The Common Good
November-December 1998

The Rights Stuff

by Mike Jendrzejczyk | November-December 1998

Moral authority and human rights.

My introduction to the human rights movement came at a death penalty protest outside a prison in Alabama in the early 1980s. I was amazed to find a staff person from Amnesty International among the demonstrators. At that time, the death penalty issue was highly controversial in the international rights movement. Groups such as AI had mushroomed in the United States during the Reagan years, fueled by outrage over American support for dictatorships in Latin and Central America. What did human rights have to do with executing murderers?

There’s been substantial progress made in expanding the definition and understanding of human rights worldwide over the past 50 years since the U.N. Universal Declaration was adopted in December 1948. The death penalty is just one example. This past April, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights voted to call for a moratorium on executions leading to its eventual abolition worldwide. Sadly, the United States opposed the measure, while bristling at U.N. criticism of the arbitrary and racially biased system of executions in this country.

A perceived dichotomy between civil and political rights and social and economic rights has been another point of controversy. In 1992 I went to Jakarta, Indonesia, on behalf of Human Rights Watch for a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement. At the summit, President Suharto launched an attack against Western governments for promoting civil and political rights and for linking aid and trade to respect for rights. He was applauded by leaders from China, Cuba, and Iran.

Just six years later, Suharto was pushed out of office by Indonesian citizens demanding greater freedom and economic progress. They saw Suharto and the corrupt system he created as a threat to both. Last year, Southeast Asian leaders called for a review of the Universal Declaration, and authoritarian governments have argued that "stability" fosters growth. But as one Asian economy after another collapsed, largely due to a lack of open, accountable governance, the argument became moot.

The globalization of the economy and the end of the Cold War have reshaped much of the human rights debate. The issues are now far more complex, and the problems more deeply entrenched.

THE DEBATE is no longer only about ending torture, freeing political dissidents, or protecting free speech. The debate is also about the relationship between sustained, equitable economic growth and basic workers’ rights. It’s about the role of women in societies that restrict their access to the legal system or fail to prevent sexual violence. It’s about curbing abuses caused by ethnic and communal conflicts that rip entire countries apart, and building a movement to ban anti-personnel landmines. And it’s about recognizing that religious persecution around the world is a key human rights concern.

The role of the United States has also evolved, especially since it became the only superpower. It can wield enormous influence on its own, but increasingly needs to act in concert with others. The contradictions and inconsistencies in U.S. policy, which have always been apparent, seem more glaring and damaging to American credibility. The Clinton administration often downplays human rights so as not to jeopardize economic or security interests. The White House has twisted itself into legal knots explaining U.S. opposition to a new treaty to establish an international criminal court to try crimes of genocide and other crimes.

Yet the moral authority of the U.S. voice carries weight and is more urgently needed than ever before. The quiet intervention of a U.S. embassy, the public words of a State Department diplomat, the attention generated by a congressional hearing or visit can--and often does--save lives.

However, that voice needs to be exercised with strategic vision and some humility. Sanctions, for example, may not always be the best approach. And describing U.S. policy objectives in terms of promoting "American values" is a non-starter. The United States should seek support for international norms. At the same time, to be a positive force for global change, the United States must subject itself to the same kind of scrutiny--and be held accountable to the same set of rules and principles--as the rest of the human family.

MIKE JENDRZEJCZYK is the Washington (D.C.) director of the Asian Division of Human Rights Watch.

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