Human rights – how human are they?

by Ray Nunes, January 1999

Recently the media have been publicising the 50th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN Assembly in 1948. But it behoves us to ask – what are human rights, and are they all they are cracked up to be?

Up to the American Revolution of 1776 human rights were hardly heard of. The only rights known were those of the ruling landowning aristocracy wherever feudal systems were in place. In response to attempts by the British crown to force their colonialism on to the new world of America the people of the American colonies rose in an historic revolution for their independence from British rule. The United States of America, as it became known, adopted a Declaration of Independence which for the first time proclaimed democratic rights for ordinary citizens.

It said: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It went on to say that citizens had not only the right but the duty to overthrow despotic governments such as that of Britain.

Democratic liberties proclaimed

The rights were but three in number, but they helped to inspire the great French Revolution of 1789. That same year one of the first acts of the newly-elected French National Assembly was to adopt a ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’, which went further in proclaiming democratic liberties than the American Declaration. However, it differed from the latter in two major respects. The first of these was in the right of all citizens to own property; the second was in the divisions of citizens into ‘active’ and ‘passive’. The first led directly into the capitalist economic era. The second led directly into the capitalist political era. The first paved the way for the rapid accumulation of capital which ushered in the economic dominance of capitalism over feudalism. The second precluded the masses from any means of overthrowing capitalist property by making politics and democratic government the preserve of the propertied classes, establishing a property franchise beyond the means of the majority.

From ‘free competition to monopoly’

The influence of both the American and the French revolutions came to the fore in the European-wide democratic revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century, marked by the ‘year of revolutions’, 1848, which ushered in the massive development of the capitalist system during the last half of the 19th century.

But did this mean the spread of democratic liberties throughout the world? Far from it. What it did mean was the development of monopoly capitalism – the basis of modern imperialism – out of the ‘free competition’ economies of the big capitalist powers: Britain, France, Germany, the USA and Japan.

Division of the world

This development of the monopoly stage of capitalism brought on the near-slavery of colonialism. No democratic rights whatever for the hundreds of millions in colonial territories conquered by the capitalist-imperialist great powers, as all the great powers divided up the world economy and territory between themselves. Monopoly capitalism ruled, each great power seeking to expand its colonies, markets, sources of cheap labour and command of the world’s resources for their own enrichment. That contest brought on World War I between two monopoly-capitalist alliances, alliances of exploiters, one headed by Britain, France and the US, the other headed by Germany, each of them abolishing the small amount of democracy left to the mass of their own peoples and relying on the ruthless suppression of its colonial peoples, who became the spoils of imperialist war.

We are still living in the imperialist epoch. The great capitalist powers still ruthlessly suppress democratic rights both in their home countries and in their semi-colonies wherever they feel that their system of capitalist exploitation of billions might be challenged by the working class and its allies among the masses.

Socialism on the agenda

Between World Wars I and II talk of human rights was a waste of breath. In November, 1917, the world-historic socialist revolution in Russia breached the world front of capitalism. It placed socialism on the agenda everywhere. Its overthrow of the military-feudal despotism of Tsarist-capitalist Russia gave an enormous impulse to working-class democracy. It didn’t just give lip-service to mass democratic rights – it established them for the first time in history in a sixth of the earth’s surface. From then on all economics and politics revolved around the unceasing drive of world imperialism to crush world socialism.

At the end of World War I the armies of fourteen imperialist states invaded the new-born Soviet Union with the aim of crushing it. They failed, but never ceased trying.

Throughout Western Europe the monster of fascism cast its shadow, with its mass murders of opponents, beginning with Mussolini’s Italy and going on to the gigantic mass terror of Hitler and the Nazis.

Did anyone mention ‘human rights’? In Britain the General Strike of 1926 saw machine guns on the streets of London ready to mow down workers; in ‘democratic’ USA the government refused to grant even the semblance of rights to the Negro people, while its army shot down ‘bonus marchers’ of protesting World War I veterans.

UN and the cold war

Then, of course, came the vast genocides of World War II. Faced with a massive growth of the colonial revolution the imperialists set up a world organisation for peace, ‘United Nations’. True, the Soviet Union participated, but already the US had launched the cold war against the USSR even before the end of World War II. Various Un bodies were set up, including several dealing with human rights. But these were more fronts to disguise American imperialism than bodies to actively promote the rights of the workers under capitalism or the freeing of the hundreds of millions oppressed by imperialism. The capitalist world gravitated to the banner of US imperialism and its vast wealth garnered by through exploitation.

UN – always dominated by the USA

All human rights bodies set up by United Nations had a bottom line of anti-Soviet and anti-socialist activities. These are still dominant. They derive from the economic-political-military power of the United States. For all of its life United Nations has been an instrument of US imperialism. The ‘human rights’ organisations, UN-sponsored or not, in general follow US policies. During the early part of the cold war they focussed their attention on denouncing the lack of democratic liberties in the socialist Soviet Union, but they managed to overlook the oppression of black Americans, which the US government maintained. They also managed to overlook Britain’s ruthless suppression of human rights in its colonies and the US invasions of territories in Europe (Greece) Asia (Iran), Central America (Guatemala) and its active installing and backing of dictatorships throughout Latin America. During this period Washington threatened to invade China, at the same time organising a drive to deny UN membership to China. It forcibly detached Taiwan from mainland China – all ignored by so-called ‘human rights’ bodies such as Amnesty International.

