In Our Own Best Interests: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All

In Our Own Best Interests: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All

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Sierra Leone, Kosovo, East Timor, the Bronx. The nightly news brings vivid images into our homes of the mistreatment of people all over the world. In the secure comfort of our living rooms, we may feel sympathetic to the victims of these atrocities but far removed from them. "What does all this have to do with a person in east Tennessee?" is the question, from a radio program host, that prompted William Schulz to write this book.

Schulz provides answers with an insightful work, generously laced with compelling stories of women and men from all continents, which clearly delineates the connection between our prosperity here in the United States and human rights violations throughout the globe. The book reveals the high cost of indifference not only in ethical and moral terms, but in terms of the political, economic, environmental and public health consequences in our own backyards.

Consider, for example, the high cost to U.S. military personnel and their families of radical political instability in the Balkans-costs that might well have been avoided if the United States and the international community had conscientiously defended human rights. Or the devastating economic impact on U.S. businesses of systemic corruption in Asia. Or the serious environmental hazards of nuclear fuel leaks in Russia, the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis, and the expensive dangers of inhumane prison conditions in the United States, to name just a few examples. At the heart of each of these problems lies the abuse of basic human rights.

Through the stories of Natasa Kandic and Alexander Nikitin, of Samia Sarwar and Han Dongfang, of Jaime Garzon and Sister Dianna Ortiz, Schulz introduces us to the front line of the international battle for rights and builds a powerful case for defending our own interests by vigorously defending the human rights of people everywhere.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807002278
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication date: 05/28/2002
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,119,228
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Dr. William F. Schulz is the executive director of Amnesty International, USA. and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. He travels throughout the country and the world to advocate for universal human rights, and to investigate and detail human rights abuses.

Mary Robinson is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Read an Excerpt

In Our Own Best Interests

How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All
By William F. Schulz

Beacon Press

Copyright © 2002 William F. Schulz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0807002275


More than fifty years ago a group of men and women from diverse cultures, traditions, and faiths came together in Paris to offer humanity an extraordinary vision of how the world could be. In 1948 they adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which half a century later continues to address directly what is necessary for a life of dignity for every human being.

The Universal Declaration is not just another international document. It is the primary proclamation of the international community's commitment to human rights as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations." Its message is one of hope, equality, liberation, and empowerment. It is a message to all who are committed to freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

This message must be heard again and again in our time. The devastating experiences of millions of victims of human rights violations continue to demonstrate how far the world still is from realizing the ideals which guided the General Assembly in 1948. Still today intimidation and even the brutal murder of human rights activists in many countries have taken place. These are painful reminders of the unrelenting challenges we face at the threshold of a new century.

One of the great privileges of my work as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has been the opportunity to meet and observe at close hand some of the most admirable heroes and heroines our world contains, human rights champions whose lives are sometimes at risk but whose spirits never flag, whose futures are often uncertain but whose sense of hope remains firm and true. A few such people become known to the general public; the vast majority of them toil without international recognition. But what they all have in common is a willingness to work for human rights values, even at the expense of their own comfort. For forty years Amnesty International and many other human rights organizations have offered such defenders their protection, assistance, and acclaim.

If human rights are to become truly embedded in the way the world conducts its business, however, the work of these individual human rights advocates must be supplemented by a legal regimen that makes explicit the universal obligations human rights entail; by international institutions designed to monitor and enforce that regimen; and by individual governments which make human rights a priority in their own policy making.

How seriously the United States government takes human rights will depend at least in part on how seriously they are taken by American citizens. The place of the United States in the history of human rights is well known. I think of the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution, which has proved to be a model for many other nations, and I think of the key part played by Eleanor Roosevelt in the drawing up of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today the question is whether the United States will build on that history of support or instead adopt a posture of what William F. Schulz calls in this book, as others too have labeled it, American "exceptionalism" the notion that the same rules that apply to other countries need not apply to the United States (or, as Schulz quotes one professor as putting it, "International institutions are not good in themselves but good only insofar as they contribute to furthering the well-being of the American nation"). The world needs desperately for the United States to opt for the former choice, and once again the American people will play a significant part in determining whether it does.

To convince Americans that the evenhanded enforcement of human rights norms is not only consistent with the highest American values but good for the United States, to say nothing of the rest of the world, is a formidable task but an essential one. That is the task this book undertakes. Whether it is successful will help determine whether we live in a humane world or a brutal one, a just world or a world in which parents may not want to raise children.

Seamus Heaney ends his poem "From the Republic of Conscience" with a telling reminder to all human rights defenders: "and no ambassador would ever be relieved." A culture of human rights is growing throughout the world. Governments have taken many important steps to place human rights at the top of international and national agendas. Civil society--countless organizations working in their own countries and internationally to advance the cause of dignity and freedom, especially for those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and in need of our support--is expanding its vital contribution. And the United Nations family has made important progress in integrating human rights throughout the work of the entire system, thus enhancing our ability to assist all partners in our common goals of peace, development, and democracy.

All human rights for all--this should be our common call to action. I am convinced that by combining our action and determination, by building partnerships between governments and civil society, international organizations, and the media, religious, and academic communities, we will succeed in realizing the vision of the future which the Universal Declaration first called for half a century ago.


