Facts Too Terrible To Face

December 14, 1993|By JEANE KIRKPATRICK

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The collapse of Marxism as a competing intellectual framework greatly weakened the argument that human rights are ''relative'' and that ''Western'' rights are appropriate only for ''Western'' societies.

Asian and Arab dictatorships sought to revive the argument in the Bangkok Declaration presented at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights earlier this year. But they won few supporters beyond the signatories. Instead, the conference endorsed the universality of human rights and, at least tacitly, rejected the view that human rights are a ''Western, bourgeois'' prejudice.

Of course, it is one thing to think of these issues and of human-rights abuses in the abstract and quite another to confront the human consequences of inhuman practices carried out and/or tolerated by other governments.

Some abuses are so unbearable we cannot stand to face them. Some facts so terrible we would rather not know them!

An article on ''Outlawing Child Slavery'' by Robert A. Senser in the December issue of Freedom Review is filled with unwelcome facts about this particularly brutal but widespread practice.

Unwelcome Fact Number One: Researchers estimate that more than 200 million children -- 8 to 14 years old -- work as virtual slaves, 12- to 14-hour days, seven-day weeks, under subhuman conditions, for pennies or for nothing.

Mr. Senser tells us of hundreds of thousands of such children in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, China knotting carpets from early morning till late evening, held in bondage by employers who lure or trick them into leaving home, then beat them and rape them and make them slaves.

Unwelcome Fact Number Two: In many Third World countries the number of children held as virtual slaves is growing as their countries modernize and become more involved in world trade. Whole export industries depend on child bondage. More than 300,000 boys and girls work killing hours producing carpets in northern India alone.

I have myself seen girls no more than 8 years old working at a loom knotting carpets for hours on end, and boys of the same age working long hours with molten metal.

Unwelcome Fact Number Three: Governments and international officials have generally refused to condemn these practices and, instead, excused them as a more or less normal aspect of the modernization process. Mr. Senser quotes as typical a comment of David L. Lindauer of Wellesley College ''We know of no case where a nation developed a modern manufacturing sector without first going through a 'sweatshop' phase.''

But MIT political scientist Myron Weiner has charged that the caste system and the attitudes of Indian elites contribute more ,, than does economic necessity to maintaining child slavery in India, where it is estimated that 55 million children are held in servitude.

It is not at all acceptable to rationalize these abominable practices as ''normal'' in the Third World, or to dismiss them on grounds that they reflect a different conception of childhood, or that some people have less need than we for freedom.

Modernization does not require either child slavery or the high levels of unemployment that are typical of the countries where children are worked to death. To the contrary, modernization calls for ever larger numbers of literate, technically skilled workers. That requires mass education, which can only be acquired by keeping children in school and putting their parents to work at livable wages.

Those who use the market as an excuse for inhuman labor practices do not understand what was clear to Adam Smith in the 18th century: That adults make better workers than children, that free men make better workers than slaves, that men and women work better for a decent wage than for mere sustenance.

The good news is that opposition to truly inhuman practices is spreading.

The International Labor Organization has launched an international program to eliminate child labor. UNICEF has joined the ILO in condemning maltreatment of children. Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress linking a country's access to American markets with guarantees that it does not permit child slavery and near slavery. Publicity, boycotts and prohibitions could all have an effect.

In South Asia itself, a movement is developing to outlaw child slavery. An Indian -- a Brahman by birth, Kailash Satyarthi -- now chairs a coalition of more than 60 non-governmental groups trying to end the widespread practice of child slavery and near slavery. His message is simple: It is time to liberate the children.

Jeane Kirkpatrick is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.

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