Madhav Nalapat

Western wrongs and human rights

By M.D. Nalapat (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-16 07:54
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It's a fact that Western countries today are far more technologically advanced than their Asian counterparts and their citizens live a "better life". But that does not mean human rights are better protected in the West. Instead, an honest examination would show human rights are far better protected in Asia, at least when it comes to the most vulnerable sections of society such as ethnic minorities and residents without citizenship.

Take healthcare. In the United States, the epitome of Western culture, it is difficult for a person without a health insurance or enough money to get medical treatment. Visitors to the US, especially from poorer countries, may be refused access to healthcare.

In many European Union (EU) countries, the standard of medical treatment the underprivileged of other countries get is far below their national standards. Are the human rights of visitors who fall ill in Europe and the US protected? Why is the fundamental right to health neglected by the very countries that claim to be the torch-bearers of universal human rights?

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Contrast this with Kuwait, for example. This small Asian country has an excellent healthcare system accessible not only to its citizens, but also to any visitor with a valid visa. And the cost for the best medical treatment is just 1 Kuwaiti dinar (or $3.50). Wouldn't a person visiting the US even with a valid visa be laughed at and thrown out of the door if he/she enters a hospital with $3.50 and seeks medical treatment.

Good medical care is not confined to Kuwait. The Arab spirit - in the best Asian tradition - ensures that every member country of the Gulf Cooperation Council provides excellent healthcare.

Hundreds of thousands of patients die each year because they cannot afford the medicines from American and European pharmaceutical companies because they have priced it out of the reach of most of the people to make huge profits. These companies fleece patients not only in other countries, but also in their own, saying the high costs are to fund research.

But the pharmaceutical cartel has enough power to get the EU to block low-cost Indian drugs from entering not only their home markets, but also those in Africa. US companies, on the other hand, use their judicial system to maintain their monopolies and continue crippling patients in America and Europe with their high costs.

If the authorities in these countries had the moral courage to resist the lures of the pharmaceutical giants, millions of their citizens would have benefited from low drug prices. But that in the Western paradigm is not a violation of human rights.

Then there are the super-rich US and EU speculators who cause immense damage to the global economy.

These unscrupulous traders have brought incalculable misery to hundreds of millions of people by driving up prices of oil, food, metals and other goods essential for the modern economy. Yet no one bothers to even talk about, let alone oppose, such rampant violation of human rights.

Some people in the developed countries even buy up (at very cheap prices) the debt of poor countries and then use their judiciaries or governments to force the poor nations to pay them huge amounts as damage or interests.

But how, in the first place, did the poor countries run up such huge debts? By taking loans from the rich world, most of which went into paying the salaries of the citizens of the lending countries.

Governments in rich countries pay billions of dollars in subsidy to their farmers, giving them an unfair advantage over their counterparts from developing countries. We know how "milk lakes" and "butter mountains" in developed countries are allowed to rot to preempt a drop in their prices while tens of millions of people starve in poor countries. We know about the $40-billion subsidy that EU fishermen get to drain our oceans of fish. And we know about the vast stretches of forests in Brazil, Russia and Indonesia being destroyed by companies headquartered in the very countries that champion human rights. But again these have nothing to do with human rights, because they fill the pockets of people in the rich countries.

And here is something that most in the world, including India, are unaware of. The US government and its partner companies are pressuring the Indian government to enact a (corporate) law that would limit the liability of a foreign supplier of nuclear equipment to $100 million even if their faulty plant design or criminal error kills tens of thousands of innocents. The central Indian city of Bhopal has suffered the world's worst industrial disaster that claimed or maimed tens of thousands of people. And the American company, Union Carbide, responsible for the tragedy has not paid proper compensation to the victims even after more than 25 years.

Those talking human rights see no contradiction in depriving millions of people from the developing nations of fair compensation. Instead, they often bully local governments into agreeing to terms that discriminate against their own people in the name of "free trade".

The world needs a comprehensive definition of "universal human rights", which should include the right to get cheap medicine and proper medical care, the right to equal market access for developing citizens, the right to be free of the disasters created by speculators and other unscrupulous traders, the right to protection of forests and control of fishing and the right to protecting our environment as a whole. The list can go on.

The author is professor of geopolitics at Manipal University, India.

(China Daily 03/16/2010 page9)