It was only her mother. Surely it would be safe to see her mother. If it had been her father or her brother--no way. But her mother was coming and would bring the papers, and she would sign the papers and it would all be over. Well, not all over. This was Pakistan and for women it was never all over in Pakistan, but it would be better. After all, Hina would be there, and if her mother tried to scold or intimidate her, Hina would step in; Hina would take care of her.

Such were Samia Sarwar's thoughts as she waited for her mother to arrive at the lawyer's office. At least those were the thoughts Hina would later speculate had filled Samia's twenty-six-year-old head as she waited for her ordeal to end. Married at sixteen to her first cousin, Samia had borne a son shortly afterward but from the beginning she had found her husband vulgar, dirty, alcoholic, and violent. She had tried to leave him many times, and each time her parents had refused to take her back. For women in Pakistan, even those from relatively wealthy families like Samia's (her father was a prominent businessman, her mother a doctor), if the young woman's family will not take her back, there are very few other places to go. When Samia was pregnant with her second child, though, her husband had kicked her down the stairs and her parents finally relented. They took her back. That was five years ago.

In those five years Samia's life had improved. True, she and her parents still fought and she still had no real life of her own, but she had met another man. Finally she had a bit of hope for her son's future and for hers. She would get a divorce from her husband and become this new man's wife--a better man, a gentle one, no alcoholic. But when Samia raised the subject of divorce, her parents became enraged. Separation, yes, but divorce? No, it would be a disgrace. Remember, her husband was Samia's first cousin, part of the family. She could live apart from him, could live with them, but she could never divorce, and she certainly could never be with another man. It was unthinkable.

So Samia ran away. Far from where her parents lived in Peshawar, she ran to the city of Lahore. She fled to the women's shelter there about which she had heard so much. Everybody had heard so much: the women's shelter and the famous woman lawyer, the most famous woman lawyer in Pakistan perhaps and certainly the most controversial, the woman lawyer who had stood up for women throughout Pakistan and who would now stand up for Samia. She would take care of Samia, would tell her what to do. Samia Sarwar ran away and she ran to Hina Jilani.

Hina Jilani is a confident, serious person, almost stern. Wrapped in her sari, its colors muted, her hair pulled back, she conveys firmness, determination, even before she speaks. Her presence invokes gravitas, a gravitas that has its roots steeped deep in personal history. "My father" Hina has said, "was a politician, but he was the kind of politician who stays in prison most of his life." Not for corruption--Malik Ghulam Jilani was anything but corrupt--but for being a rebel, for challenging Pakistan's military government when it took over in 1959. "My father," Hina recalls, "was elected to Parliament in opposition to the government, but he was more a human rights activist than a politician--he could never maintain party discipline--and so he was constantly criticizing everybody but especially the government, and they were constantly putting him in prison for it." Prison was not the worst of it. In 1965, the president of Pakistan, General Mohammad Ayub Khan, arranged for Malik to be assassinated. Hina was home the day that a journalist came to interview her father. "Poor fellow," Hina said years later. "They mistook him for my father and, just as he rang the doorbell, they mowed him down. I was very young and it was my first exposure to violence."

It was not easy growing up with a father frequently under lock and key and often under threat, but the experience proved valuable. For one thing it instilled in Hina a vibrant social conscience and immense sympathy for those who suffer. For another it made her unafraid ... of prison and the state. Best of all, it introduced her to the law. From age fourteen, Hina and her sister, Asma, filed petitions before the courts on behalf of their father, arguing for his release. It never occurred to Hina then that she herself would one day be a lawyer, much less a famous one. But later, after college, after she had given up linguistics and the wish to teach it, after the law had taken hold of her, she realized that the seed of her newfound passion had been planted long before in those visits to the prisons and the courts on behalf of her beloved and immensely stubborn father.

When Hina Jilani finished law school at Punjab University in Lahore, however, she was faced with the fact that opportunities for female lawyers in Pakistan were acutely limited. But Hina was not one to be discouraged. Giving up her criminal practice at an established firm, she and Asma (who had also gone into law) and two other female attorneys formed the country's first all-female law firm. Not surprisingly, many of those who came to the firm for help were also women--women, for instance, who, having been raped by men, were charged with having sexual relationships outside of marriage. The maximum punishment for this crime was death by stoning. Pakistan then was a society in which the degradation of women was not just a matter of social practice; it was written into law. Under the laws of evidence, for example, a financial document could be attested to either by two men or one man and two women.

So Hina and her colleagues set out to change the laws and to better the condition of Pakistani women. She vehemently argued cases before the courts and, somewhat to her surprise, the courts occasionally listened. But gradually Hina came to realize that, although she might win sporadic victories in court, the real battle was in society at large, in the dictates of religious extremism, and in the prevailing attitudes toward women in the family. She realized too that the struggle for women's rights was part of the larger struggle for democracy that had so preoccupied her father. With that recognition Hina and her colleagues formed the Women's Action Forum, and in 1983 thousands of Pakistani women took to the streets to demonstrate for both personal and political freedom. They were met with beatings, house arrest, and imprisonment. Twice Hina was confined to jail, and on a regular basis she was subjected to government surveillance. But the inspiration of her father never failed her. "You have to keep knocking," he had said, "or your opponents will go to sleep." Hina kept on knocking, both as a leader of growing numbers of women who were now demanding equal justice and as a lawyer arguing in court for women's rights.

