For the past several months, the U.S. military, along with allied U.N. forces, has been waging a war in Kosovo, attempting to stop the bloody ethnic conflict that the U.S. and British governments describe as “an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe.”
It seems, however, that such catastrophes come in many forms. Today in Pakistan close to 10,000 children under the age of 14 work up to 10 hours a day stitching together leather soccer balls. These children make an average of $1.20 a day. Even worse are the reports from various children’s advocacy groups that, in developing nations all over the world, child prostitution has become a multibillion-dollar industry; a market where a high value is placed on virginity. Child prostitutes, both boys and girls, are solicited by 10 million to 50 million men a week. In Southeast Asia, the region considered to be the center of the child sex industry, one-third of all child prostitutes is infected with HIV.
In contrast to the charges against Slobodan Milosevic, it is reasonable to concede that the leaders of these developing countries are not actively setting out to kill specific groups of citizens. However, it is not as if these governments do not realize what is going on in the world of child labor. In many cases, such detestable practices are encouraged, yet the U.S. government has claimed no “overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe.” Our government has placed no immediate threats on these countries, nor has it effectively encouraged any overwhelming change in policy.
If the defense of ethnic Albanians is important enough for the U.S. government to send in fighter planes and risk American bloodshed, then why has the horrifying exploitation (and eventual death) of millions of Third World children been virtually ignored? What is it that allows us to justify the violation of human rights when such violations aren’t as blatant as the more obvious practice of genocide?
The United States, as a major world power, should do what it can, within reason, to prevent and punish any and all violations of human rights. When practical, the United States has an obligation to intervene in whatever way proves to be most effective. Whether or not we are accomplishing this in Kosovo is debatable. However, how can we say that we are not contributing to the mass murder of an innocent population when we ignore the issue of child exploitation? These children have no choice. Their lives depend on these meager wages. Their countries present them with no other options but to sell their labor, or in the worst cases, to sell their bodies.
If it is an issue of economics and these countries simply cannot afford to provide feasible alternatives, such as better labor laws or adequate schools, why is it that the United States sees no dire need to send monetary aid, or at least economic advisors, to help the needy countries? It’s not as if we aren’t already spending millions of dollars to save the lives of equally innocent individuals in the Balkans. Why not send a bit of those funds to the countries where this money might actually make a more direct difference in the lives of human beings?
In some developing countries, minimum labor standards, and/or compulsory education laws do exist, yet they are often overlooked because such nations depend on cheap labor and child prostitution to attract foreign investors and “sex tourists.” In the “global marketization” of the developing world, in a system sometimes called “market authoritarianism,” the political and civil rights of individuals are often completely disregarded. People are treated as producers in a global market rather than as deserving citizens of a struggling nation.
I do realize that it is not the sole responsibility of the U.S. government to ensure the just treatment of every single person in the world. We, unfortunately do not have the resources to do that. However, if we can set standards for both child and adult workers within our own borders, why is it that we nevertheless allow products made in foreign sweatshops to enter our markets? American companies such as Nike, Reebok and Liz Claiborne ceremoniously attach their names to “labor reforms” that, in effect, still don’t require their overseas factories to pay workers enough to meet basic daily needs. Not only does our government tolerate such measures but also, implying that such matters can only be solved gradually, the current presidential administration supports these symbolic gestures, urging “more companies to join this effort.”
That’s certainly a far cry from sending ground troops into Kosovo.