The Rights Stuff

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.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1998
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