Austerity & War – Destroying Human Rights


December 5, 2012

Holiday crowds swarmed the streets of downtown Seattle. Christmas lights and music filled the night with a festive spirit. My daughter Jessica, five-year old grandson Grant, and our friend Mark left the hustle and bustle of elegant shops and made our way down Marion St., headed for the ferry terminal. As we crossed the pedestrian bridge that arches above the Alaskan Way, we came upon the cluster of homeless people who hang out in the shadows of the ferry terminal. Among the familiar signs perched near them, I spotted a new one: “Iraq Vet. – Austerity and war destroy human rights.”

It was so reminiscent of an article I had recently read by my friend Laura Flanders entitled “Austerity: A Violation of Human Rights?” that I figured the bearded veteran hunkered down behind the sign must have seen that same article. (

The issues around government, economics, and war raise serious questions. All of us, especially we who are citizens of the United States and the European and Asian countries that today control the global economy – one that is obviously failing – must ask ourselves: What impact do the austerity policies proposed by politicians have on human rights? How about war?

Flander’s article points out that President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 defined the “Four Freedoms” essential to good democracy and human rights as: the freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. These concepts were incorporated into the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Riding the ferry across Puget Sound and watching Grant snuggle into his mother’s lap as she read a Christmas story to him, I kept thinking about that Iraqi Veteran. It seemed to me that his government, the one he fought for, has taken the last two of FDR’s freedoms away from him.

“Freedom from want” was the keystone of FDR’s New Deal and has been considered a necessary element to good governance ever since. Yet in 2010, 46.9 million people in the U.S. were classified as living in poverty– the fourth consecutive annual increase and the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty rates have been published (the 2011 and 2012 numbers will probably be even higher, although not yet published). Globally, about 1 billion people are officially classified as hungry; however, governments tend to underestimate these figures: in reality roughly half the world is malnourished, approaching starvation, or actually starving.

“Freedom of fear” has new implications in a country so obsessed with fighting terrorism that its officials pass laws which strike fear into anyone in a position to seriously criticize government policies and the authorities who enforce them. These laws include warrantless searches, secret intelligence (and military) courts, extraordinary renditions, and the denial of habeas corpus, a guarantee that no one shall be detained without sufficient evidence and that anyone arrested will have a speedy trial. Regardless of your opinions about Guantanamo, police brutality against the Occupy Movement and unions, and Bradley Manning, you have to wonder . . .

Those who would keep us in a state of war mentality understand that the threat of war is their avenue to increased riches (since they are the military-industrial complex) and the simplest way to perpetuate fear and the draconian laws that walk hand in hand with it. The war economy also assures huge budget deficits – which in turn offer an excuse for cutting back on social services for the poor and middle classes. The U.S. military budget is more than 50% of the world total; yet among the 34 OEDC countries the U.S. ranks last in spending on social services. Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century historian and author of Democracy in America, wrote: “All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and shortest means to accomplish it.”

As the debates rage in Washington and throughout Europe over trade-offs between raising taxes on the rich and cutting social services for everyone else, as we muddle through the militaristic flag-waving that brings us closer to war in the Middle East and create a mushroom cloud of national debt, and as we continue to grant oil and other mega-companies huge concessions to ravage lands and cultures around the planet, we might be well advised to heed the message of a man who went to Iraq and now sits in the cold shadows of the Seattle ferry terminal: “Austerity and war destroy human rights.”

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About John Perkins

John is a founder and board member of Dream Change & The Pachamama Alliance, non-profit organizations devoted to establishing a world future generations will want to inherit & the author of the NY Times bestseller, Confessions Of An Economic Hitman.

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