The chances are slim that you saw much news coverage of Human Rights Day when it blew past the media radar — as usual — on Dec. 10. Human rights may be touted as a treasured principle in the United States, but the assessed value in medialand is apt to fluctuate widely on the basis of double standards and narrow definitions.
Every political system, no matter how repressive or democratic, is able to amp up public outrage over real or imagined violations of human rights. News media can easily fixate on stories of faraway injustice and cruelty. But the lofty stances end up as posturing to the extent that a single standard is not applied.
When U.S.-allied governments torture political prisoners, the likelihood of U.S. media scrutiny is much lower than the probability of media righteousness against governments reviled by official Washington.
But what are "human rights" anyway? In the USA, we mostly think of them as freedom to speak, assemble, worship and express opinions. Of course those are crucial rights. Yet they hardly span the broad scope that’s spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That document — adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on Dec. 10, 1948 — affirms "human rights" in the ways that U.S. media outlets commonly illuminate the meaning of the term. But the Declaration of Human Rights also defines the rights of all human beings to include "freedom from fear and want" — and not only as generalities.
For instance, the first clause of Article 23 states: "Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment."
And: "Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work"; the right "to form and to join trade unions"; and, overall, "an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection."
Perhaps the farthest afield from the customary U.S. media parameters is Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which insists: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."
Measured with such yardsticks for human rights, the United States falls far short of many countries. If American news media did a better job of reporting on human rights in all their dimensions, we’d be less self-satisfied as a nation — and more outraged about the widespread violations of human rights that persist in our midst every day.
The human consequences of those violations are incalculable, but they’re largely removed from the center stage of dramas that fill news pages and newscasts. This downplaying of economic human rights is not mere happenstance. The violations are systemic — within a system that thrives on extreme inequities, creating enormous profits for corporations and enriching some individuals along the way.
Within the boundaries of dominant news media and mainline political discourse, the "issue" of human rights is in a narrow box. It severely limits the humanity of our social order.