Gradually the situation for women in Pakistan changed. The assumption that the laws of the state had to be grounded in Islamic teaching came under fire. After all, there were seventy-two different sects of Islam in Pakistan. Whose interpretation of Islamic law was the right one? In 1989, Hina won a landmark case in which women gained equal admission to medical college--a privilege previously allocated largely to men. But what changed little, if at all, were the social attitudes toward women among many Pakistani families. So-called honor killings, in which women were executed by their relatives for allegedly violating sexual mores or defying the authority of their fathers or husbands, were all too common. So common in fact that in 1999, Hina and her allies established a women's shelter in Lahore. In less than a year fourteen hundred women came to the shelter for protection from their families. One of those women was Samia Sarwar.

"I've left my house," she told Hina, "and they will never forgive me. They will kill me." So Hina put Samia in the shelter and agreed to take her case, to help her file for divorce. "I was surprised that a timid woman like Samia had resolved to take on the enmity of her family," Hina observed. "She seemed well educated, but I had the impression that she lacked confidence."

Two or three days later Samia's parents arrived in Lahore and asked to see her, but every time Samia was told that her parents were nearby, she would turn pale, start to tremble, and insist that she would never consent to meet them. "They will kill me" she said, "the minute they see me" The standoff continued for several days, the parents pleading, Samia refusing, until finally her parents sent word that they had reconsidered, that they would agree to the divorce and that her mother would bring the papers.

Samia Sarwar sat in Hina's office on April 6, 1999, waiting for her mother, for the papers, for her freedom. "It will be all right" Hina thought as she waited with Samia. "It is just the mother and, after all, the mother is a doctor." But when Samia's mother arrived and walked into the office, she was not alone. "Who is that man?" Hina demanded of Samia's mother, who clutched a stranger's arm. "He is my helper; I cannot walk" she offered. In the next instant the stranger unloaded a pistol into Samia's head.

"What I can never overcome," Hina said later, after one of the bullets had whizzed past her own head; after Samia's mother had calmly turned around and walked out of the office; after Hina's law colleague had been taken hostage; after the assassin himself had been killed by a guard in the office; after Samia's mother and family members had all made their escape; after her father, informed that "the job was done," had seemed content; after the police had been bribed to look the other way; after the Pakistani Parliament had defeated a resolution condemning the killing, one legislator saying, "What sort of human rights are being claimed by these girls in jeans?"; after several religious organizations had issued fatwas against Hina, promising to pay rewards to anyone who killed her; after Samia's family, absurdly, had filed a lawsuit against Hina for allegedly abducting and murdering their daughter; after Hina had herself been appointed United Nations Representative for Human Rights Defenders. "What I can never overcome is that this woman had come to us for protection and we had failed to provide it. Is there no safe place for women in this country? Even in a law office before dozens of witnesses?"

Samia Sarwar's story is made atypical only by the venue in which she was killed. No sensitive American, reading of this tragic turn of events, could remain unmoved. A few may even be outraged. It is a terrible shame. Things like that should not happen. We share a common humanity with this young woman, and in some measure we are touched by her tale. But what does Samia's fate and that of the many women like her around the world--not only in Pakistan but throughout Asia, Africa, parts of Europe, and the Americas--really have to do with us? How might it affect our lives, living as we do so far away? How might it have an impact on U.S. interests?

That question is at the heart of this book: Is supporting human rights both around the world and at home in the United States a mere moral luxury? Or is it, in ways we rarely see and our own leaders often fail to understand, integral to the pursuit of Americans' own best future? I argue that the latter is the case, that Samia's demise and Hina's struggle and the adversities of thousands of others like them around the world have a profound impact on Americans--politically, economically, environmentally, and in dozens of other ways. I argue that caring about the fate of our "neighbors" is far more than a matter of conscience. It is in truth a matter of survival--our own survival. Because our welfare is bound up in theirs, and when their dreams die, our health and security die with them.


"But what does all of this have to do with a person in East Tennessee?"

The question from the talk show host on Knoxville's National Public Radio station was not a hostile one. I had been talking about Burma (Myanmar) and Bosnia, China and Chiapas, refugee camps in Congo, and police brutality in New York City, and now the interviewer was simply trying to bring it all home to his listeners. "I mean, I'm sure we all agree that these kinds of human rights violations are morally repugnant" he said, "But if I'm barely scratching out a living in East Tennessee, worried about having enough money to get my kids a decent education or to make the payments on a bigger house, what difference do all these abuses taking place so far away make to me?"

It was an excellent question, and in the hundreds of interviews I had given for Amnesty International over the years, it was one I had never been asked before. Nor was it a question that we in the human rights movement often ask ourselves. We have assumed that if we describe the suffering dramatically enough, good people will respond and want to stop it. And of course many good people have. But not enough, by any means. Not enough, for example, to make human rights the kind of issue to which politicians pay regular attention. Not like the attention given to issues of pollution or abortion or prayer in schools, issues that readily command widespread public debate.

Why was that? Was it one of the consequences of the end of the Cold War? Were Americans just too self-satisfied to care about the plight of others? Did these problems just seem too intractable? Or was there really very little connection between what was happening "out there" and how most of us in the United States live?

