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The Rights Stuff

Human rights are under pressure these days. During the cold war, they went from being the insurgent creed of dissidents and activists to something like the ruling ideology of Western governments. Like all official ideologies, it was honored more in the breach than in the observance, but still, it had a palpable impact, legitimizing the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s: in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. Now, since September 11, the creed is in trouble. The empire is at war and the imperatives of war seem to trump the imperatives of rights. Why bother with human rights in Uzbekistan as long as the government there provides bases for the war on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan?1 Who cares about Sudan’s bloody repression of the Christian south, as long as the government shares its intelligence files on Osama bin Laden? Why criticize Russia’s war against Chechnya when Chechen jihadis are fighting America in the mountains of Afghanistan?

In the Middle East, with the Palestinian and Israeli nations in open war, how are arguments about human rights and humanitarian law even to get a hearing? Physicians for Human Rights, for example, sent a delegation of US doctors to the region to plead for observance of medical neutrality, but the Israeli military alleged that ambulances were used to transport terrorists, and Palestinian doctors hotly denied the allegation. The din of battle is drowning out all appeals by human rights and humanitarian agencies.2

It’s not just that it’s difficult for human rights to get a hearing. It’s difficult to frame an argument for their being a central issue. It’s not hard to denounce rights abuses, or even to do so evenhandedly, condemning suicide bombs in Tel Aviv as well as the targeting of civilians in Jenin. It’s also easy to say that both claims to self-determination in the Middle East can only be met with a two-state solution. The problem now is that desperate refugees with nothing to lose believe that Palestinian claims can only be met by throwing Israel into the sea, while growing numbers of Israelis believe their claims to statehood can only be defended by destroying the authority that carries the hope of statehood for the Palestinians. The two-state solution is itself now very nearly in ruins. It may only survive now if it is imposed, and if it is imposed it may not stick. If it does not stick, human rights may well vanish from the moral landscape of the Middle East.

The human rights movement’s strength—and also what makes it so irritating to state leaders—has been its moral perfectionism, its refusal to allow trade-offs between principle and power, rights and expediency. So it does not matter whether Uzbekistan has gone from being an ignored Central Asian despotism to America’s strategic partner. The detention of Islamic militants there would be wrong, even when the dissenters are hostile to America’s interests. The fact that Russia has become a new-found ally ought not to soften US condemnation of its repression in Chechnya. That China is a new-found friend ought not to allow its rulers to get away with imprisoning scholars whose only mistake is to ask embarrassing questions about their country’s political past, the latest example being Xu Zerong (also known as David Tsui), a former researcher at Harvard and St. Antony’s College, Oxford, now languishing under a ten-year sentence for publishing an academic article about Chinese policy during the Korean War.3

As a language of moral claims, human rights are an anti-politics, a moral code that refuses, a priori, any political justification for the denial of basic rights. But human rights are not just a deck of moral trump cards. As a movement, human rights activists try to exert influence in a world of power and injustice. Reconciling the moral perfectionism of their claims with the hard realities of getting a hearing in a free world at war with terror is putting human rights under increasing strain. It’s hard to be neutral when your country or your friends have been attacked. It’s hard to criticize your government when criticism can be denounced as unpatriotic. It’s hard to plead for observing human rights when insisting that rights be respected looks like putting handcuffs on our military or your police.

Aryeh Neier of the Open Society Institute and other veterans of the human rights movement would say there is nothing new about such difficulties. They argue that the current situation is no worse than it was in the cold war. Then moral panic led to McCarthyite attacks on civil liberties comparable to the detentions of hundreds of Muslim and Arab suspects since September 11. Cold war realists like Henry Kissinger sought to keep human rights issues off the agenda with the Soviets, arguing that they might jeopardize higher goals like détente. The US government has for many years argued that security claims take precedence over human rights. It was doing so during the war against the “evil empire.” We should not be surprised if it continues to do so during the war against the “axis of evil.”

In a new hot and cold war the historical record would suggest this is no time to keep quiet about human rights. The people who insisted that living in the Soviet bloc was like living in a dungeon were vindicated by history. Today, the people who insist that the only war worth winning is one that respects rights will be vindicated too.

Jeri Laber has written a persuasive memoir, The Courage of Strangers, to remind us how important it is to keep protesting on behalf of rights, especially when we are told that higher considerations—security and stability—call for silence. She was the first director of Helsinki Watch, the NGO set up with Ford Foundation money to monitor Soviet and East European compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and to support the East European dissident Helsinki groups. When she began working, she recalls, no one even used the term “human rights.” By the time she finished, she had assisted in the creation of human rights activism as a profession. The only available model for activism was Amnesty International, in existence since 1961.4 Laber was already a member of an Amnesty group at Columbia in the early 1970s and already disillusioned with Amnesty letter-writing campaigns on behalf of Soviet prisoners of conscience: “It was hard to believe that [such campaigns] would make a difference.”

