Somebody Else’s Atrocities

Opposing the International Olympic Committee’s newly formed partnership with Dow Chemical, dissenters illuminate a history of human rights oversights.

Noam Chomsky

Activists and victims of India's Bhopal gas tragedy protest outside the residence of Vijay Kumar Malhotra, the acting chief of the Indian Olympic Association in New Delhi on April 10, 2012, over their demand to have Dow Chemical dropped as sponsor of the London Olympics. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

In his pen­e­trat­ing study Ide­al Illu­sions: How the U.S. Gov­ern­ment Co-Opt­ed Human Rights,” inter­na­tion­al affairs schol­ar James Peck observes, In the his­to­ry of human rights, the worst atroc­i­ties are always com­mit­ted by some­body else, nev­er us” — who­ev­er us” is.

These instances are all nonexistent, on standard principles, along with others too numerous to mention.

Almost any moment in his­to­ry yields innu­mer­able illus­tra­tions. Let’s keep to the past few weeks.

On May 10, the Sum­mer Olympics were inau­gu­rat­ed at the Greek birth­place of the ancient games. A few days before, vir­tu­al­ly unno­ticed, the gov­ern­ment of Viet­nam addressed a let­ter to the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee express­ing the pro­found con­cerns of the Gov­ern­ment and peo­ple of Viet Nam about the deci­sion of IOC to accept the Dow Chem­i­cal Com­pa­ny as a glob­al part­ner spon­sor­ing the Olympic Movement.”

Dow pro­vid­ed the chem­i­cals that Wash­ing­ton used from 1961 onward to destroy crops and forests in South Viet­nam, drench­ing the coun­try with Agent Orange.

These poi­sons con­tain diox­in, one of the most lethal car­cino­gens known, affect­ing mil­lions of Viet­namese and many U.S. sol­diers. To this day in Viet­nam, abort­ed fetus­es and deformed infants are very like­ly the effects of these crimes — though, in light of Washington’s refusal to inves­ti­gate, we have only the stud­ies of Viet­namese sci­en­tists and inde­pen­dent analysts.

Join­ing the Viet­namese appeal against Dow are the gov­ern­ment of India, the Indi­an Olympic Asso­ci­a­tion, and the sur­vivors of the hor­ren­dous 1984 Bhopal gas leak, one of history’s worst indus­tri­al dis­as­ters, which killed thou­sands and injured more than half a million.

Union Car­bide, the cor­po­ra­tion respon­si­ble for the dis­as­ter, was tak­en over by Dow, for whom the mat­ter is of no slight con­cern. In Feb­ru­ary, Wik­ileaks revealed that Dow hired the U.S. pri­vate inves­tiga­tive agency Strat­for to mon­i­tor activists seek­ing com­pen­sa­tion for the vic­tims and pros­e­cu­tion of those responsible.

Anoth­er major crime with very seri­ous per­sist­ing effects is the Marine assault on the Iraqi city of Fal­lu­jah in Novem­ber 2004.

Women and chil­dren were per­mit­ted to escape if they could. After sev­er­al weeks of bomb­ing, the attack opened with a care­ful­ly planned war crime: Inva­sion of the Fal­lu­jah Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal, where patients and staff were ordered to the floor, their hands tied. Soon the bonds were loos­ened; the com­pound was secure.

The offi­cial jus­ti­fi­ca­tion was that the hos­pi­tal was report­ing civil­ian casu­al­ties, and there­fore was con­sid­ered a pro­pa­gan­da weapon.

Much of the city was left in smok­ing ruins,” the press report­ed while the Marines sought out insur­gents in their war­rens.” The invaders barred entry to the Red Cres­cent relief orga­ni­za­tion. Absent an offi­cial inquiry, the scale of the crimes is unknown.

If the Fal­lu­jah events are rem­i­nis­cent of the events that took place in the Bosn­ian enclave of Sre­breni­ca, now again in the news with the geno­cide tri­al of Bosn­ian Serb mil­i­tary com­man­der Ratko Mladic, there’s a good rea­son. An hon­est com­par­i­son would be instruc­tive, but there’s no fear of that: One is an atroc­i­ty, the oth­er not, by definition.

As in Viet­nam, inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tors are report­ing long-term effects of the Fal­lu­jah assault.

Med­ical researchers have found dra­mat­ic increas­es in infant mor­tal­i­ty, can­cer and leukemia, even high­er than Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki. Ura­ni­um lev­els in hair and soil sam­ples are far beyond com­pa­ra­ble cases.