That Knoxville interviewer had posed a question for which anyone in the business of changing the world had better be ready. "OK, but what does this have to do with me?" For the most part this is not a question that human rights campaigners are well prepared to answer.

I was five years old in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to move from the front of that Montgomery bus; thirteen when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington; and eighteen when the Tet Offensive broke the will of the United States to carry on the Vietnam War. The civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements were, before all else, moral crusades. Those who supported them from the very beginning did so because they thought it the right thing to do. The practical benefits were of secondary importance. But before these two great moral movements would grow to their maximum strength, capturing the sympathy of hundreds of thousands across the country, they had to add to their moral authority a host of pragmatic reasons for Americans to support them.

In the case of the civil rights movement, those black Americans who might at first have viewed Dr. King and his colleagues with skepticism were soon convinced that this was a crusade worth fighting for. They were convinced not only by Dr. King's rhetoric and courage but also by the practical changes the movement proposed to make in people's lives--their lives and those of their children. White sympathizers also responded to the moral message of equal rights, but they recognized as well that the United States could no longer remain a divided society without doing untold damage to itself. Those people too recalcitrant to see this reality early on were jolted into awareness when several U.S. cities went up in flames in the 1960s.

Similarly, public opinion about the Vietnam War gradually shifted for both ethical and practical reasons. The infamous photograph of a South Vietnamese general executing a terrified man with a point-blank shot to the head as well as the image of a nude, screaming child fleeing a village on which U.S. troops had dropped napalm had an enormous impact on Americans' sense of themselves as a virtuous people. But such moral outrage had to be coupled with growing numbers of U.S. boys returning home in body bags and a deeply divided society before mainstream opinion finally turned against the war.

Since these crusades of the 1960s and 1970s, nearly every movement for social change in the United States, whether right wing or left, has combined a moral, religious, or aesthetic dimension with a pragmatic rationale in its campaign to win public approval. Those who advocate prayer in public schools, for example, do so both to glorify their God and also because they believe that prayer in schools will improve children's morals and perhaps prevent another Columbine High shooting. Some people support the environmental movement simply because they love the pristine beauty of the rain forest, but others complement that love with concern about global warming and the desire to shield their families from polluted air and hidden toxins. In much the same fashion, citizens support women's causes, gun control, or restrictions on pornography because these causes embody a moral vision that is important to them, but also because they want adequate access to reproductive health care, a drop in the crime rate, or to protect their children from sexually explicit material.

Nearly every movement to change the world frames the benefits of what it offers in both visionary and practical terms. Almost every one. Except, more often than not, the human rights movement.

Almost four thousand years ago a Babylonian king named Hammurabi issued a set of laws to his people. Among other things, Hammurabi's Codes established fair wages, offered protection of property, and required charges to be proven at trial. The Codes, while often harsh in their punishments, provided standards by which Babylonians could order their lives and treat one another. The Codes said nothing, however, about how Babylonians were to treat their archenemies, the Assyrians. Presumably Babylonians could convict Assyrians of crimes without trial or steal their property as avidly as they liked. Furthermore, the Assyrians certainly never acquiesced in Hammurabi's Codes.

Over the centuries human beings have devised (or in the case of such figures as Moses and Mohammed, "received") different sets of standards by which to measure our obligations to one another. The Romans were probably the first to establish the concept of citizens' rights, but the modern American notion of rights derives from such seminal documents as the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791), and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789). The problem with all of these statements of rights, however, eloquent as they are, is that they applied to only one set of people, to only the English or to the Americans (and, given the "inconvenient" presence of women and slaves, not even to all English or American people). Moreover, even when these statements attempted to articulate rights that held for all of humanity, as the French Declaration did, only one group--in that case, the "representatives of the French people, organized in National Assembly"--had adopted them.

Remarkable as it seems, it took almost four thousand years from the days of Hammurabi for the world to agree on a statement of rights that nearly everybody active on the international scene at the time acknowledged applied to everybody else--even to one's enemies!--simply because everybody is a human being. It took a world body (the United Nations), horrific carnage (the Holocaust of World War II), and an extraordinary woman (Eleanor Roosevelt) to carry it off, but in 1948 the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A Mexican diplomat once said of Mrs. Roosevelt, who served as chair of the U.N. Human Rights Commission that drafted the Universal Declaration, "Never before have I seen naivete and cunning so graciously blended" And indeed, it took large doses of both of these qualities for her to finally get the document adopted.

Once it was adopted, however, the world had a formal itemization of rights--thirty articles of them, in fact--that anybody could claim, from Hammurabi's rights to wages, property, and a fair trial to the rights to marry freely, to join trade unions, to receive an education, to speak an opinion, and to not be tortured. The mere articulation of such rights and their near universal acclamation was a formidable achievement.

But then came the need to enforce these rights, which of course was a problem. The only ones who had the power to enforce human rights, either directly or through the United Nations itself, were the very powers--nation-states--that might be guilty of violating them. It may not be true, as Yeats had it, that "there is no longer a virtuous nation and the best of us live by candlelight." Unfortunately, however, a 1997 Reuters story datelined Mok Kampul, Cambodia, captures all too vividly the degree of seriousness with which many governments take human rights. Describing the death by torture of political dissident Thong Sophal, the Reuters item said: "His eyes had been gouged out, his head smashed in, the skin had been stripped from his lower legs and all his fingers and one ear had been cut off" And then the news service added sardonically, "Police said they suspected Thong Sophal had killed himself."

