When Jimmy Carter was elected President, the US was trying to recover from post-Vietnam syndrome, at a time that the economy was showing signs of weakness and the country's global image was at its nadir. To continue the diplomatic confrontation with the Soviet Union as part of a global campaign to win support in the rest of the world, Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance decided to play the human rights card, knowing that it would go a very long way inside Communist countries, but it would backfire in pro-US countries like South Africa, Iran and Nicaragua.
Helped by the hearings on CIA abuses revealed by the committee chaired by Senator Frank Church, the US passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 intended to stop violations of privacy rights via illegal wiretapping and other clandestine operations. Granted, the mood of the country in the late 1970s was to correct the abuses of a democracy that had adopted authoritarian, if not police-state methods at home and abroad; something that would be thoroughly undermined in the conservative decade of the 1980s, and then again in the 'terrorism decade' of 2000.
Although the US supported the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the record from presidents Truman to Ford shows that the US backed some of the more notorious dictatorships, from the racist apartheid South African regime to murderous authoritarian governments in Africa and Latin America, defaulting everything to the higher cause of the Cold War and the race to win the ideological and political struggle against the Soviet bloc and Communist China. In essence, the Cold War served as the ideal cover to permit the US military and economic integration ambitions to continue, thus strengthening Pax Americana. Human rights, therefore, was an obstacle to the expansionist integration model that the US was pursuing; that is until the end of the Vietnam War.
As admirable as the Carter human rights campaign may have been for the US that had violated human rights when it was promoting pro-US military dictatorships around the world, the ultimate goal was to undercut the moral authority that the Soviets pretended to have as defenders of peoples' movements. When the revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua erupted, the Carter administration adopted a hard line toward all revolutionaries and abandoned human rights as part of its foreign policy; something that manifested itself in the conflict between the dovish secretary of State Vance against National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration wiped out human rights as a component of US policy, while it afforded extraordinary powers to intelligence, defense and banks. Handing all power of the state to these entities left citizens unprotected, and it subordinated human rights to the national goal of defeating Communism while strengthening capitalism. Giving enormous powers to banks, despite massive banking scandals during the Reagan presidency entailed that the state would serve as a shield of finance capital, while violating the rights of US nationals as well as the human rights of foreign nationals in the name of national security. Central America, with Nicaragua as the focus, is one of Reagan's human rights abuse legacies; giving birth to the Reagan Doctrine that justified it.
Absorbed by growth madness in the aftermath of Communism's fall, the Clinton decade did not have much of a human rights component, though it was a vast improvement over the 1980s. Clinton had to make choices when it came to human rights in Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Haiti and Kosovo, choices invariably rooted in national security and economic interests above all, and only secondarily in human rights. Nevertheless, the Clinton team was in some respects sensitive to international criticism about human rights, whereas such sensitivity was absent during the Reagan era. When the horrible tragedy of 9/11 stuck, US policy became hostile not only to human rights, but to civil rights as well, justifying the hostility to the national emergency of combating terrorism. By legalizing the suppression of human rights, the US was in essence suspending a part of its democratic tradition and admitting that embracing quasi-police state methods was necessary to maintain its institutions.
In June 2012, president Carter doubted that the US can speak with moral authority about human rights, considering that the Obama administration has been guilty of violating human rights. Carter accused the Democrat administration of violating human rights at home and abroad, arguing that the US has been targeting both foreign nationals and US citizens for assassination, all part of a policy that has been continuing since 9/11 on the pretext of fighting terrorism.
Carter contends that after 9/11 the US has ignored human rights, something that is very evident by the reality that not just human rights but civil rights are violated in the name of national security, namely, threat of terrorism. US legislation now makes it possible to detain indefinitely a person without trial, simply on suspicion of 'terrorism', a nebulous political concept as the government defines it legally, although the law is contested in federal courts.
Carter noted that US drones have killed many innocent people, including children and women, in a number of countries, among them Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Just as significant as drone warfare, however, is when the US defends and protects human rights violators that it deems as allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel. When it comes to casualties of other countries, the US dismisses it as collateral damage, but when its own citizens are victims of attacks it is a case of 'terrorism.'
While I agree with president Carter that the Obama-Clinton team has not made the shift to embrace human rights as had the Carter-Vance team in the 1970s, does human rights belong solely in the domain of foreign political affairs, or has the world economy changed to the degree that markets play a role as significant if not much greater than the state? I argue that the international political economy with banking at its core must not be divorced from the human rights discussion in the age of globalization. This is a subject that has been raised by studies dealing with the role of banks, including the World Bank, and indirect involvement (through financing of mineral, energy, manufacturing and agricultural operations) in human rights. Royal Dutch Shell, receiving financing from a number of banks, is an example of a company that has violated human rights in Nigeria.
Because some banks are sensitive that their business relationships could potentially result in human rights violations as the project is carried out, they make an effort to find out if human rights abuses could or do take place. One reason for this is government, shareholder, and social pressure. My fundamental contention is that owing to the contracting global economy, human rights abuses are more evident from sources one would not have suspected, namely finance capital that is behind both the state and the company directly involved in the given project - energy, mining, etc.
The escalation of human rights abuses as a result of the war on terror has been accompanied by the escalation of another form of human rights abuse whose source is finance capital. Besides financing large operations from mining in Indonesia to hydroelectric projects displacing farmers and fishermen, to factories and cocoa farms employing children, banks are in the business of manipulating interest rates that result in joblessness and homelessness of millions of people, as recent cases involving a number of UK, US and EU banks revealed.
Because banks are involved in all types of activities, ranging from legitimate operations to money laundering and financing arms sales, their fingerprints are on human rights abuses around the planet. Just as banks had a major role in sustaining the apartheid regime of South Africa before Nelson Mandela, they have a responsibility today around the world for impoverishing large segments of the population and demanding that government adopt increasingly illiberal - authoritarian or police-state methods - to deal with sociopolitical dissenters. Blatant cases from historical examples involve international banks and dictatorships in Argentina, Indonesia, Spain, Portugal and numerous African countries. A number of universities and private organizations have urged that government hold banks accountable for their role in human rights, but finance capital is above the state and thus cannot be harmed for the sake of human rights.
Because the state is the vehicle that uses the fiscal structure to redistribute income, appropriating income from the average person to strengthen finance capital as the backbone of the economy, the destabilizing social consequences that lead to unstable political conditions and fewer civil and human rights rest on the doorstep of large banks whose existence governments identify with the national interest. The world is facing a new kind of human rights problem and it is not the direct one associated with the police or military, but with finance capital that is hiding behind 'democratic' regimes whether in Western or non-Western regions.