Current Comment

Double Standards

Zimbabwe is a failed state. Its strongman, Robert Mugagbe, has ruled since 1980; and his Big Man style of governance has turned a country that was once the breadbasket of southern Africa into a hungry wasteland. He drove off white settler-farmers, allegedly to redistribute the land to local peasants, but instead used the farms to reward his political lackeys. He has repressed his political opposition, banned foreign journalists and, in perhaps his most audacious crime, demolished the slum dwellings of a half-million people who had dared to vote for the opposition. Zimbabwe is one of the leading human rights offenders along with Sudan, Burma and Iran, against whom the newly established United Nations Human Rights Council has failed to take action, blocked by an alliance of African and Muslim nations. Indeed, the only country the council has cited for offensesnot once but four timesis Israel, for its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. It is a pitiful performance from what was to have been a reformed U.N. body.

No doubt the skewed decision-making reflects the difficulty inherent in U.S. attempts to lead the world struggle for human rights while maintaining a double standard, especially in the war on terror. Our own human rights record, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has admitted, is imperfect. Concerted diplomatic efforts by the United States and others may bring action by the council on urgent problems like Zimbabwe, but long-term progress will depend on proven consistency in the United States’ own human rights policy and that of its friends.

Novartis Versus India

Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, is suing the Indian government for refusing to grant patent protection for its anticancer drug, Glivec. According to health advocates for low-income people in developing countries, a ruling in Novartis’s favor could lead to denial of affordable access to Glivec not only in India, but also in countries in the developing world that obtain their supplies of this and other medications from India. Almost half a million people have signed a petition against Novartis’s legal action, saying that the case should be dropped. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has joined in the protest.

A recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine notes that Novartis currently sells Glivec in India, where only 5 percent of the people have health insurance, for $26,000 for a year’s supply. That country’s generic drug manufacturers offer it at less than 10 percent of that price. Over the past few years, India has developed a large manufacturing sector devoted to generic drugs, with firms like Ranbaxy, Cipla and Dr. Reddy’s as well as smaller ones. Indian generic drug companies, for instance, supply over 80 percent of the drugs that Doctors Without Borders dispenses to patients in over 30 countries.


Oxfam has been joined by other international agencies like Doctors Without Borders and the U.S.-based Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility in expressing opposition to Novartis’s court action. Summing up its own criticisms, Oxfam asserts that what Novartis is doing threatens access to affordable medicine for millions of poor people in developing nations. This is an unconscionable threat to those whose only hope for access to life-saving drugs lies in generic brands like those currently produced by companies in India.

Serbia Beats the Rap

The International Court of Justice at the Hague, popularly known as the World Court, delivered an ambiguous decision last month on Serbia’s complicity in genocide during the 1992-95 Bosnian War. In a 13-to-2 decision, the court ruled that though Bosnian Serb troops had committed genocide, there was insufficient evidence to hold Serbia liable for that policy. At the same time, a unanimous court declared that by failing to hand over notorious war criminals like Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, Serbia was in violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention. That treaty requires the arrest and punishment of perpetrators. In an astonishing judgment, however, the court declared that the only crime deserving of the charge of genocide was the execution of 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srbrenica in 1995, the culminating act in a three-year campaign of ethnic cleansing. Bosnian Muslims and the world community were cheated of a related judgment by the rambling trial and early death of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. Now the court’s muddled decision has clouded the future of genocide prosecutions. On the one hand, a state’s obligation to punish individuals directly responsible for the crime of genocide and to cooperate with the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal in their arrest and prosecution is made clear. On the other, prosecution of states for sponsoring genocide when they are one step removed from the crimes, as the court seems to suggest Serbia was in the case of Bosnia, seems now to be have been made more difficult.
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

In 1983, Sri Lanka descended into a bitter and prolonged ethnic conflict. Harry Miller, S.J., then almost 60, was thrust into a new role as witness, advocate, intermediary and protector not only for his students but for anyone in Batticaloa who sought his help.
Jeannine GuthrieJanuary 17, 2019
I have found that praying 15 minutes every day is an important form of self-care.
Michael R. Lovell January 16, 2019
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, Washington's retired archbishop, apologized Jan. 15 for what he called a "lapse of memory," clarifying that he knew of at least one abuse allegation against former U.S. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, but he had "forgotten" about it.
Pope Francis meets with the leadership of the Chilean bishops' conference at the Vatican on Jan. 14 to talk about the sex abuse crisis affecting the church in Chile. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
The pope wants the February summit “to be an assembly of pastors, not an academic conference—a meeting characterized by prayer and discernment, a catechetical and working gathering.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 16, 2019