The wing of the U.S. human rights movement which targets foreign countries can wind up as a cruel business, aiding the ruthless and violent actions of the U.S. Empire, wittingly or not. For the U.S. all too often uses human rights as a cover for taking action against countries that defy the Empire’s control.
Some weeks back, I decided to look into one such group, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), an organization I had long refrained from joining out of skepticism. But perhaps, I thought, PHR had sidestepped the dangers inherent in this work. So I joined to find out.
Some days later I received my first email from PHR. I was floored by the heading, “Protect Syrian Citizens: Help Make Sanctions Tougher.” The word “tougher” struck me. The email read in part: “Help us impose tougher sanctions on Pres. Assad’s brutal regime. The Syria Sanctions Act of 2011, S. 1472, will target Syria’s energy and financial sectors. Contact your Senators today and urge them to back S. 1472.” The sponsor of this bill was Kirsten Gillibrand, and among the 12 co-sponsors were two neocon leaders, John McCain and Joe Lieberman, the latter hardly a human rights stalwart when it comes to Palestinians. Did that not ring alarm bells at PHR?
Sanctions target the Syrian people, bringing poverty and hunger.
PHR argues that the sanctions are “targeted” at the oil and financial sectors and therefore are of consequence only for the Syrian elite. Since 25% of the revenue of the Syrian government comes from oil revenues (according to the text of the bill), expenditures providing needed relief to the population, for example the current price supports for food, will certainly be affected. But it is not only the revenues of the Syrian government that are affected. The Financial Times reports: “The most significant sanctions are on the oil industry, estimated by the International Monetary Fund to have accounted for almost a fifth of gross domestic product in 2010. Analysts estimate that they helped contribute to a contraction of 2-10 per cent to Syria’s economy last year (2011).”
The results of the sanctions should be obvious with only a moment’s thought. If the Assad regime is as nefarious as PHR claims, then certainly it will put itself way ahead of the common people as sanctions bite. Such an attitude is the norm not the exception in the world today. But even if the leaders of the human rights community could not figure this out, the impact of the sanctions on ordinary Syrians is hardly a secret, even in the mainstream press. Thus in March the Washington Post ran an article entitled “Syria running out of cash as sanctions take toll, but Assad avoids economic pain.” One did not even need to read beyond the headline to get the point. The article reports as follows: “The financial hemorrhaging has forced Syrian officials to stop providing education, health care and other essential services in some parts of the country, and has prompted the government to seek more help from Iran to prop up the country’s sagging currency.… Revenue from Syrian oil, meanwhile, has almost dried up, with even China and India declining to accept the nation’s crude….. At the same time, President Bashar al-Assad appears to have shielded himself and his inner circle from much of the pain of the sanctions and trade embargoes, which are driving up food and fuel prices for many of the country’s 20 million residents…” The Washington Post is not alone in this assessment. The Financial Times tells us: A “murky broader picture (emerges) suggesting that while some sanctions are hurting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the president, and its alleged associates, they are also hurting ordinary Syrians … David Butter, a Middle East economic expert, said: ‘If it’s a scrap for limited resources, the regime is still in a position to get the first rights, whether fuel or cash or food. It [the sanctions regime] hurts them but to really cripple them is going to take a long time.’”
And the effect desired by the U.S. is quite clear. Another article in the Washington Post with the headline “Amid Unrest, Syrians Struggle to Feed Their Families” reports that food prices have risen as the result of sanctions. As a result the Assad government in March “introduced a system of price-fixing for essential foods that has stabilized the cost of bread, sugar and meat — although they remain much higher than they were a year ago. ….. ‘ Despite efforts to mitigate the problem around half of Syrians may live in poverty, said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Institute in Doha, who argued that this is increasing anti-government feeling.” Regime change is the point. And the pronouncements of Obama and Hillary make this abundantly clear.
The Empire in Desperation Pulls Out all the Stops to bring Syria to heel.
Since Russia and China drew a line in the sand to stop the overthrow of the Syrian regime by the West, the United States appears increasingly desperate. That desperation has grown since the UN-brokered cease-fire has terminated much of the fighting and killing, however imperfectly.
