In his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations of September 19, 2017, Donald Trump declared, “In some cases, states that seek to subvert this institution's noble aims have hijacked the very systems that are supposed to advance them. For example, it is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
The dominant ideology in U.S. political culture assumes that the United States has an advanced theory and practice of democracy. However, if we compare and contrast the evolution of the idea of democracy in various nations and regions of the world during the last two centuries, we see that the USA has a limited understanding of democracy. In the United States, human rights are understood as pertaining to political and civil rights, such as the rights to vote, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, due process of law, and freedom of religion. Education, medical care, housing, and nutrition are not conceived as rights, neither in the Constitution, nor in law, nor in the political culture. In contrast, the UN 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms social and economic rights as the inalienable rights of all persons of all nations. Said Declaration reflects the influence of the socialist governments of Eastern Europe of the time, the emerging Third World movements and independent states, and the working class movements of the representative democracies of the West. Accordingly, the U.S. conception of human rights is more narrow that that of the majority of movements and nations of the world, such that the belief that the United States is the model for democratic theory and practice is a myopic view (“Social and economic rights” 11/7/13 in the category American Revolution).
Similarly, the U.S. concept of human rights does not affirm the right of nations to sovereignty and to control of their natural resources, nor does it include the concept of the right of all peoples to sustainable economic development. The United Nations, however, has affirmed these rights in various documents, as a result of the persistent demand and proclamation of the nations of the Third World. One such document is the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which proclaimed: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic cooperation” (see “Right of nations to self-determination” 11/8/13 in the category American Revolution).
Although scarcely known in the United States, Cuba, in contrast, has developed an advanced theory and practice of democracy. It has made significant investments to ensure that all of its citizens have free access to education and health care, and that their minimum housing and nutritional needs are met. In the conduct of its foreign policy, Cuba seeks cooperation with other nations, on the basis of mutual respect in the development of economic, cultural, and diplomatic relations. It regularly proclaims in various international fora, in a dignified and informed manner, the need for an international norm of cooperation and respect for sovereignty. In addition, Cuba has developed a system of popular democracy, an alternative to representative democracy, in which delegates of the people are nominated and elected by the people at the local level, without the participation of political parties and without the need for electoral campaigns and campaign financing. This alternative process of popular democracy ensures that the elected delegates of the people are not compelled to respond to the interests of their largest campaign contributors (see “Cuba, United States, and human rights” 4/9/2015 in the category Cuba Today).
U.S. foreign policy is imperialist, that is, it seeks economic and financial penetration of the economies of the nations of the world, so that it will have access to their natural resources, labor, and markets (see the category US Imperialism). In the pursuit of its imperialist objectives, the United States uses the strategy of political manipulation of the issue of human rights. The strategy involves selectively distorting the political reality in particular nations, presenting a false image of human rights violations, in order to justify sanctioning nations that refuse to submit to U.S. imperialist objectives. In the case of Cuba, the manipulation involves repeating the fact that there are not multi-party elections in Cuba, without noting that political parties do not participate in the elections of delegates, and ignoring the fact that multi-candidate elections are held every two and one-half years, with a voter participation rate in excess of 90%. On the basis of decades of distortions of the Cuban political process, Trump refers to “the corrupt and destabilizing regime in Cuba” that suppresses the freedom of the people. Armed with similar distortions, Trump mentions a “false guise of democracy” in Iran and an authoritarian regime being imposed in Venezuela. Such charges cannot be supported on the basis of observation of the actual political processes in these nations. They are ideological manipulations, constructed in order to justify policies that seek imperialist objectives.
During the period 1990 to 2007, the UN Commission on Human Rights stigmatized and castigated countries on the basis of false U.S. ideological manipulations. However, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, the revolutionary project of Third World national and social liberation began to experience renewal (see the category Third World). As a result, Third World governments insisted on a Commission that would not function to serve the political and economic interests of a superpower, but would be a true international forum for the analysis and recommendation of policies with respect to human rights in the world. Accordingly, in 2006, the United Nations abolished the Commission on Human Rights and established the Council on Human Rights. The UN General Assembly elected Cuba to the Council, in spite of opposition from the United States. The USA, with its international prestige at its lowest point since the founding of the United Nations, was not a candidate to serve on the Council.
Trump’s protest of the makeup of the UN Council on Human Rights does not refer to the claim of Third World governments that the United States ideologically manipulates the issue of human rights in pursuit of its imperialist interests. Nor did his commentary refer to the successful effort of Third World governments to establish a new Council on Human Rights, with a different mission and membership. As a whole, his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations demonstrated no awareness that, from the vantage point of the Third World and the socialist and progressive movements and governments of the world, the United States has a limited theory and practice of democracy.
The Left has the duty to formulate an alternative narrative that places the interpretation of the American nation on a scientific foundation. Such a formulation should include explanation of the differing understandings of democracy that have emerged in the world, with each understanding emerging from a determined social base of particular classes and nations. Perhaps many of the people of the United States, upon knowing the various conceptions of democracy, would insist on restricting the scope of human rights to political and civil issues. Some perhaps would feel that the government of the United States does not have a duty to protect the social and economic rights of the people, believing it an individual responsibility to secure them. Perhaps some would feel that each nation should protect its sovereignty with its own military and economic power, and that no government has a moral obligation to respect the sovereignty of other nations. Perhaps some would feel that a more limited concept of democracy is a fundamental American value.
Nevertheless, the Left should put these issues before the people for debate, giving its reasons for believing that the government of the United States should protect the social and economic rights of the people and the sovereignty of all nations, maintaining that a more comprehensive understanding of democracy is necessary for the good of the nation and for humanity. Moreover, the Left should explain that the deeper and expanded understanding of democracy has been an aspiration of many of the people of the United States since the birth of the nation, as can be demonstrated through study of the various social movements that the people have formed. Certainly, many of the people of the United States would support a proposal for a national project based on a deeper meaning of democracy, if it were to be presented to them in a clear and politically intelligent form.
If the Left could present a scientifically and historically informed narrative of the nation to the people, it would establish the possibility of reasoned discussion over the meaning of democracy, moving the nation beyond the present political scenario, in which the people are divided into two hostile camps that shout at each other, both armed with superficial arguments.