Human Rights Hypocrisies

A 2006 BBC poll showed the United States as the “biggest global peace threat.” BBC summarized their survey: “People in European and Muslim countries see US policy in Iraq as a bigger threat to world peace than Iran’s nuclear programme.” June 14, 2006.

This poor rating contrasts with the State Department’s image of our country as the world’s leading human rights advocate. Do State officials read these polls? Or US newspapers?

The March 20 NY Times front page story cites Mayor Bloomberg’s office on a 34% growth in one year of people living on the City’s streets. The State Department had just wasted taxpayers’ money to fund research for a report showing Cuba in a dismal light – a feat it has repeated over the decades to little avail.  Why not compare winter temperatures in New York with those in Havana to show where the homeless suffer most? The March 11, 2010 Report: Cuba from Bureau of Democracy, “Human Rights, and Labor, 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” omits reference to Cuba’s homeless – and to those “unfortunates” in the United States.

In Cuba, human rights include the right to housing. In our country, those without shelter “get what’s coming to them,” or become objects of pity, scorn or brutality. Cuba’s government offers not multiple party system, nor abundant and varied newspapers. Under US law, however, American citizens don’t have rights to shelter, food, medical care, or a decent old age. (These human rights are etched in the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which one day the US Senate might ratify.)

38,000 people live in NY shelters, in addition to the 3,111 who sleep on the streets. Some street-livers claim they fear spending the night in shelters and felt safer combating the cold then engaging with criminals, nuts or both. In 1964, working in San Francisco Hospital as a medical social worker, I tried to discharge an elderly man with insufficient means of support to the city’s old age home. He refused.

“I’ve been there,” I said. “It’s clean and the food is edible.”

“I’ve been there, too. Last time I got raped and robbed. I’m not going back.”

I checked his story with more experienced social workers.

“These things happen,” concluded one. “Life’s not easy without money.”

The Times article claimed New York has a ratio of one homeless person for every 2,688 New Yorkers compared to Los Angeles with 1 to 154 ratio – close to 20,000 homeless, not counting those in shelters. About 3.5 million US residents (over 1% of the population), including 1.35 million children, have been homeless for significant periods of time.

In addition, a 2001 study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 27 major cities “showed that homeless shelters turned down 37% of individuals due to overcrowding.”

The Veterans Affairs Department “estimates 107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness.” Roughly 56 percent of homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 12.8 percent and 15.4 percent of the U.S. population respectively. Spend money on attacking Cuba on human rights, but no money for the US homeless?

Congress allocates $1 trillion for the military – but little for veterans who really need it. About 1.5 million other veterans, meanwhile, face the risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

Compare US homeless numbers with the total population of Cuba, 11 million, with a homeless population of less than 100. Why should the State Department get so concerned about Cuban dissidents (a significant percentage of them Cuba State Security Agents) and ignore homeless and hungry US kids? (Let’s not count the number of children killed “accidentally” in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, or the hundreds of thousands of children slaughtered by US bombs in Vietnam and Korea.)

The skewed policy of focusing on Cuba’s deficient procedural rights while ignoring our glaring lack of substantive rights has characterized every Administration for thirty years. Spend money for destructive wars we can’t win, but not for basic needs, without which we will perish as a civilization.

Arizona, like many states suffering from reduced revenues, slashed Children’s Health Insurance Program. 47,000 kids – all poor, of course – have no medical coverage.

In California, some grade school teachers buy supplies for their classrooms from their own pockets; both of California’s university systems, known for decades for excellence, have begun laying off faculty. Some California counties have even cut budgets for HIV testing.

Obama and Congress teamed up for health-insurance reform, one positive step. Now, stop wasting money on self-righteous human rights attacks on others while our home needs desperate repair: like food and shelter for millions.

SAUL LANDAU is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow who received Chile’s Bernardo O’Higgins award for human rights. CounterPunch published his A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.