People’s war wins in Vietnam

It is only a short time back that US imperialism tried (and failed) to crush the national independence struggle in Vietnam, in the meantime blitzing Panama and Granada.

Those who are not deceived by all they publicity and hype about US concern for human rights have no difficulty in seeing through the gigantic hypocrisy of the world’s worst enemy of human rights pretending concern for them. All questions of human rights are subordinated to the drive of United States’ imperialism for world domination under their expansionist slogan of a ‘New World Order’.

Fascist dictatorship

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of the basically capitalist orientation of all human rights organisations is the US practice of installing fascist dictatorships in numerous countries through the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). These have been installed in most countries of South America, where fascist rule is backed by organised death squads. This has been the order of the day in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and in South East Asia in Indonesia. Temporarily mass pressure has forced some of these dictatorships to retreat – but not too much – to forms of civilian rule. Chile is a case in point, but Pinochet still has backing from the armed forces.

Much of the world’s media is under the control of giant US monopolies. These days it is a speciality of human rights bodies such as Amnesty International to pretend to impartiality in treatment of people’s uprisings to label them, in accordance with US practice, as ‘terrorist’. Thus we find floods of ‘official’ press handouts denouncing such terrorism and in doing so standing the facts on their heads. Most of the time these handouts are accepted at face value by organisations like Amnesty. But their public approach always implies acceptance by them of the charge of terrorism against peoples’ liberation movements.

Take the case of Peru. Here there is a fascist dictatorship under the rule of President Fujimori backed by the military. Human rights bodies say little or nothing of the fascist rulers. Since 1980 a civil war has raged between guerrilla forces of the Communist Party of Peru and the state forces. The guerrillas are kept in being by the unquenchable spirit of tens of thousands of ordinary people, mostly poor and exploited peasants who are seeking liberation form the landlords, local monopoly capitalists and US imperialists. The liberation forces are heavily outgunned by the US-financed Peruvian state forces. These include tanks, aircraft, naval vessels and a large army, all financed by Washington, and all equipped with modern high-tech weaponry. But they are quite unable to subdue the peoples’ forces.

Why is this? The masses of the people are not relying on foreign finance, weapons and communication systems. But they are fighting a people’s war which could not possibly hold its own – as it is doing – without selfless support from the mass of ordinary Peruvians.

No impartiality

Innumerable articles and books have come from human rights bodies deploring the civil war. They are characterised by two things: one, they invariably side with the exploiting regimes and twist the facts accordingly; the other is the pretence that they are impartial observers. Perhaps the best illustration of this alignment with imperialism is the propaganda put out by the human rights bodies themselves. Repeatedly they have deplored the numerous casualties of the civil war, widely reported as being over 30,000. Invariably these are reported as caused by ‘Shining Path’, as the guerrillas are called. If that were true they would already have succeeded in overthrowing the state. But it is not true. By far the greatest number of casualties have been caused by the state forces. These have carried out wholesale bombing raids and mass military sweeps against hundreds of villages which are claimed to be supporters of Shining Path. Tens of thousands of supposed guerrillas or supporters of Shining Path have been killed and wounded in these offensive state actions. But hardly any human rights body pins the responsibility on the fascist rulers, only on the so-called ‘terrorists’.

A vast confidence trick

The situation then is this: the immense publicity given to human rights as a noble cause which all humanity should support is nothing but a vast international confidence trick perpetuated by world imperialism under the cloak of United Nations.

The imperialists have as much concern with the democratic rights of the peoples as did Attila the Hun and Adolf Hitler. The bottom line for the imperialists is: whatever keeps us in power is good; democratic rights are those that we allow – nothing more.

The position of the Workers’ Party of New Zealand

Our Party, the Workers’ Party of New Zealand, takes its stand on human rights from Leninism. The founder of Russian Social Democracy G.V. Plekhanov declared in 1903: ‘Every democratic principle should be examined not on its own merits in the abstract but in its bearing on what may be called the basic principle of democracy, namely, on the principle that says: salus populi suprema lex (the welfare of the people is the highest law)’.

Later, Lenin amended this to ‘the good of the revolution, the good of the working class is the highest law’.

Then he went on to note cases wherein this principle runs counter to democratic demands such as the inviolability of the person, freedom of the press and of suffrage as well. He gives examples of the Provisional Government’s’[1] actions of terror and concludes:

The only difference is that the Kerenskys[2]have practised terror against the workers, soldiers and peasants in the interests of a handful of landowners and bankers, while the Soviet Government is taking strong measures against the landowners, marauders and their underlings – in the interests of the workers, soldiers and peasants.[3]

In other words, what the capitalist spokesmen and media call human rights today excludes the rights of the great majority and in reality are the rights only of the ruling class. Our party is firmly in support of working-class democracy. That, under socialism, is the highest good. o



[1] Provisional Government. The Russian capitalist government overthrown on November 7, 1917.

[2] Kerensky: leader of the Provisional Government.

[3] See ‘Plekhanov on Terror’, Lenin, Coll. Wks., Vol. 42 pp 47-49.

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