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Human Rights in the US, and in China

The US government regularly criticizes human rights violations in China, although it makes little real effort to change the situation. Now the Chinese government has released a report detailing human rights violations in the US. The abuses include torture of detainees by police, sometimes resulting in death. I do not have the resources to check the statements in the report, but they appear to be based on published Western sources, often cited by name. If anyone finds that part of the report is factually inaccurate, please inform me; I will post such flaws if I find them. My presumption is that the report is mostly accurate. (I have been told that the student shot by the 14-year-old girl in school did not die, but that does not seem to alter any conclusions.)

The long report raises many different issues of varying ethical weight. For instance, it criticizes the refusal by a US court to hear a lawsuit against the Japanese government for conscripting prostitutes in Asia during World War II. Wrong as that conscription was, I am not sure this US court did wrong when it held back from applying its jurisdiction to a lawsuit against another government. Another point criticized the Tri-State Crematorium for not cremating corpses--an act which, although dishonest, only offended and did not actually injure living persons. The existence of US military bases in other countries, criticized in the report, is not wrong in itself even though some US military interventions have been unjust. The practice of spying on other countries, using spy planes or otherwise, is not necessarily wrong either.

A number of points cited in the report, such as the prevalence of violence on TV, are important social issues but not human rights abuses. On the other hand, the report mentions major and serious abuses as well, such as executing people who have confessed under torture.

The report's conclusion is that the US, being guilty of human rights abuses, should stop criticizing other countries. That conclusion seems to rest on the view that criticism of human rights abuses is nothing but a way of harassing another country — so that China is really telling the US, "Hey, lay off, or I can do the same to you." That cynical view assumes that human rights have no real importance and no one ought to stand up for them. That cynical view is present implicitly any time someone says, "My country is ok because some countries are worse," or, "You can't talk; your country is guilty too."

Chinese leaders may be cynical about human rights; it would not surprise me if US leaders privately agree, because it would explain why they ignore the problem at home. But cynicism is wrong, because it allows violations to continue. All governments should be pressured to correct their abuses of human rights; from Bolivia to Spain, from the US to China, no government should escape. We must avoid getting sidetracked into arguments about which country is worse, and focus on correcting abuses anywhere and everywhere that we can.

The US government places little weight on human rights in its foreign policy (or in its domestic policy); its priority is helping megacorporations. We Americans should replace our leaders with people who will make human rights a priority both at home and abroad.


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Copyright (C) 2002 Richard Stallman

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