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Parallels: when human rights lose to power

Similarities have existed worldwide, in history and today, for oppressed groups — from Native Americans to Indigenous peoples in the Philippines to the Palestinians.

As Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Maybe it’s from my few degrees in physics, but I tend to see parallels in situations a lot.

Gary W. King
Gary W. King
Allow me to first confess my biases, as I see the world through some blood-smeared lenses. Since 1976, I have been active in Amnesty International, Twin Cities chapter, working on political prisoners and executions in two dozen countries. I have met and learned from experts on human rights problems worldwide. I have also visited the Philippines more than 30 times, visited political prisoners in jail, and gathered data. When there are extrajudicial killings I have met their families and mourned with them. Nine friends and human rights defenders I have met have been lost to state violence. Before that, I was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and actively protested its excesses and the lies that underwrote it. Prior to the Civil War, my ancestors arrived in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota and were amazed at how cheap was the land, recently liberated from Native Americans.

So, the parallels I would point out are evident in a bunch of situations: 1) the treatment of Native Americans, 2) slavery and segregation in the U.S., 3) the Vietnam War, 4) Philippine treatment of Indigenous peoples, 5) apartheid of Blacks and Coloreds in South Africa, 6) apartheid of Palestinians. You can name others for sure.

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Disenfranchisement. Usually done with the nicety of legality, certain groups of people have no effective representation in their government and are barred from voting about the nation’s laws or leaders that affect them. If there are identified tribal groups, where there may be promises or rights that they will have free, prior and informed consent on issues that essential to their lives, these promises are not kept, nor rights honored.

Leaders are removed. When persons might stand up for victims — clergy, lawyers, cultural/environmental defenders and such — they are often imprisoned, silenced and can suffer extrajudicial execution. Peaceful protests are not allowed. Organizations, even with strong international ties, that might work for peace and justice are proscribed, harassed, threatened, and attacked publicly. Members are stalked. Governments employ task teams, hit lists, vigilantes, paramilitary and assassins, while their leaders get promotions. Impunity reigns. Foreign, bilateral aid flows in, to weaponize and train security forces. In this age of drones, a U.S. favorite tool, watch out!

Removal and forced containment. To steal their lands and resources (which they have not developed in a way to appease the majority), they are forcibly evicted and shoved into marginal existence. (You may have noticed such victims piling up on our southern border). Dams flood their valleys, trees are removed without replanting, whole mountaintops are removed, and tailings wreck the streams. Often overwhelming, technologically advanced weapons are used to push people along. Having children and families is the big handicap of the victims: They fear “collateral damage” to them in the process, which oppressors assure is not their fault or responsibility. The use of fences, cages, IDs and passes, trespassing zones, forbidden roads, curfews, and limited meeting sizes are useful tools. Wrecking their traditional methods of livelihood and cultures is acceptable.

Lack of support and fairness. Where they may be allowed to live, victims do not get the usual treatments of the majority/controlling group in any decent society: Often there are no schools of any quality, a major lack of hospitals or physicians, a lack of medicines, a lack of roads or convenient access, a lack of transportation, a lack of sanitation, etc. There can be usurpation of vital resources, like water itself, so others may benefit. And there can be police/military/vigilante harassments and extortions, often for the benefit of the investors/companies that the ruling class likes. Corruption in government is tolerated, leading to oppression and exploitation of the victim class, which lacks legal redress. Even foreign courts can be used to avoid responsibility.

Manifest or biblical destiny. These situations are ordained by the belief that the majority/controlling group has the right — nay, the duty — to perform toward the oppressed with the many techniques and designs at its disposal. This group’s greater good demands the harsh treatment of the victims. There may be customs or ethics that suggest this is wrong, but there is no speedy or inexpensive alternative. Might makes right — and damn the language or culture of those folks, who are seen as inferior.

There is a group founded to define and promote rule of law and human rights: the United Nations. Sadly, the five nations that won World War II 76 years ago can control this and prevent investigation and progress for all people. The U.N. came up with covenant treaties to define and defend our rights. The United States passed the Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. But it did not pass the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights —  because our rulers might wish to reduce or stop aid like welfare, food shelves, jobs, clean water … at any time to any group of persons here, and not be slowed by possible court cases.

And the right to life is also not assured. A dozen nations cherish their nuclear weapons, in case anyone does not understand their power or intentions.

Mark Twain was an anti-imperialist, and wrote extensively about these situations. I recommend: “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” from 1901, and “Comments on the Moro Massacre,” which reviews how a dominant army can easily handle a small tribal group of resisters, 1906.

Gary W. King of Fridley is a retired neuroscientist. He is active in Amnesty International, Philippine Study Group of Minnesota, and WAMM -Tackling Torture at the Top.

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