If governments, then, could not be trusted to implement the Universal Declaration, despite having voted for it, what other power might be brought to bear? The first candidate was moral suasion, what human rights champion Aryeh Neier has called "the mobilization of shame." After all, the creation of the Universal Declaration had been prompted in no small part by the experience of the Holocaust. Moral argument appealed to human emotion, to a sense of decency and fair play. It depended on evoking feelings of revulsion at the harsher forms human rights violations sometimes take and resonated with the familiar invocation, "Never again!"

By telling the stories of individuals and their suffering--people like playwright Vaclav Havel of the former Czechoslovakia or journalist Jacobo Timmerman of Argentina--human rights workers managed to put compelling human faces on larger political dramas. This was a particularly effective approach in the Cold War years. Although non-Communist governments were responsible for profound human rights violations in places like South Africa, Greece, or Chile, the dynamics of East-West tension meant that the epithet "human rights hero" would become peculiarly attached in the popular mind to brave Soviet dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and Anatoly Sharansky. Thanks to such authors as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, the gulag came to supplement the Nazi concentration camps as an exemplary locus of the hell into which human rights victims might be cast. Moral rhetoric quickly became the favorite lexicon of the human rights struggle in consonance with Camus' observation that "there is no evil that cannot be surmounted by scorn."

But the Universal Declaration had been born not just out of the Holocaust. The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials could make an equal claim to its parentage. So the second candidate to serve as counterweight to the perfidious fickleness of governments when it came to enforcing human rights was law. Although the Universal Declaration had not initially been intended to have the force of law (and, indeed, the U.S. State Department was so concerned that it not that the department carefully labeled the declaration a "hortatory statement of aspirations"), the Universal Declaration gradually assumed that status.

Over the years national constitutions took the strictures of the declaration as guidelines for their own descriptions of rights. Legally binding treaties, covenants, conventions, and protocols, most of them derived in good measure from the Universal Declaration, were built up. The declaration eventually took on the character of what is called "customary law" and to violate somebody's human rights became not just a matter of doing something wrong but a matter of doing something illegal. Legal rhetoric became the second favorite lexicon of the human rights movement. Despite Canadian jurist Louise Arbour's observation that "international law is the aristocrat of law, practiced by people in limousines being polite," in recent years the International War Crimes Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have tried hard to turn principles into prison time for human rights criminals.

These two forms of discourse--the moral and the legal--have remained for more than fifty years the principal argots in which human rights have been discussed. This is because they reflect two of the most invaluable resources we can bring to bear in the struggle to end human agony--appeal to conscience and resort to court. Without them, the human rights movement would find itself bereft of both passion and precision. As a clergyperson myself, I would never disparage the former, sympathetic as I am to the observation that "if you laid end to end all the people who fall asleep in church, they would be a lot more comfortable." As one who first joined the American Civil Liberties Union at age sixteen, the son of a law professor who served up case talk with the carrots each night at the dinner table, I would be loath to belittle the latter.

It is not that we who care about human rights are wrong to speak in the tongues of ethics and law. Not at all. It is just that they alone are not enough. Not enough to win a major audience. Moral arguments may appeal to a relatively small segment of a community for a very long time or they may appeal to a fairly large segment of a community for a rather short time, but they are unlikely, by themselves, to hold a large number of people's attention forever. If the "CNN effect" has been credited with forcing American politicians to "do something" to stop the mayhem voters see on their televisions at night, "compassion fatigue" has been equally as popular an explanation for the apparent limits to people's interest in foreign catastrophes. After all, human rights crimes are messy; severed limbs and piles of corpses do not make for pleasant breakfast viewing. Appeals to morality reach in a consistent fashion only that portion of the public for whom morality bests convenience in its long-term understanding of the world.

And whichever part of the populace is not turned off by the persistence of the brutality will be put to sleep by the legalisms. There may be more lawyers per capita in the United States today than ever before, and there may even be more of them than is good for us ("Father, forgive me!"). But those members of the public who are fascinated by the intricacies of law (and particularly of international law) will never fill a football stadium.

What we need to make the human rights "sale"--to build a broader constituency for human rights, to convince larger numbers of people that human rights matter--is a third form of rhetoric, a third set of arguments, a third understanding of suffering's significance. What we need are compelling practical reasons why respect for human rights is in the best interests of the United States. If ethical issues are to hold people's attention over an extended period of time and if legal issues are to be of consequence to someone other than jurists, they must be framed, to the extent possible, in the language of realpolitik. If the American public is to care about human rights crimes committed against their fellow citizens in the United States, they must understand how those crimes endanger their own interests. If large numbers of Americans are ever to care about human rights violations around the world, they must be able to see the implications of those violations for their own lives here at home.

I am not suggesting that Americans are callous, self-absorbed narcissists. In fact we are some of the most generous people in the world. For example, Americans gave over $190 billion to charities in 1999. I am simply suggesting that the human rights movement try, as it can, to complement moral vision with pragmatic punch. I am simply suggesting that, like every other movement for social change, we be ready to answer the question "But what does all of this have to do with me?"

