There was a time, not so long ago, when U.S. governmental hypocrisy on human rights and corporate interests was at least acknowledged.
But now it seems that the Bush administration has so degraded society's standards, and Big Business so routinely claims that it is bound by no ethical standard except to make money and follow the law -- even as it aims to define that very law, and then frequently flouts the remaining legal restraints -- that the hypocrisy is no longer even acknowledged.
At his news conference yesterday, George Bush angrily said they he could not and would not meet with the new President of Cuba, Raul Castro, because of Cuba's human rights record. Then, eight minutes later, he explained how excited he was to visit China for the Summer Olympics -- a visit during which he will meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Just a month-and-a-half ago, the same George Bush visited with the Saudi King Abdullah, having a grand time with the King on his extravagant ranch.
Won't talk to Castro. Conferring with Hu. Relaxing with King Abdullah. Hmm.
Why not talk with adversaries in Cuba, Bush was asked.
His reply: "What's lost by embracing a tyrant who puts his people in prison because of their political beliefs? What's lost is it will send the wrong message. It will send a discouraging message to those who wonder whether America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners. It will give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity."
The questioner pressed: "No one is saying embrace him, they're just saying talk."
Bush responds: "Right, okay, good, thank you for reminding me to use a different word. Sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Raul Castro, for example, lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him. He gains a lot from it by saying, look at me, I'm now recognized by the President of the United States."
Then again using the term "embrace," he adds: "Now, somebody would say, well, I'm going to tell him to release the prisoners. Well, it's a theory that all you got to do is embrace and these tyrants act. That's not how they act. That's not what causes them to respond."
Eight minutes later came the question about China and the Olympics.
What messages does it send when you go to China, where human rights are suppressed?
Bush said he was going primarily to enjoy a sporting event. However, Bush added, it was especially useful for him to go to China, because he could meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao! "And maybe I'm in a little different position. Others don't have a chance to visit with Hu Jintao, but I do." (Note how a meeting in Cuba is an "embrace," but a meeting in China is a "visit.") "And every time I meet with him I talk about religious freedom and the importance of China's society recognizing that if you're allowed to worship freely, it will benefit the society as a whole; that the Chinese government should not fear the idea of people praying to a god as they see fit. A whole society, a healthy society, a confident society is one that recognizes the value of religious freedom. I talk about Darfur and Iran and Burma. And so I am not the least bit shy of bringing up" human rights concerns.
There certainly is a lot to discuss related to China's human rights conditions. The U.S. State Department's most recent human rights report notes: The People's Republic of China (PRC) is an authoritarian state. ... The government's human rights record remained poor, and in certain areas deteriorated. There were an increased number of high-profile cases involving the monitoring, harassment, detention, arrest, and imprisonment of journalists, writers, activists, and defense lawyers, many of whom were seeking to exercise their rights under law. ... Other serious human rights abuses included instances of extrajudicial killings; torture and coerced confessions of prisoners; and the use of forced labor, including prison labor.
Then there's China's repression in Tibet, its support for the Sudanese government, and on and on.
Of course, it's not as if Hu Jintao won't have a shockingly long list of human rights complaints to raise as regards the United States, from authorized torture to the mass slaughter in U.S.-occupied Iraq.
China is not unique. President George Bush is quite happy to meet with leaders of countries characterized by pervasive human rights abuses. In January, Bush visited with his friend Saudi King Abdullah. He spent time with the King at his palace, and at his horse farm, which is reported to provide air-conditioned stables and aqua-therapy for the horses, according to the BBC.
Bush and King Abdullah talked about the weather. They talked about Iran. They talked a lot about oil. There is no indication they talked about human rights in Saudi Arabia, though the Saudi King did actually raise a human rights issue -- Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
Just fyi, here's an excerpt from the State Department human rights report for Saudi Arabia:
"The following significant human rights problems were reported: no right to peacefully change the government; infliction of severe pain by judicially sanctioned corporal punishments; beatings and other abuses; inadequate prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, sometimes incommunicado; denial of fair public trials; exemption from the rule of law for some individuals and lack of judicial independence; arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence; and significant restriction of civil liberties--freedoms of speech and press, including the Internet; assembly; association; and movement. The government committed severe violations of religious freedom. There was a widespread perception of serious corruption and a lack of government transparency, as well as legal and societal discrimination and violence against women. Other religious, ethnic, and minority groups faced discrimination. There were strict limitations on worker rights, especially for foreign workers."
After the Tiananmen Square massacre, Big Business spent more than a decade trying to fully normalize U.S.-China relations. Corporations and their government allies offered their standard line about how commercial engagement would spur political freedom, but not many people took that seriously. It was widely understood that the government simply subordinated whatever concern it had for advancing human rights to its aim of advancing corporate interests.
One has to be very cautious in making blanket statements in this area, but in general the idea of refusing to meet with national leaders is foolish. If there are legitimate objections over other countries' policies, top-level meetings can be helpful to voice those concerns and perhaps improve conditions. So, the objection to Bush's varying standards with regard to Cuba, China and Saudi Arabia is not that he chooses to meet with the Chinese and Saudi leaders.
But the differing treatment for the countries, so obviously correlated with U.S. economic and corporate interests, mocks whatever claim the United States still makes to advancing democracy and human rights. It is no small commentary on the state of affairs in the United States that this hypocrisy barely raises an eyebrow.
Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, and director of Essential Action. With Russell Mokhiber, he is editor of a weekly column, Focus on the Corporation, archived at http://lists.essential.org/pipermail/corp-focus.
(c) Robert Weissman