The international community’s response to the recent massacre of more than 100 people allegedly perpetrated by pro-government militias in Syria has successfully kept the human rights spotlight on the actions of a “rogue” nation rather than on those of the world’s leading human rights violator: the United States. Even more disconcerting is the fact that the United States is using the volatile situation in Syria to once again position itself as a staunch promoter of democracy and defender of human rights. Lost in the dominant international discourse is the human rights reality in the world’s most powerful nation where more than 40,000 people die annually from structural violence related to unequal access to healthcare and where almost one in four children live in poverty. What is also ignored is the plight of more than 10 million people who die annually from the structural violence inherent in global capitalism, of which the United States is the leading proponent.
While the deaths and corresponding human rights violations occurring in Syria are tragic, it is important to put them in perspective. It is estimated that some 10,000 Syrians have died over the past year as the result of the violence. Clearly, there is a dire need for some sort of resolution in order to prevent a much greater loss of life. But what is it that makes saving the lives of Syrians appear so much more important than saving the lives of the 15,000 Mexicans dying annually in that country’s drug war violence; or the 15,000 farmers in India who commit suicide each year; or the lives of the three million children under the age of five who die annually in Sub-Saharan Africa from preventable and treatable diseases; or the more than one million who needlessly die from AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa each year due to a lack of access to essential medicines?
Furthermore, while the human rights spotlight is focused brightly on the actions of the Syrian regime and its allied militias, some 45,000 Americans die annually due to a lack of access to medical care and 23 percent of the children in the world’s richest nation live in poverty. These human rights catastrophes barely register a blip on the international human rights radar. Meanwhile, the United States manages to portray itself at home and abroad as a staunch defender of human rights when it is in fact the world’s leading violator of human rights through domestic and foreign policies that constitute structural violence perpetrated against the most vulnerable people on the planet.
Johan Galtung argues that violence is “the avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs or, to put it in more general terms, the impairment of human life, which lowers the actual degree to which someone is able to meet their needs below that which would otherwise be possible.” Thus, he expands the definition of violence beyond acts of direct physical violence to also include human suffering caused by social structures that disproportionately benefit some people while diminishing the ability of others to meet their fundamental needs. According to Galtung, social injustice lies at the heart of structural violence because it manifests itself in inequality—in the distribution of both wealth and power.
Galtung explains that “if a person died of tuberculosis in the eighteenth century it would be hard to conceive of this as violence since it might have been quite unavoidable, but if he dies from it today, despite all the medical resources in the world, then violence is present according to our definition.” In other words, in contemporary times, deaths from tuberculosis are not a consequence of insufficient medical knowledge, but rather they result from a lack of access to that medical knowledge due to social structures (i.e. government policy). Therefore, as anthropologist Paul Farmer explains, “Structural violence is visited upon all those whose social status denies them access to the fruits of scientific and social progress.”
The “social status” of the aforementioned millions in Mexico, India and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as many others, result in their death from structural violence caused by the structures of global capitalism promoted and defended by the United States. But it is not only the poor in the global South who are the victims of the structural violence spearheaded by the United States, it is also tens of thousands of Americans who suffer annually.
A 2009 study published by researchers from Harvard Medical School revealed that some 45,000 people die annually in the United States due to a lack of medical coverage. The study went on to state that people without health coverage had a 40 percent greater chance of dying than those with medical insurance. These needless deaths are a graphic example of structural violence because they occur in the richest nation in the world—a nation in which the government spends $700 billion annually on its military.
These deaths do not result from a shortage of medical care in the United States, but rather from a failure to distribute that care in an equitable manner. Consequently, as Galtung noted, such inequality constitutes structural violence because it is a direct consequence of conscious and ideologically-motivated government policies. After all, not only do many other wealthy nations provide varying degrees of universal health care coverage to their entire populations in order to avoid perpetrating structural violence of such magnitude, but so do some poorer nations in the global South such as Cuba and Venezuela.
The inequalities prevalent in the United States manifest themselves in other forms of structural violence. As Galtung explained, structural violence is the avoidable impairment of human life by depriving certain people of their fundamental needs. Perhaps there is no starker example of this violence than the fact that 23 percent of children in the world’s richest nation live in poverty, according to a new report published by UNICEF.
The report ranks the 35 most economically advanced nations in the world with regard to child poverty and the United States places 34th on the list, ahead of only Romania and behind Bulgaria, Greece, Latvia and Estonia among many others. At the top of the list is Iceland, where less than five percent of children live in poverty. The report notes a correlation between government policies and spending on the well-being of children and the poverty level, thereby suggesting that government policy impacts child poverty.
The level of structural violence perpetrated by the United States against its own population and against poor people throughout the world dwarfs the degree of violence in Syria and other so-called rogue nations that are repeatedly the focus of international headlines and UN actions. Therefore, if the international community and the global media are truly concerned with human rights, there is no nation on the planet that is more deserving of international condemnation and humanitarian intervention than the United States.