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Bush's Empty Words to the U.N.

By Robert Parry
September 20, 2006

One of the most striking features of George W. Bush’s presidency has been his proclivity to use soaring, idealistic rhetoric that is totally at odds with reality, a tendency that was on display again in his address to the United Nations General Assembly.

Bush framed his Sept. 19 speech in the context of the U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “The words of the Universal Declaration are as true today as they were when they were written,” Bush declared.

But it’s hard to believe that Bush had the faintest idea what principles he was embracing – or perhaps he has grown so self-confident in never being challenged on his hypocrisies that he believes he can say anything he wants, no matter how false or deceptive.

Among the 30 rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are these:

--“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

--“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

--“Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.”

--“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”

--“Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.”

-- “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.”

--“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

--“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

--“Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.”

Though Bush is arguably in violation of many if not all the above-cited human rights tenets, he unblushingly cites the Universal Declaration as the foundation for his international policies, from the invasion of Iraq to his handling of the “war on terror.”

Even as Bush criticizes the U.S. Supreme Court for stopping his planned kangaroo courts for terror suspects and as he battles members of Congress over his desire for harsh interrogation of detainees, he invokes principles that bar exactly what he seeks to do.

How does subjecting detainees to simulated drowning by “waterboarding” not violate the prohibition on torture? How does stripping suspects naked and soaking them with cold water in frigid rooms not go against the ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment?”

How does imprisoning an estimated 14,000 people without trial or even charges – and arranging “extraordinary renditions” of others to countries that torture – fit with the U.N. principle barring “arbitrary arrest, detention or exile?”

What about the U.N. mandate that a suspect must get a public trial before an independent tribunal and receive “all the guarantees necessary for his defense?” Instead, Bush wants U.S.-run military tribunals to convict and even execute defendants based on secret evidence that can be withheld from both the public and the defendants.

Bush also insists that his “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as Commander in Chief allow him to tap telephones and spy on Americans and non-Americans without obtaining any form of court warrant. Yet, the Universal Declaration objects to “arbitrary interference with [a person’s] privacy, family, home or correspondence.”

Bush’s hostility toward dissent – even declaring some thinking “unacceptable,” as he did at a press conference on Sept. 15 – and the eagerness of his supporters to smear anyone who opposes the President also don’t match with the principle that human rights include the “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information.”

So, why would Bush invoke the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when he is flouting many of its core principles?

There would seem to be two possible explanations for Bush’s chutzpah: either he’s just reading a script without regard to the words or he’s confident that he can speak the opposite of the truth knowing that few people of consequence will call him on it.

Either way, Bush’s cavalier attitude in hailing human rights while simultaneously trashing human rights represents another classic case of Bush’s hubris, which is becoming the defining characteristic of his presidency.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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