One of the rare inves­ti­ga­tors from the invad­ing coun­tries is Dr. Kypros Nico­laides, direc­tor of the fetal-med­i­cine research cen­ter at London’s King’s Col­lege Hos­pi­tal. I’m sure the Amer­i­cans used weapons that caused these defor­mi­ties,” Nico­laides says.

The lin­ger­ing effects of a vast­ly greater nona­troc­i­ty were report­ed last month by U.S. law pro­fes­sor James Anaya, the U.N. rap­por­teur on the rights of indige­nous peoples.

Anaya dared to tread on for­bid­den ter­ri­to­ry by inves­ti­gat­ing the shock­ing con­di­tions among the rem­nants of the Native Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion in the U.S. — pover­ty, poor health con­di­tions, lack of attain­ment of for­mal edu­ca­tion (and) social ills at rates that far exceed those of oth­er seg­ments of the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion,” Anaya report­ed. No mem­ber of Con­gress was will­ing to meet him. Press cov­er­age was minimal.

Dis­si­dents have been much in the news after the dra­mat­ic res­cue of the blind Chi­nese civ­il-rights activist Chen Guangcheng.

The inter­na­tion­al com­mo­tion,” Samuel Moyn wrote in The New York Times last month, aroused mem­o­ries of ear­li­er dis­si­dents like Andrei D. Sakharov and Alek­san­dr I. Solzhen­it­syn, the East­ern bloc heroes of anoth­er age who first made inter­na­tion­al human rights’ a ral­ly­ing cry for activists across the globe and a high-pro­file item on West­ern gov­ern­ments’ agendas.”

Moyn is the author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in His­to­ry,” released in 2010. In The New York Times Book Review, Belin­da Coop­er ques­tioned Moyn’s trac­ing the con­tem­po­rary promi­nence of these ideals to “(Pres­i­dent Jim­my) Carter’s abortive steps to inject human rights into for­eign pol­i­cy and the 1975 Helsin­ki accords with the Sovi­et Union,” focus­ing on abus­es in the Sovi­et sphere. She finds Moyn’s the­sis unper­sua­sive because an alter­na­tive his­to­ry to his own is far too easy to construct.”

True enough: The obvi­ous alter­na­tive is the one that James Peck pro­vides, which the main­stream can hard­ly con­sid­er, though the rel­e­vant facts are strik­ing­ly clear and known at least to scholarship.

Thus in the Cam­bridge His­to­ry of the Cold War,” John Coatsworth recalls that from 1960 to the Sovi­et col­lapse in 1990, the num­bers of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, tor­ture vic­tims, and exe­cu­tions of non­vi­o­lent polit­i­cal dis­senters in Latin Amer­i­ca vast­ly exceed­ed those in the Sovi­et Union and its East Euro­pean satel­lites.” But being nona­troc­i­ties, these crimes, sub­stan­tial­ly trace­able to U.S. inter­ven­tion, didn’t inspire a human-rights crusade.

Also inspired by the Chen res­cue, New York Times colum­nist Bill Keller writes that Dis­si­dents are hero­ic,” but they can be irri­tants to Amer­i­can diplo­mats who have impor­tant busi­ness to trans­act with coun­tries that don’t share our val­ues.” Keller crit­i­cizes Wash­ing­ton for some­times fail­ing to live up to our val­ues with prompt action when oth­ers com­mit crimes.

There is no short­age of hero­ic dis­si­dents with­in the domains of U.S. influ­ence and pow­er, but they are as invis­i­ble as the Latin Amer­i­can vic­tims. Look­ing almost at ran­dom around the world, we find Abdul­ha­di al-Khawa­ja, co-founder of the Bahrain Cen­ter for Human Rights, an Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al pris­on­er of con­science, now fac­ing death in prison from a long hunger strike.

And Father Mun Jeong-hyeon, the elder­ly Kore­an priest who was severe­ly injured while hold­ing mass as part of the protest against the con­struc­tion of a U.S. naval base on Jeju Island, named an Island of Peace, now occu­pied by secu­ri­ty forces for the first time since the 1948 mas­sacres by the U.S.-imposed South Kore­an government.

And Turk­ish schol­ar Ismail Besik­ci, fac­ing tri­al again for defend­ing the rights of Kurds. He already has spent much of his life in prison on the same charge, includ­ing the 1990s, when the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion was pro­vid­ing Turkey with huge quan­ti­ties of mil­i­tary aid — at a time when the Turk­ish mil­i­tary per­pe­trat­ed some of the period’s worst atrocities.

But these instances are all nonex­is­tent, on stan­dard prin­ci­ples, along with oth­ers too numer­ous to mention.

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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