Human rights ignored by both candidates

If the world were just, we would be voting today on whether to convict Al Gore, not whether to elect him. It was only six months ago that Amnesty International, the world’s foremost human rights organization, released a detailed report accusing the NATO of violating the laws of war during the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.
The report documented numerous cases of the “unlawful killing of civilians,” including, among others things, the attacks on the Grdelica railroad bridge, as well as the bridges in Lunane and at Varvarin. In perhaps its strongest statement on the matter, Amnesty concluded that NATO’s calculated bombing of the headquarters of Serbian state radio and television, which left 16 civilians dead, “was a deliberate attack on a civilian object and as such constitutes a war crime.”
The Clinton administration vigorously defended the attack, claiming the victims were little more than propagandists for Serb terror. Press critics who for years have documented instances of bias in the American mass media might raise an eyebrow at the implications of this charge. Regardless of White House protestations, Amnesty maintained that “NATO member states must bring to justice any of their nationals suspected of being responsible for serious violations under international humanitarian law,” such as those detailed in its report.
Al Gore, as a member of the present administration’s National Security Council, is one such individual. Bill Clinton, as the commander in chief of the American armed forces, is another.
The bombing has emerged internationally as a frightening portent of what the future might hold. Already the U.S.-led attack on Serbian public media has been cited as precedent for a similar incident in early October. The New York Times reported in passing, and two weeks after the fact, that Israeli officials justified their recent rocket barrage against transmitters of the Voice of Palestine radio by reference to “NATO attacks on state television studios in Yugoslavia.”
It thus appears that Washington might have spawned a new international norm. Journalists from the United States, whose frequent genuflection to American power has them resembling lapdogs far more often than watchdogs, should be particularly concerned: Their government has essentially designated them legitimate military targets.
Contempt for international human rights principles is, however, an equal opportunity attribute, and is by no means the exclusive domain of Al Gore. Under George W. Bush, the state of Texas proudly boasts the highest execution rate in the nation. Florida, governed by his brother Jeb, sits at number two, a fact that raises interesting questions of a genetic predisposition to offing the poor and the poorly represented, terms that aptly describe the condition of most death row inmates.
While the United States is roundly criticized by much of the international community for its insistence in maintaining a barbaric system of state-sanctioned murder, a policy that both of the major party candidates support, the state of Texas in particular has demonstrated explicit contempt for international law in its execution of foreign citizens denied their rights to consular assistance under the Vienna Convention. And in contravention of Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits the execution of those under 18 years of age, Texas also maintains the nation’s largest population of death row juveniles, holding approximately one-third of the national total.
It is not that Gore and Bush show disrespect for all international legal principles. When it comes to corporate rights, such as the demand by U.S. pharmaceutical companies that African governments be prohibited from manufacturing affordable AIDS drugs (a cruel and legally debatable policy that Al Gore firmly embraced until embarrassed by ACT UP activists during the launch of his presidential campaign in 1999), the two leading candidates have historically stood with the American business community. Their positions on NAFTA and the WTO are virtually identical.
The failure by the United States to adhere to a single standard of justice in the application of international humanitarian and human rights law is a serious matter, and is one that should have emerged as a campaign issue. By ignoring its international treaty obligations to indict those American officials responsible for alleged war crimes in Yugoslavia, for instance, the U.S. Justice Department has essentially abandoned whatever moral authority it claims to possess in pursuing criminal actions against petty violators of domestic American law.
This issue of criminality is hardly unimportant. Today millions of Americans, most of them poor and people of color, are being denied the right to vote due to previous felony convictions. In some states, up to one-third of black males cannot cast a ballot despite having already served their time. There is a glaring paradox in the fact that such individuals lack the ability to intone on the issues confronting us at present while the two major party candidates appear to have flouted the law with impunity, and are now asking us to reward this record with their elevation to the nation’s highest office.
While I hardly suspect that issues of international law will change the average person’s vote one way or the other, they might provide further reinforcement for the decision by some not to cast a ballot for the lesser of two evils. Liberals and leftists would do well to acknowledge that there are some differences, however minor, between Bush and Gore, and that these differences could result in certain shifts in policy.
Nevertheless, thousands of Minnesotans cannot in good conscience bring themselves to vote for more of the same. It is crucial that people not delude themselves regarding the nature of a Gore victory, which would represent only slightly less of a tragedy than would a victory by Bush. As we approach the eighth anniversary of Democratic rule in the White House, it would be dangerous to forget some rather unsavory facts. The statements that follow represent only a small and very incomplete sample.
Misleading rhetoric regarding “the best economy in history” aside, since 1992 American class inequality has continued to accelerate, as the wealthiest 1 percent of citizens presently holds approximately 40 percent of the nation’s total wealth; meanwhile, one out of every five American children lives below the official poverty line. For the last few years, millions of Americans — a substantial percentage of them children and abused women — have been denied the right to even a basic level of subsistence under the almost universally misunderstood “welfare reform” initiative promoted by Clinton and Gore; one recent commercial had the vice president happily touting this elimination of the federal social service lifeline.
The federal prison population has nearly doubled during Clinton and Gore’s reign, largely as a result of the present administration’s senseless “war on drugs,” with the impact of this policy falling disproportionately in the United States on the poor and people of color. The number of Americans (presently over 40 million) lacking health insurance has continued to increase annually, as the White House, beholden to its insurance industry benefactors, has refused for eight years to promote a sensible single-payer system such as that extant in Canada. Civil rights have taken a huge step backward under the inaptly-named “anti-terrorism” legislation championed by Clinton and Gore; this draconian initiative has concurrently increased the number of federal offenses for which the government now claims a right to kill its citizens.
Whatever the outcome of the presidential vote, people of conscience must remember that politicians do not altruistically legislate progressive social change; mass movements of concerned citizens leave them no choice. Please don’t forget this on Wednesday.

Scott Laderman’s column appears alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes comments to [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]