Americans may not be tightfisted when it comes to philanthropy, but it is rumored that we have grown indifferent to the sweep of events beyond our borders. Of that $190 billion in charitable giving in 1999, only $2.7 billion went to organizations that deal with international affairs. When asked whether what happens in western Europe or Asia has any personal relevance, Americans reject the notion by substantial margins. Even in the case of Mexico, 55 percent say that events there have no impact on them. Such apparent indifference is reflected in the diminishing coverage U.S. news outlets give to international affairs. The time devoted to foreign news on network television, for example, has declined from 45 percent in the 1970s to 13.5 percent in 1995. International coverage in newsmagazines has similarly evaporated.

Furthermore, when asked by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations to describe what the United States should take as its most important foreign policy goals, Americans appear preoccupied with domestic needs. Although preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is named as the most important foreign policy goal (82 percent), the next two most critical objectives are considered "stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the United States" (81 percent) and "protecting the jobs of American workers" (80 percent). "Promoting and defending human rights in other countries" scores low on the list (39 percent, down from 58 percent in 1990). (Perhaps I may take some comfort in the fact that when asked to name the greatest invention of all time, 11 percent of Americans picked the television game show Wheel of Fortune.)

When we look more closely at Americans' opinions about the country's role in the world, however, the results are more encouraging. Two-thirds say, as they have for more than two decades, that the United States should take an active part in world affairs rather than try to isolate itself. Almost as many Americans believe that the United States should take part in United Nations peacekeeping operations in troubled parts of the world. When asked for a rationale for this tilt toward globalism, the public displays a fairly sophisticated grasp of the interconnection between morality and pragmatism. Although 66 percent say that "when innocent civilians are suffering or are being killed," the United States should contribute troops to a U.N. effort "whether or not it serves the national interest" (a highly moralistic position), even more (78 percent) agree that "if we allow things like genocide or the mass killings of civilians to go unaddressed, it is more apt to spread and create more instability in the world so that eventually our interests would be affected" (a far more strategic insight). More telling still are the number (79 percent) who concur with the observation that "because the world is so interconnected today, the United States should participate in U.N. efforts to maintain peace, protect human rights, and promote economic development. Such efforts serve U.S. interests because they help create a more stable world that is more conducive to trade and other U.S. interests."

Legend has it that there is a beetle in the Sahara Desert which, when it runs out of water, finds a sandy incline, begins to climb it, tumbles to the bottom when the sand gives way, and endlessly repeats the process, like Sisyphus, until it produces a bead of sweat on its own abdomen. At that point the beetle stops climbing and slurps from its belly. Americans know that their country cannot hope to emulate such self-sufficiency, both because it would not be right and because it would not work. They also know that more often than not, the right thing to do is not only not at odds with U.S. interests but that a good deal of the time the two go hand in hand.

Reinforcing that connection--for the public at large and also for those who shape public opinion--is critical to spreading the human rights message. Doug Clifton, the executive editor of the Miami Herald, may not have been happy that his July 1995 e-mail message to his newspaper staff appeared in Harper's magazine under the heading "Bosnia: One Big Yawn." But he need not have been too distraught, for he is far from alone in his sentiment: "If anyone has an idea on what to do with the Bosnia story," he wrote near the height of the killings in that country, "I welcome it." He went on to admit:

I'm embarrassed to say I long ago stopped reading this story of enormous human tragedy and significant global consequence. Why is that? Some of it is my personal failure. I'm callous, parochial, and maybe even stupid. But more of it may be my--our--professional failure.

We dutifully report each day's events, every one a bit more horrible than the last, and pretty soon all begin to look and sound alike....

Yes, I care about man's inhumanity to man, but I care more about whether this latest event brings the world or the U.S. closer to the brink. A reader--even a high-minded, liberal-thinking one with a worldview--wants to know, "What does this mean to me?"

Clifton's admission, I suspect, made not a few human rights activists queasy. We come to this work out of a sense of conscience and are often impatient with those who fail to share our urgency. But the truth is that we have few people to blame but ourselves. By emphasizing the field's legal and policy dimensions, we have lent the impression that human rights are the business of specialists. By relying on national media and high-level contacts to influence decision-makers, we have, with a few exceptions, paid little attention to grassroots organizing.

In this last respect we have been richly rewarded. Counting the number of people who join environmental organizations as indicative of how many Americans care deeply about environmental issues, there are more than two million active supporters of environmentalism in the United States. Similarly, the women's movement can claim more than a million affiliates. The NAACP alone has five hundred thousand members. But human rights organizations focused on international issues would be hard-pressed to muster four hundred thousand, and most of those belong to one group, Amnesty International. What is the consequence of such pitiful numbers? Perhaps journalist and author David Rieff put it best in his provocative article "The Precarious Triumph of Human Rights." He noted that "today's human rights workers wield great clout in Washington on an issue to which the public is not paying much attention." Rieff went on to say:

But when risks are involved--and members of Congress are getting countervailing pressure from their districts--the weaknesses of the insider approach become apparent. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was the most tragic case in point. Anthony Lake, then the national security adviser, reportedly told a [human rights] representative who had quietly come to lobby him for United States action that he would be unsuccessful in pressing for an intervention unless a great deal of popular protest began to occur. But the human rights movement was in no position to mobilize it. It could merely publish more reports, issue appeals and dispatch more wrenching videotapes to the media.

