About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, July 6, 2015

The age of human rights imperialism

On May 20, the American Congress held a hearing on the “deteriorating human rights situation in Rwanda”.

The timing was surprising because there have hardly been incidents of human rights abuse in Rwanda for a while. Instead the hearing took place against the backdrop of widespread demonstrations in the US against police brutality meted out against African American males.

Why would the US congress be bothered by human rights in Rwanda, a country 15,000 miles away, when many of its own citizens are being killed by a run-amok police while others are being sent to jail in droves? In the mid-late 1990s and early 2000s, the government of Rwanda used to be highhanded. It relied on the systematic use of force to consolidate power to a significant degree.
This was a period when RPF’s political base was narrow and the government was also fighting a ferocious insurgency inside the country. Since the end of insurgency in 2001 and the rapid growth in the organisational reach of the RPF, the government has progressively moved away from force to economic performance and delivery of public goods and services to citizens to consolidate power.

There are still cases of human rights abuse. But they are isolated and occasional, not systemic. Human rights groups have remained oblivious of this progress in large part because acknowledging it takes away their relevance.

Rwanda today

Today, Rwanda has some of the best economic and social performance indicators of any country in the world. Its economic growth rate has averaged 7.7% over 15 years. It has over 90% of its people medically insured. It has enjoyed the fastest growth in life expectancy of any country in the world – from 28 years in 2000 to 64 years today. It has also witnessed the fastest decline in child, infant and maternal mortality.

Access to education, clean water, electricity, etc. has enjoyed rapid expansion. It has the highest representation of women in parliament of any country in the world at 64%. Citizen participation in governance has been greatly expanded alongside access to information as Rwanda works hard to put every citizen online. These are results of deliberate efforts to shift the basis of power from force to public service, repression to representation. Ironically, while Rwanda has progressively moved this far, the US has increasingly embraced repression and mass surveillance to govern its citizens.

This sounds unbelievable because America projects itself as a defender of democracy and respect for human rights. This leads people to imagine that it practises what it preaches. For example, police in America shoot and kill a black person every 28 hours.

Tens of thousands of black people are stopped and frisked (searched) by police daily for no reason except the colour of their skin – and then sent to jail. These police operations are unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court has upheld them in disregard to the 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In so doing, it has granted police a license to terrorise black communities.

And as Edward Snowden has shown, the US indiscriminately eavesdrops on telephone conversations, emails or social media of American citizens, allies and enemies alike in a mass surveillance programme unprecedented in human history – not even in Stalin’s Russia.

This is not to mention the number of people jailed without trial, held and tortured in illegal detention centres around the world and the thousands who are bombed and killed by drones everyday across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Somalia.

America’s human rights record

America’s human rights record is appalling at home and abroad. But for this article let us look at only one aspect of it – mass incarceration at home. In 2005, the US with 5% of the world’s population housed 25% of the world’s inmates. Its incarceration rate of 714 prisoners for every 100,000 residents is almost 40% greater than that of its nearest competitors – Bahamas, Belarus and Russia.

The US incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France and 12.3 times that of Japan. This tragedy has only been possible because those bearing the brunt of prison come largely from racial minorities (blacks and Hispanics) who constitute 70% of the prison population. A 2006 study found that one out of 200 young whites were in incarceration; the rate for blacks was one out of nine. Today, one in every three black males can expect to go to jail during their lifetime. For white males it is one in 106.

Nearly 80% of blacks in jail in America are due to the possession or use of drugs. However, study after study has shown that drug possession and usage rate are similar between whites and blacks. In some studies, white youths are more likely to possess and/or sell drugs than blacks. Yet blacks are 18 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police for drugs than whites.

A 1995 study done in America asking people to close their eyes and imagine and describe a drug user found that 95% of the respondents pictured a black man. This has only been possible because of the social stigma attached to race in America by the mass media. Blackness has been criminalised. Thus, to especially black people, the State in America is a repressive machine whose main contact with them is through police and prisons.

The US courts, mass media and state and municipal legislatures all provide succour to this criminalisation of blackness. Everyday scores of impoverished black male youths move from poorly funded public schools to well-funded high-tech prisons. Consequently, there are more black people in jail in America today than there were as slaves in 1850. In nearly all states, a convicted felon is stripped of voting rights.

