Disarmament and human rights: Gorbachev at the United Nations

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A new path for socialism? Revolutionary renewal in the Soviet Union and Cuba  from
FRFI 83, January 1989

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Socialists will welcome Mikhail Gorbachev's initiative at the United Nations on 7 December 1988. The decision by the Soviet Union to make substantial unilateral cuts in Soviet troops, tanks, artillery and combat aircraft throws down a challenge to the imperialists. Are they prepared, even able, to take the path of disarmament and peace?

The imperialists were totally unprepared for this initiative. An initial lukewarm response was immediately replaced by cold war rhetoric. NATO officials made it clear that in their view the cuts only reduce the overwhelming military advantage of the Soviet Union. More cuts would be needed before NATO could reciprocate in kind. Thatcher welcomed the cuts only because they were an important step towards securing a better balance in Europe in view of Moscow's 'present overwhelming superiority'. Aware of the positive effect Mikhail Gorbachev's speech was having on the public, officials in London were concerned with the increased importance of drawing the public's attention to the 'Soviet side's continuing superiority in conventional forces'. The British media obliged with carefully-doctored NATO statistics. A few days later, the Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, reaffirmed Britain's view that the west should proceed with the modernisation of tactical nuclear weapons in spite of the Soviet Union's planned cuts in conventional forces.

Socialism has no need of arms spending other than in a defensive capacity. Military spending constitutes a massive drain on resources which could be used to develop a country economically and raise the standard of living of all its people. The Soviet Union, in particular, needs to drastically cut back defence expenditure, at present 13-17 per cent of national income, to ensure that the resources are available to make perestroika a success. The unilateral decision to cut back Soviet troops by 500,000, to remove 10,000 tanks, 8,500 artillery systems and 800 combat aircraft from Europe demonstrates the defensive nature of Soviet military forces.

Military spending is a fundamental and necessary characteristic of imperialism which uses its armed forces in an offensive capacity to defend its interests all over the world. During the first six years of the Reagan Presidency imperialism's global counter-revolutionary offensive the US spent three times as much on the armed forces as in the previous six years. Between 1982 and 1986 it spent $1.64 trillion (1 trillion = 1,000 billion); an amount greater than the combined military expenditure of all NATO countries throughout the 1970s. The 1987 CIA allocation was a record $800 million and funds for Special Forces, 'low intensity war' experts, had tripled since 1982 to $1.2 billion in 1987. The so-called superiority of the Warsaw Pact over NATO forces is a myth. NATO's military expenditure in 1987 amounted to $445bn, with $292bn being spent by the US.

The Warsaw Pact spent $334bn. NATO has a military man-power of 5.5m, the Warsaw Pact 5m. NATO has 12,683 strategic nuclear weapons, the Warsaw Pact 10,470. NATO has 12,900 combat aircraft to the Warsaw Pact's 11,400. While the Warsaw Pact has superior numbers of tanks, 68,700 to 31,000, nearly half of them are obsolete. The same is true for many other categories of Soviet equipment. More importantly in specific areas NATO's advantage is simply enormous.

In line with the defensive character of its military spending the Soviet Union has not developed the means to move military power over long distances rapidly. It has just four aircraft carriers to the US's 14 massive super-carriers and the other NATO countries' seven smaller carriers. The Soviet Union has 20,000 troops in its marine corps with two large amphibious ships to the US's 190,000 troops with 37 larger amphibious assault ships and helicopter carriers (information is taken from New Statesman and Society 16 December 1988). Finally NATO's figures exclude Japan whose overall military budget this year was $29bn, the third largest in the world after the US and the Soviet Union. All over the world imperialism is prepared to support murderous regimes and dictatorships prepared to uphold imperialism's economic and strategic interests. It finances gangs of counter-revolutionary murderers which serve as instruments of imperialism's foreign policy with the aim of destroying socialist or progressive regimes Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan, Kampuchea and Vietnam. At the same time it accuses the socialist countries of abusing democratic rights. Gorbachev threw down a series of challenges to the imperialists on these issues.

On human rights in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev stated that Soviet democracy will be placed on a solid basis in particular in relation to freedom of conscience, glasnost, etc. He stated that in the Soviet Union there were no longer per-sons in places of confinement convicted for their political or religious beliefs. The problem of emigration and immigration will be dealt with in a humane way. Gorbachev has said the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice at the Hague on the interpretation and implementation of agreements on human rights should be binding on all states. Can the imperialists follow that lead?

Imperialism has an appalling record on human rights. Britain holds the European record for guilty verdicts at the European Court of Human Rights. No other state sends so many files to the European Court and no other country loses so many cases. Black and Irish people cannot expect justice before British courts. The Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Winchester Three and the Broadwater Three have all been framed and sent to prison for life with no real means open to them of achieving justice. Britain has a thoroughly racist immigration policy which violates fundamental human rights. Thatcher, coldly calculating, condemns Viraj Mendis to death in Sri Lanka. As the Soviet Union becomes more open and more democratic, so Thatcher clamps down, whether by banning the media from reporting the views of Sinn Fein in Ireland or planning to remove the right to silence in British courts. Thatcher's refusal to attend a human rights conference in Moscow in 1991 until human rights are acceptable to her in the Soviet Union is typical of imperialist hypocrisy. She has no problem about visiting the USA where more than two million are homeless and racial discrimination is rife, where the government finances terror throughout Central America. She has no problem maintaining relations with South Africa where Mandela is still imprisoned despite Botha's promise to release him when the Soviet Union released Sharansky and Sakharov and the Angolans released du Toit.

Our task here must be to welcome Mikhail Gorbachev's speech and use it to build a movement which can force Britain to take the path of disarmament and re-establish the basic rights lost under ten years of Thatcher governments.