Where People’s Health Depends on Human Rights: Observations from a Journey to the Middle East
Like the dunes on the desert, national borders, leaders, and ideologies shift with the winds of time. But the landscape of the desert remains -dazzling, thirsting, invincible -with its ephemeral yet perpetual outburst of life. Tuned to the rising and setting sun, things seem to be constantly changing, yet always the same . . .
Thirty-one years ago, as a vagrant youth on a bicycle, I crossed the vast highlands of Turkey and Iran on my way to India. One of my most vivid memories from this renegade journey to the East was a dawn on the desolate plateau of central Turkey. I was awakened from my bed of sand by the roar and clank of heavy machinery relentlessly approaching. Such an unholy racket seemed out of place in a world traversed mostly by caravans of camels plodding the dust on their splayed, soft treading toes. Springing to my feet, I saw a long line of military tanks—steel cannons jutting from their turrets like giant priapi aggressively grinding across the bleak landscape. These were American tanks, sent to the Turkish rulers as part of what was euphemistically dubbed ‘foreign aid’. After all, this underdeveloped, volatile country lies on the southern border of the Soviet Union, and the Cold War was then in full swing.
When the tanks and caissons had lumbered past, I noticed I had company. An emaciated horse, ribs protruding like harp-strings beneath its spine, had wandered up to my campsite and was staring at me with doleful, sunken eyes. It looked so starved that I opened a saddlebag on my bicycle and pulled out a hunk of stale bread, which I had kept for an emergency. The horse stretched out its gaunt neck and eagerly took the bread from my extended hand. But before it could eat it, a small boy—thin and bony as the horse—appeared from nowhere, snatched the bread from the horse’s lips, and darted away, gnawing on the morsel as he ran. I felt stupid for having given such a prize to a horse, in a desert where children so often die for lack of food.
Looking back at the line of tanks disappearing into the morning haze, I muttered to the riderless Rocinante: “So much for US foreign aid! . . . There must be a better way.”
Last November I revisited the Middle East. I had accepted an invitation to Egypt, to be a ‘guest speaker’ in a two-week regional workshop titled “Primary Health Care through Effective Participation.” The group paying my way asked if I would also be willing to visit some community-based health initiatives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I jumped at the chance.
The Middle East, the ‘Cradle of Civilization’, is said to be a land of contradictions and intricately blended extremes: beauty and desolation, emptiness and overcrowding, humanity and inhumanity, powerlessness and power, rifts and allegiances, compassion and violence. It is a melting pot of East and West where traditions, religions, and ideologies are jumbled together yet never quite meet.
In the Middle East, as in much of the world today, the health and well-being of the majority of the people are deteriorating because they are being systematically denied their basic rights, especially their right to self-determination. Many of the structures depriving people of these rights have been directly or indirectly imposed by the West. In particular, US foreign policy and the military industrial complex that largely conditions it have helped create the patterns of poor health, imbalanced development, and authoritarianism that currently plague the region.
Thus, it is essential that we US citizens become better informed. Too many of us, while we vigorously protest the violations of human rights in Central America and South Africa, overlook the negative impact our government’s policies have had on the Middle East. Most humanitarian activists in the West are well aware that the US government pours much more military and ‘humanitarian’ aid into propping up the brutally repressive power structure in El Salvadór than it gives to any other Latin American country.
We know of the links between Salvadoran death squads and the US military and CIA. But it is also important for us to realize the similarities between Washington’s ‘assistance’ to El Salvadór and to the Middle East.
The three countries that receive by far the most US foreign aid are, in descending order, Israel, Egypt, and El Salvadór. These three regimes have much in common in addition to their ‘open doors’ to US ideology and business. All have poor human rights records that include systematic torture and political prisoners. Although Egypt lacks the death squads and institutionalized terrorism of El Salvadór, both are authoritarian states where any kind of unauthorized community organizing or popular demand for change is considered subversive. Israel, for its part, practices tyrannical repression against the Palestinians. And in all of these countries, the US government not only turns a blind eye to violations of human rights and international law, but in some ways encourages them.
Clearly, not all the systemic violations of rights within these countries stem from US intrusion. Certain deep-seated injustices are endemic and have a long history. But in an awakening world where disadvantaged peoples are beginning to unite and struggle for their rights, the neocolonial iron fist of the US government within its velvet glove of ‘free enterprise’ has both engendered and perpetuated untold poverty, suffering, and poor health.
Apology and Explanation
It would be presumptuous of me, as a Westerner, to attempt a comprehensive or balanced report of events in the Middle East, especially after so brief a visit (three weeks). Yet precisely because I come from the West, and specifically from the US, I feel I must try to speak out in defense of those whose voices are seldom heard, however spotty and biased my reporting may be. Indeed, leaders among the dispossessed in the Arab world begged me to speak out.
I will try to present health and social indicators as accurately as I can; however, data from different sources is often contradictory. This is not surprising, as statistics that have political implications are always suspect. In any case, it should be not so much the individual data as the overall pattern of events that guides our response.
Much of what I will relate is based on statements, perspectives, and insights gleaned from people I talked with—some of whom are activists with biases as strong as my own. So please read this report for what it is: a subjective collage of impressions viewed most often from the standpoint of the underdogs those victimized by present local, national, and global power structures.