In his penetrating study "Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-Opted Human Rights," international affairs scholar James Peck observes, "In the history of human rights, the worst atrocities are always committed by somebody else, never us" -- whoever "us" is.
Almost any moment in history yields innumerable illustrations. Let's keep to the past few weeks.
On May 10, the Summer Olympics were inaugurated at the Greek birthplace of the ancient games. A few days before, virtually unnoticed, the government of Vietnam addressed a letter to the International Olympic Committee expressing the "profound concerns of the Government and people of Viet Nam about the decision of IOC to accept the Dow Chemical Company as a global partner sponsoring the Olympic Movement."
Dow provided the chemicals that Washington used from 1961 onward to destroy crops and forests in South Vietnam, drenching the country with Agent Orange.
These poisons contain
dioxin, one of the most lethal carcinogens known, affecting millions of
Vietnamese and many U.S. soldiers. To this day in Vietnam, aborted
fetuses and deformed infants are very likely the effects of these crimes
-- though, in light of Washington's refusal to investigate, we have only
the studies of Vietnamese scientists and independent analysts.
Union Carbide, the corporation responsible for the disaster, was taken over by Dow, for whom the matter is of no slight concern. In February, Wikileaks revealed that Dow hired the U.S. private investigative agency Stratfor to monitor activists seeking compensation for the victims and prosecution of those responsible.
Another major crime with very serious persisting effects is the Marine assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in November 2004.
Women and children were permitted to escape if they could. After several weeks of bombing, the attack opened with a carefully planned war crime: invasion of the Fallujah General Hospital, where patients and staff were ordered to the floor, their hands tied. Soon the bonds were loosened; the compound was secure.
The official justification was that the hospital was reporting civilian casualties, and therefore was considered a propaganda weapon.
Much of the city was left in "smoking ruins," the press reported while the Marines sought out insurgents in their "warrens." The invaders barred entry to the Red Crescent relief organization. Absent an official inquiry, the scale of the crimes is unknown.
If the Fallujah events are reminiscent of the events that took place in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica, now again in the news with the genocide trial of Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, there's a good reason. An honest comparison would be instructive, but there's no fear of that: One is an atrocity, the other not, by definition.
As in Vietnam, independent investigators are reporting long-term effects of the Fallujah assault.
Medical researchers have found dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukemia, even higher than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Uranium levels in hair and soil samples are far beyond comparable cases.
One of the rare investigators from the invading countries is Dr. Kypros Nicolaides, director of the fetal-medicine research center at London's King's College Hospital. "I'm sure the Americans used weapons that caused these deformities," Nicolaides says.
The lingering effects of a vastly greater non-atrocity were reported last month by U.S. law professor James Anaya, the U.N. rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Anaya dared to tread on forbidden territory by investigating the shocking conditions among the remnants of the Native American population in the U.S. -- "poverty, poor health conditions, lack of attainment of formal education (and) social ills at rates that far exceed those of other segments of the American population," Anaya reported. No member of Congress was willing to meet him. Press coverage was minimal.