As a result there are more blacks disenfranchised in America today than in 1875 when the 15th amendment prohibiting discrimination in voting rights based on race was passed. Black males are 6% of the US population but comprise 45% of the inmates. The incarceration rate of blacks in America in 2013 was 10 times (yes, 10 times) the rate of incarceration of black people in apartheid South Africa.

There are more blacks in jail than in college in America. In 1980 there were 143,000 black males in jails in America, 463,000 in college. In 2013 black males in jail were 1.2m, in college 600,000. In 1999 alone, 992 black men received their degrees from Illinois state universities compared to 7,000 black men who “graduated” from its state prisons.

In one of the most liberal states of America, California, a black male resident is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college. In America, among black male school dropouts aged 20-40, a third are locked up on any given day. More black males are in jail than in paid employment. There are more blacks in jail in America than the entire prison population of India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England combined. Yet these nations have a combined population of 1.6 billion people compared to America’s 300m.

The total population of black males with a felony record in Chicago, the home of the first black president of America Barack Obama, is 80% of the adult black male workforce.

Problems faced by blacks in America

Because of mass incarceration, a black child in America today has less chance of being raised by both parents than was the case under slavery.

Nearly 70% of black professional women are unmarried because the mass incarceration of black males has taken potential mates out of the dating pool. Nearly 70% of black males in America have been rendered unemployable in the job market because they have been declared felons.

One in three blacks born in America today can expect to go to jail in their lifetime. So big is the incarceration industry that US prisons employ more people (one million) than the combined workforce of General Motors, Ford and WalMart – the three largest employers.

The US spends $200b a year on law enforcement and prisons – almost as large as the combined budgets of all sub-Sahara African countries.

A 2006 study found that the extent of racial disparity in imprisonment rates is greater than in any major arena of American social life: at 8-1, the black to white ratio of incarceration rates dwarfs the 2-1 ratio of unemployment rates, the 3-1 ratio of non-marital child bearing, the 2-1 ratio of infant mortality rates and the 1-5 ratio of net worth.

But what do we make of this colossal human rights tragedy in America?

Many Americans rationalise this tragedy by arguing that this is because their criminal justice system is “broken”. Yet this is simply not true. The criminal justice system in America has been deliberately designed to function as an instrument of social and racial control rather than of crime prevention and control. The criminalisation of blackness and the violence that underpins it are a systemic attempt by the State to reverse the gains the civil rights movement made.

There hasn’t been a fundamental change in the basic structure of American society for the last 150 years. Instead, what has changed is the language used to justify the subjugation of black people in America. For example, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt as used to be the case during Jim Crow.

However, today the system uses the criminal justice system to label African Americans criminals. Once so labelled, then all the old forms of discrimination, exclusion and social contempt that characterised Jim Crow come into force.

Once labeled a felon, all the old forms of discrimination in employment, public housing, denial of voting rights, exclusion from jury service, etc. suddenly become legal. In short, a felon today is literally like a black man in Alabama and Mississippi in 1940. America has not ended racial discrimination. It has merely redesigned it.

This human tragedy has only been possible because the mass media and other channels of communication in America have stigmatised black people as criminals even in black minds. Few Americans feel sympathetic when they see scores of black male youths stopped, searched, assaulted and killed by the police and sent to jail. This is the stigmatisation that America seeks to do on African and other countries. Few governments employ the degree of repression at home as America does to its black citizens.

Stigmatisation of others is not innocent. It is used by the US to justify aggression and/or interventions in these countries while making itself look good. We have entered the era of humanitarian and human rights imperialism.

Colonialism, the old form of imperialism, justified itself in similar ways. The colonialist painted the native as primitive, uncivilised and poor. Tall tales of human sacrifice, cannibalism, disease, famine, misery, etc. were used to justify the takeover of territories for “protection”.

The imperial states never claimed their aim was dominate in order to exploit. They claimed to seek to end the tyranny of custom and the despotism of local chiefs in order to open colonies to Christianity (spiritual enlightenment), commerce (poverty eradication) and civilisation (modern administrative systems).

The results were a system of oppression, discrimination and exploitation. One hundred and fifty years later, stories justifying intervention have not changed. The civilising mission now is dressed in the language of human rights, humanitarians and free markets. But if America genuinely cares about the human rights of Rwandans, let it demonstrate it by first caring for the rights of African Americans at home.

This Article was published in the New Vision on Jun 04, 2015

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