Of course Tony Lake should not have needed "popular protests" to stop genocide; the Rwandan massacre is the most shameful foreign policy matter of Bill Clinton's presidency. But the fact that the human rights movement couldn't generate popular pressure to stop it is an indictment of the movement as well.

There are many ways to mobilize action. One of the best methods in the short term is to put moral claims front and center. That is no doubt what should have happened in the case of Rwanda. To have made claims of self-interest in the face of mass slaughter might well have been perceived to be intellectually tenuous or to have rung ethically false. But in the long run, the way to build a widespread demand for any social agenda, the way to reach the millions of people who are not now and never will be "activists" the way to prepare public opinion to respond to genocide when it occurs is to couple moral pleas with cogent practicality. Do that and we take a critical step toward gathering a constituency. But to do that we must be willing to entertain Doug Clifton's question: What does this mean to me?

One of the striking features of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations poll cited earlier regarding what Americans believe to be our most important foreign policy goals is that at least two of the top three goals--"stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the United States" and "protecting the jobs of American workers"--are linked to combating human rights abuses. That is also true of some of the other goals Americans rank highly, such as "controlling and reducing illegal immigration" "improving the global environment" and "reducing our trade deficit." Yet "promoting and defending human rights in other countries" ranks relatively low on the list. Obviously, despite the public's affirmation that morality and national interest are related, there is a "disconnect" when we get down to hard cases. The average American is fuzzy about just how human rights violations affect the world around them.

In that respect Americans are in distinguished company.

One of the highlights of my professional career was being attacked on the editorial page of the Washington Post by Senator Jesse Helms. As one who had grown up lionizing the great Senate liberals of my childhood--the Humphreys, the Churches, the Clarks, and the Kennedys --this was the evidence I needed to count myself a junior member of that pantheon. Senator Helms was unhappy that I had written a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright criticizing her for suggesting that the decision of whether General Augusto Pinochet of Chile should be extradited to Spain to stand trial should be left to the Chilean people.

Pleased as I was by Senator Helms's opprobrium, my view of his politics had shifted slightly since I had become the head of Amnesty International USA in 1994. Although I still disagreed with him about 95 percent of the time, on a few human rights issues (not surprisingly, those involving such Communist countries as China and Cuba) Senator Helms could be a staunch ally. I had even testified before his Committee on Foreign Relations regarding China's sale of the organs of executed prisoners. On the issue of economic sanctions against human rights violators, Senator Helms turned out to favor, well, shall we say, a "liberal" use of them.

What a "liberal" or "conservative" view of human rights issues might be is sometimes hard to fathom. Is it "liberal" or "conservative" to want to stop torture? Is it "liberal" or "conservative" to oppose human rights violations overseas that result in greater numbers of immigrants coming to this country? Is it "liberal" or "conservative" to believe that those who commit human rights crimes around the world should be punished for them? Is it "liberal" or "conservative" to speak against religious persecution or female genital mutilation? Is it "liberal" or "conservative" not to want to waste taxpayers' dollars settling liability claims against brutal cops? Is it "liberal" or "conservative" to think U.S. arms should not be used to commit human rights abuses?

Because the terms "liberal" and "conservative" are rarely helpful when it comes to matters of foreign policy, analysts have sometimes divided foreign policy makers into the categories "realist" or "moralist." Henry Kissinger is often considered the quintessential "realist" who made decisions about international relations not on the basis of the world as we might like it to be but on the basis of the world as it is in all its shoddy, backstabbing, dangerous complexity. Jimmy Carter is regarded as the epitome of a moralist, who as president tried to base U.S. relations with other countries on principles of justice, mutuality, and human rights. But neoconservatives like Robert Kagan and William Kristol, the latter Dan Quayle's former chief of staff, also champion using U.S. power to advance moral concerns.

In part because aspects of Carter's presidency, including his foreign policy, are often popularly considered to have been unsuccessful, human rights over the past two decades have come to be associated with weakness and self-indulgence. To the extent that subsequent presidents have employed human rights concerns in foreign policy at all, it has often been in the fashion of an amateur cook with a favorite spice used either to disguise a bad recipe or to make a new one taste more familiar (Recall, for example, Central American policies, Bush's war in the Persian Gulf, and Clinton's tough stance in Haiti--all pursued for hard-edged political and economic reasons but all presented to the public pungent with the whiff of rights). However it may appear, "realism" has largely dominated foreign policy thinking, and "realists" tend to have little truck with human rights.

Here, for example, is Alan Tonelson, a fellow at the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington, D.C.: "During the Cold War a plausible case could be made for denying an ideologically hostile rival superpower targets of opportunity by fostering democratic practices abroad. But in the absence of such a rival, the state of human rights around the world does not have, and never has had, any demonstrable effect on U.S. national security." Here is the grandpappy of "realism" diplomat George Kennan: "I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights.... I don't think any such questions should enter into our diplomatic relations with other countries. If others [private parties] want to advocate changes in their conditions, fine--no objection. But not the State Department or the White House. They have more important things to do."

