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The age of human rights imperialism

But what do we make of this colossal human rights tragedy in America?

Many Americans rationalise this tragedy by arguing that this is because their criminal justice system is “broken”. Yet this is simply not true. The criminal justice system in America has been deliberately designed to function as an instrument of social and racial control rather than of crime prevention and control. The criminalisation of blackness and the violence that underpins it are a systemic attempt by the State to reverse the gains the civil rights movement made.

There hasn’t been a fundamental change in the basic structure of American society for the last 150 years. Instead, what has changed is the language used to justify the subjugation of black people in America. For example, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt as used to be the case during Jim Crow.

However, today the system uses the criminal justice system to label African Americans criminals. Once so labelled, then all the old forms of discrimination, exclusion and social contempt that characterised Jim Crow come into force.

Once labeled a felon, all the old forms of discrimination in employment, public housing, denial of voting rights, exclusion from jury service, etc. suddenly become legal. In short, a felon today is literally like a black man in Alabama and Mississippi in 1940. America has not ended racial discrimination. It has merely redesigned it.

This human tragedy has only been possible because the mass media and other channels of communication in America have stigmatised black people as criminals even in black minds. Few Americans feel sympathetic when they see scores of black male youths stopped, searched, assaulted and killed by the police and sent to jail. This is the stigmatisation that America seeks to do on African and other countries. Few governments employ the degree of repression at home as America does to its black citizens.

Stigmatisation of others is not innocent. It is used by the US to justify aggression and/or interventions in these countries while making itself look good. We have entered the era of humanitarian and human rights imperialism.

Colonialism, the old form of imperialism, justified itself in similar ways. The colonialist painted the native as primitive, uncivilised and poor. Tall tales of human sacrifice, cannibalism, disease, famine, misery, etc. were used to justify the takeover of territories for “protection”.

The imperial states never claimed their aim was dominate in order to exploit. They claimed to seek to end the tyranny of custom and the despotism of local chiefs in order to open colonies to Christianity (spiritual enlightenment), commerce (poverty eradication) and civilisation (modern administrative systems).

The results were a system of oppression, discrimination and exploitation. One hundred and fifty years later, stories justifying intervention have not changed. The civilising mission now is dressed in the language of human rights, humanitarians and free markets. But if America genuinely cares about the human rights of Rwandans, let it demonstrate it by first caring for the rights of African Americans at home.

This Article was published in the New Vision on Jun 04, 2015

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