A Faithful Response to Human Rights Abuses

By 1-11-2008

Yesterday I had the chance to attend a compelling panel hosted by the Center for American Progress Action Fund and Penn Press titled "Human Rights and the 2008 Presidential Campaign." The panel discussed a report released by CAPAF about the prominence (or lack thereof) of human rights issues in the 2008 presidential campaign.

The report's findings show that of the 2,253 questions that were asked in the Republican and Democratic debates through Dec. 27, only 5.1% of the questions posed to candidates dealt with human rights issues (CAPAF called their definition of what constituted a human rights issue "a generous interpretation" -- it included topics such as Darfur, torture, genocide in Iraq, and promoting democracy). This was in contrast to the 8.6% of questions about immigration, 10.7% on moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, and 18.1% about general personal politics and party values.

In the report, William F. Schulz, a CAPAF senior fellow and former executive director of Amnesty International, offers a possible explanation for this marginal attention:

Human rights issues have rarely, if ever, been a principal focus of political campaigns for President or even for Congress. This reflects the fact that human rights are often perceived to be matters involving people far away whose needs and interests have very little relevance to our own.

However, he argues that human rights issues, such as the genocide in Darfur and military torture, do in fact have an impact on us here in the U.S. and should be a more prominent focus in the current presidential campaign:

Many U.S. actions have colored the attitude of the international community toward America and thereby implicated U.S. national interests quite directly: the "unsigning" of the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court; the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; the denial of habeas corpus to certain prisoners; revelations regarding U.S. use of torture. Moreover, the continuing saga of unstaunched death and destruction in Darfur, Sudan, has cast a pall over the reputation of every country that has failed to stop it.

One might assume that human rights would have been more central to the 2008 presidential campaigns to this point than in years past given the relationship of human rights controversies to U.S. policy and interests-the fact, for example, that how the world regards this country can have a very direct impact on America's national security, and the need, in light of Iraq and Darfur, to clarify when in the future the U.S. should commit its blood and treasure to countering regimes that abuse human rights.

Here at Sojourners, human rights issues, such as the genocide in Darfur and human trafficking, are incredibly important. They are not issues that "have little relevance to our own;" instead, they are central to our mission as people of faith to follow Christ's example of fighting for and working with the poor, rejected, and forgotten.

Despite the disheartening findings of the CAPAF report, I think change IS happening. This shift in values, the desire to focus on ending and eradicating these huge moral issues of our time, is happening. As a member of the progressive faith community, I hear a lot of discourse about this movement that we see happening all across the country, this "great awakening," this spiritual revival that is sparking a social movement.

But you don't have to take our word for it. All of the panelists at the CAPAF event yesterday affirmed that change is happening, and that a lot of progress has been made just in recent months to make these human rights issues compelling national values. In fact, two of the panelists, Gary Haugen, president of the International Justice Mission, and Gayle Smith, co-founder of the ENOUGH! Project, specifically singled out people of faith as being leaders in bringing about this change.

"We're seeing some shift in terms of what values are all about, from values as a matter of personal choice to values as an expression of solidarity and global citizenship," Smith said. "There is the beginning in the faith community of a translation of values from, again, within the four walls of our homes to the far reaches of the globe." Smith cited the increase in attention to the genocide in Darfur as one tangible example.

Haugen agreed, saying that the religious community has contributed to "a broadening of issues to include human rights and international human rights" in the national conversation. He also talked directly about the impact faith had in the abolition and civil rights movements, and how the spiritual foundation of those movements provided a "very profound motivator for sustaining a prolonged, successful fight."

"Religion can be a conviction to force us to act on hard, painful issues. It is a very powerful, sustaining, motivating force," Haugen continued. A force that is having a clear effect again now, he said.

It's true that issues such as genocide and global poverty are big and seemingly insurmountable. But, as the event reaffirmed for me yesterday, ultimately we have the conviction and force to win this fight.

(You can watch the full panel discussion here).

Kaitlin Hasseler is the media assistant for Sojourners.

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