"Realists" regard the pursuit of rights as an unnecessary, sometimes even a dangerous extravagance, often at odds with our national interest. What they seem rarely to garner is that in far more cases than they will allow, defending human rights is a prerequisite to protecting that interest. What we require is not less realism but a more expansive, sophisticated, comprehensive form of it--a "new realism" for an interconnected age.

I do not want to claim too much here. I am not suggesting that every human rights crime is a matter of national consequence. In many instances only moral qualms can provide the motivation to stop abuses. Nor am I pretending that human rights are always the most important policy consideration or that morality and national interest are joined at the hip. But neither are they the strange bedfellows the "realists" would make out. By emphasizing morality to the exclusion of pragmatism, we human rights advocates have allowed ourselves to be dismissed as idealists or ideologues, as either too mushy-headed in our thinking to be taken seriously or too rigid in our priorities to be trusted with power.

At least for the foreseeable future, respect for human rights will remain largely a matter of voluntary compliance by governments or armed opposition groups. It will remain largely a matter of raison d'état, of perceived self-interest. If we are unwilling to make our case at least in part in those terms, we concede the argument before it is even joined. More important, however, by failing to engage "realists" on at least a portion of their own ground, the human rights community has too often for the past twenty years ceded U.S. foreign policy to those in government and business who care the least about human rights. The problem with that is both stark and simple: it has allowed the tyrants of the world to get away with murder.

Fortunately the connection between human rights and national interest is becoming more clear to an ever-expanding circle of observers. As The Economist, that bastion of respect for capitalist values, editorialized not too long ago:

Morality is not the only reason for putting human rights on the West's foreign-policy agenda. Self-interest also plays a part. Political freedom tends to go hand in hand with economic freedom, which in turn tends to bring international trade and prosperity. And governments that treat their own people with tolerance and respect tend to treat their neighbours in the same way. Dictatorships unleashed the First and Second World Wars, and most wars before and since.

Even Prince Talal bin Abdelaziz of Saudi Arabia, half-brother of King Fahd, has noted that "political reforms are coming as part of globalization and we must prepare ourselves for this new development from all aspects.... Globalization is currently based on democracy, human rights and market economics."

Whether it be war and peace, international trade, economic growth, the security of jobs, the state of our environment, the public health, the interdiction of drugs, or a host of other topics, there is a connection between Americans' own interests and international human rights. If we are talking about human rights violations committed in the United States, the connection is even more direct, not just for those residents who may themselves be the victims of human rights abuses but for every American. It is this book's burden to make those connections clear.

Three caveats, however, before we begin. First, despite the criticism I level at traditional "realists" this book is not designed for the foreign policy mandarin. I am honored to be a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and I hope this work will be taken seriously, but I propound here no grand new theory of international relations nor offer revelations about human rights that are unavailable to the avid reader of high-quality newspapers. Rather, this book is intended to reframe the debate about human rights for the intelligent layperson who wants to understand the role human rights play in the life of the United States and its people. It is designed to take the human rights debate out of the hands of the "experts" (on both sides) and make it accessible to the average American. After all, their interests are really at stake here, and it is they who will pay the highest price for American indifference. I am convinced that such people's opinions can have as great an effect on the course of our future as can the most erudite scholar's.

Second, the human rights I treat herein are the traditional civil and political ones, like the right to vote, to express opinions without fear of retaliation, to demand a fair trial, to be free from torture. I am not sympathetic to the profusion of "rights" being claimed under the oddest of banners ("This is like the state telling me I have no rights" protested the owner of a South Carolina video poker parlor when the state shut down such games. "It's pretty close to being communist."), but I fully affirm social and economic rights. With the exception of labor rights, however, I do not for the most part deal with them in this book. Although Americans have reached close to a consensus about support for civil and political rights, we have, much to our shame, been far more lax to recognize social and economic rights. If I offer a critique of "realism" it must be in the context of civil and political rights because most "realists" choke on the very notion of any other kind. The best I can do is to name' my own and this book's limitations and to invite someone else to write the book that will obviate them.

Third, I need to be clear that I am not speaking in this book on behalf of Amnesty International but only for myself. Amnesty takes no position on many of the issues I address or policies I espouse in these pages.

"But what does all of this have to do with a person in East Tennessee?" the reporter had asked. I had but a moment to think and about thirty seconds to respond.

"Well, if that person's child is in the military and might be stationed in Haiti or Bosnia, it certainly has a lot to do with him or her," I answered. "Or if the person holds a job that might be lost because U.S. companies are attracted by lower wages in countries that abuse labor rights, it has a lot to do with him or her. Or if the person is concerned about drugs and learns that U.S. arms to fight the Colombian drug wars have been diverted to kill innocent people, he or she might want to give a thought to human rights. If you've ever made an investment in an international stock or if you're in a pension plan that does, you better believe human rights have something to do with you."

I do not know if my answer satisfied either the reporter or my hypothetical listener in East Tennessee, but when I got off the air, I decided the question deserved a more thorough reply. This book contains all that I didn't get to say in those thirty seconds.

And the first thing I didn't get to say is what human rights are anyway and why, from the perspective of morality alone, other people's suffering matters.


Excerpted from In Our Own Best Interests by William F. Schulz Copyright © 2002 by William F. Schulz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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