Friday, June 25, 2004

It's not about the victims, it's about the perpetrators 

"Recently I went to a launch event for the Arabic edition of a book called 'Crimes of War' at a club for journalists here in London. Had a Martian attended the talks, he would have taken away the impression that the only 'crimes of war' on earth are committed by Americans and Israelis."
Robert Lane Greene rips into the "international community" over its all-victims-are-equal-but-some-victims-are-more-equal-than-others approach to human rights. A few choice quotes, but really, read the whole piece:

"Dark-skinned victims count for less than whites, yes, but they count for less still if they are the victims of other dark-skinned people. It is often said that the reason we bombed Serbia but not Rwanda was because the victims in the Balkans were white, while the victims in Rwanda were black. But it is important to remember that the main perpetrators in the Balkans were also white (and, unlike their victims, Christian) and that the perpetrators in Rwanda were also black. You can be sure that if the Belgians or the Australians, or certainly the Americans or Israelis, were murdering, mutilating, and mass-raping tens of thousands of Africans, you wouldn't have the non-response we hear now over Darfur. Call it the 'soft bigotry of low expectations'...

"Abu Ghraib is a perfect storm for the media: Powerful Western soldiers abused and humiliated poor non-Westerners after invading their country for supposedly high-minded reasons. But when both the victims and the perpetrators are black or brown, you get the opposite: perfect calm. Thirty-four peasant farmers were massacred by left-wing guerrillas in Colombia last week. (In the distance, a cricket chirps.) And the quiet is never more deafening than when the violence is in Africa. Our low expectations of African perpetrators permits the world's worst horrors--a genocide in Rwanda (800,000 dead); a decade-long war in Congo (3 million dead); and genocide in Darfur (many thousands dead and the death toll climbing fast)."
Neither the left nor the right are spared in Greene's piece. It's fair enough to the extent that I'm not aware of any one person or institution or media outlet that gives equal airing to all human rights causes (God knows, I don't, but then again I'm just a small blogger and not the "New York Times"). It's not completely fair, though, seeing that it's mainly the left which uses the whole concept of "human rights" as a blunt instrument to bash the right with.

When you strip away all the ideological anti-Western, anti-American and anti-right biases that blind much of the commentariat when human rights abuses are concerned, it all boils down to two excuses:

1) the US (and the West) hold themselves to such high standards of morality that their every transgression, real or imagined, no matter how big or small needs, to be highlighted (like this). I would call it the anti-hypocrisy approach.

2) Western countries are liberal democracies with highly responsive public opinion; this makes it easier to stop human rights abuses perpetrated by Western governments. By contrast, try to affect a positive change in Syria, China or Zimbabwe. So it's all about allocating resources to where they can achieve the most - in other words, getting the biggest bang for your indignation. This is the economic efficiency argument.

Both arguments are in the end cop-outs. The first one, because by putting the Good Book observation on its head ("you see a speck of sawdust in your own eye and pay no attention to the plank in your brother's") it skews the perspective and in the end make the mockery of the claim about universality of human rights. And the second, because it takes the easiest way out. Both undervalue the suffering of the forgotten victims.


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