Front Parties, Protestants, sectarians, armed revolutionary organizations, drug addicts, prostitutes, alcoholics, hippies…. and the list continues17 This paranoid government mentality, derived from national security doctrines, was the proclaimed justification for the disappearances (extra judicial detentions, accompanied by torture, followed by death18) of thousands.
The governments denied the reported torture of these “subversives” in “340 clandestine detention and torture centers, involving about 7000 military officers”. 19 Dubbed the “Dirty War”, this was a phase of Latin American history that demonstrates the impact of censorship, and the importance of the public ability to take action and create an opposition against a corrupt government. Journalists, news reporters and other media figures are the medium by which freedom of expression and participation is vocalized to the public.
Through the media, the state is held accountable for it’s actions, not only in domestic terms, but also in the international community. In strict government regimes, such as the military governments in the southern cone, the journalists are silenced to ensure that the corruption will be veiled; hidden from the public eye. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) receives hundreds of reports weekly regarding people who “have the courage to insist upon their fundamental right to freedom of expression [and] are censored, brutalized and killed.
Critical research has shown that there are minimal steps that markets have taken to prevent the abuses of human rights. Some have promoted ecologically safe working areas as well as providing people with an income in order to survive. Unfortunately, anything that comes with a cost to the company is often cut down in order to raise company profit. “Like minded” countries of the United Nations (Scandinavian countries, Canada, etc. ) have actively involved Human Rights as a part of their foreign policy.
These states have provided support towards human rights organizations and brought forth resolutions to the General Assembly that fight for human rights. The efforts of these nations efforts are applauded, yet there are many states in this world without free media (see table 3. 1) that do not recognize the fundamental rights of the people. A possible solution to this tragic denial of fundamental rights lies within the power of the people. The state and the markets should create an interdependent relationship that is considerate of the needs of the public.
In both cases, the issue lies within accountability. One particular way to achieve this is to assure that those who have power are held accountable. Public action, the creation of an opposition party and free media are methods by which, if instilled, can enforce and promote human rights. Without these, the people will continue to suffer while the criminals live in skyscrapers. The key is giving people a voice. How powerful is one voice? It can overthrow a president, save a hundred lives, convince millions of people, and inform the world.