They didn’t seem to, at first. The prisoner her group adopted remained in prison for five years after they began writing. More promising was the direct political lobbying and organizing of demonstrations favored by Robert Bernstein, then president of Random House, who had been shocked by Soviet censorship during a publishing trip to Moscow and returned home determined to raise free speech as a human rights issue. Bernstein and Laber met on a picket line in front of the Soviet consulate in New York, but Helsinki Watch itself didn’t begin until Arthur Goldberg, then US Ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the CSCE), set up to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords, observed during his testimony to Congress in 1978 that there were Helsinki groups already active in Eastern Europe, but none back home in the United States. Goldberg followed that up with a conversation with McGeorge Bundy, the head of the Ford Foundation, which in 1979 gave a grant of $400,000 to set up Helsinki Watch with Laber and Bernstein as its leaders.

Daniel Thomas’s The Helsinki Effect5 also tells this story but describes a wider political setting missing in Laber’s account. The CSCE process had been initiated by the Soviets to secure recognition of the de facto division of Europe into two blocs. In return for acknowledging a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, the Western Europeans insisted on a section of the act—called a basket—which called for the promotion of human rights. They did so, Daniel Thomas writes, to find a way to concede Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe without giving up on the cause of freedom. In this entire process, Americans played a negative part, according to Thomas, largely because Secretary of State Kissinger did not want human rights advocacy to upset détente with the Soviets.

American reticence about human rights must be emphasized, because it is so often argued that the modern ascendancy of human rights is inseparable from the rise of American global hegemony. Human Rights and the End of Empire, Brian Simpson’s long and extremely thorough account of the emergence of the European Convention on Human Rights—the most effective rights enforcement regime in the world—makes the same point: Americans were bystanders. As both he and Andrew Moravcsik of Harvard have pointed out, the Europeans made supranational enforcement of human rights part of their postwar security arrangements in order to make sure that the Germans stayed democratic, the Italians didn’t come under Communist domination, and the Europeans could turn their back on a century of extermination and total war.6

When the European Convention came into force in 1953, with headquarters of the European Court of Human Rights established in Strasbourg, France, Paul Henri Spaak, the Belgian statesman, gave a speech whose title expressed the direction he believed the new convention would give to European history: “From the Europe of Dachau to the Europe of Strasbourg.” But as Simpson also points out, European governments, especially the British, had no idea that they were signing on to a commitment to human rights that would one day limit their own sovereignty, and, even more implausibly, undermine the Soviet system.

The Americans were also taken by surprise. As Robert Gates mused in a memoir of his time as CIA director, the role of human rights in the breakup of the Soviet Union is a story of unintended consequences:

The Soviets desperately wanted the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, they got it and it laid the foundations for the end of their empire. We resisted it for years, went grudgingly, [President Gerald R.] Ford paid a terrible price for going—perhaps reelection itself—only to discover years later that the CSCE had yielded benefits beyond our wildest imagination. Go figure.

Once the Helsinki Act was signed in 1975, the first people to notice the importance of its human rights clauses were neither the Americans nor the Western Europeans, but the Eastern European dissidents. Jirí Hajek, who had been Czech foreign minister under the Dubcek government and had then been dismissed after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, was one of the first to point out to his government, in 1975, that the act they had just signed made it illegal to imprison or dismiss people for political beliefs. Hajek went on to become one of the founders of Charter 77, the key human rights group in Czechoslovakia. At about the same time, Karol Wojtil/a, then cardinal of Kraków, began using the language of human rights in his battle with the Communist authorities.

  1. 1

    For a contrary view, insisting that an American presence in Central Asia will lead to human rights improvements, see Jim Hoagland, “Allies and Human Rights,” The Washington Post, National Weekly Edition, March 18– 24, 2002, p. 5.

  2. 2

    For this appeal, see www.phrusa.org.

  3. 3

    John Gittings, “Beijing Slams Jail Door on Academic who Revealed Too Much,” The Guardian Weekly, March 14–20, 2002, p. 6.

  4. 4

    For a new account of Amnesty’s beginnings, see Linda Rabben, Fierce Legion of Friends: A History of Human Rights Campaigns and Campaigners (Quixote Center, 2002).

  5. 5

    Princeton University Press, 2001.

  6. 6

    Andrew Moravcsik, “The Origin of Human Rights Regimes: Democratic Delegation in Postwar Europe,” International Organization, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Spring 2000), p. 217.

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