But is not the Assad government to blame for the failures of the cease-fire? If so, it is certainly not alone. Recently the NYT reported: “An explosion killed at least three people in Aleppo, and two blasts hit a Damascus highway on Saturday in further signs that rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad are shifting tactics toward homemade explosives. Syria’s state news agency said three people had been killed, one of them a child, and 21 had been wounded by a booby-trapped car in the northern city of Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Humans Rights, an opposition group based in Britain that relies on information from Syrian activists, said the blast destroyed a carwash in Tal al-Zarazeer, a poor suburb, and killed five people. A member of the rebel Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the bombing, saying that the carwash was used by members of a pro-Assad militia.” A car wash is hardly a target that is focused on the military. And today The Guardian and others reported that a Syrian military convoy protecting the UN observer mission was hit by a roadside explosion, injuring six Syrian soldiers, three badly. When Russian officials accuse the Syrian opposition of “terrorist tactics,” it appears that they have a point.
PHR has certainly done some good things in the past, for example documenting human rights violations and medical abuses in Gaza and the West Bank – although this work is now solidly in the hands of the Israeli division of PHR, meaning, among other things, that it will get less attention in the U.S. And at no point has PHR called for boycotts against Israel a regime that has killed untold thousands of Palestinians in what amounts to a long slow genocide. In the eyes of PHR it would appear that official enemies of the U.S. Empire deserve sanctions, whereas allies who violate the most basic human rights get an investigation and a tongue lashing – at most.
In fact sanctions are the work of our imperial government; and when a “human rights” organization gets into the business of supporting them, it is de facto in the business of supporting the Empire and its drive for domination (1). Token ruminations about human rights violations by U.S. “allies” or clients do not alter this fact. Such ruminations serve as little more than a cover for the real use of these groups to the Empire. Whether the PHR policy makers understand this or not makes little difference.
So what was this PHR member to do in the face of such stance? This writer called the Boston office, the home office, to complain about the decision to back the Sanctions bill. I was given to understand by one staffer that I was not the only member to register dissatisfaction. I inquired who made this decision and how it was made. Initially I was told that such decisions were not made in the home office but at a smaller office in Washington, which works closely with Congress. In a subsequent email I was told that “the policy and program decisions are made by our Executive Management team.” Who is the “Executive Management Team”? This member does not know and has not been told. Furthermore the PHR web site does not contain any information about the Executive Management Team, as far as I can see. Are personnel of the U.S. government consulted in such deliberations? (The PHR membership clearly is not.) And should not such an important decision at least have some input from the members?
But PHR is not alone in providing cover for the designs of the Empire. They are but one example. Other human rights organizations appear to be jumping on the bandwagon. And of course the U.S. government is happy to have their support. Syria is clearly the gateway to Iran – and both countries have refused to one degree or another to submit to the will of the U.S. So regime change for both countries is high on the agenda of the West. That is the way of Empire.
PHR started out at its founding in 1978 documenting the abuses of the Pinochet government, a client of the Empire. Today it has descended into an instrument for justifying an attack on one of the official enemies of the U.S. That is the danger of a “human rights” approach if uninformed by an understanding of the designs and ruthlessness of the Empire.
The core of the physicians’ credo is “First do no harm.” Starving a people for the sake of “human rights” as part of a campaign that serves imperial machinations for regime change hardly fits into that injunction. And certainly PHR knows that diseases arising from privation and hunger fall most heavily on non-combatants, children and the elderly especially. That is no secret either. Perhaps PHR is echoing the judgment of Madeleine Albright on Iraq that the human carnage of the sanctions is “worth it.” However, from an ethical viewpoint, that judgment does not belong to citizens of the Empire living in comfort far from the victims in Syria.
(1.)It is interesting to read what is necessary for such sanctions to be lifted once imposed. The bill states the following:
“Termination will occur “on the date the President submits to Congress a certification that the government of Syria is democratically elected and representative of the people of Syria and a certification under the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 that the Syrian government has:
- ceased support for international terrorist groups;
- ended its occupation of Lebanon;
- ceased development and deployment of ballistic missiles and biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons and agreed to verification measures; and
- ceased all support for, and facilitation of, terrorist activities in Iraq.”
Given that one of the named “terrorist groups” is Hamas, which is the duly elected government in Gaza, and given the murkiness of the other requirements, this is a tall order indeed.
John V. Walsh can be reached at John.Endwar@gmail.com