2008 Samuel Dash Conference on Human Rights: The Future of Human Rights
“Human rights are important to Americans. They reflect who we are as a people.” — The Center for American Progress
“America has led the world in protecting liberty,” states the Center for American Progress. Human rights “are in our national interests and showing the world that we respect the rule of law makes it harder for extremists to rally people against us.” “Supporting human rights is one of the best things America can do for the rest of the world.”
Yet in recent years, America’s own reputation for respecting human rights around the world “has been torn to shreds. The list of the U.S.’s own human rights abuses goes on and on.” As the Center for American Progress states, “When our own human rights record is tainted, it makes it harder than ever to criticize the practices of other countries that have abused human rights.”
This year’s Samuel Dash Conference on Human Rights features experts and advocates for human rights both in the United States and around the world. These individuals represent a broad community of thinkers, researchers, writers, government actors, and community activists, and they have come together to forge a clearer understanding of the roles and responsibilities that America bears in maintaining its commitment to international human rights standards and practices.
William F. Schulz, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, opened the day’s conference by saying that he believes in the best of the American tradition, as manifested—among other things—in the Bill of Rights, in demanding an end to slavery, in demanding political representation and equality for women, in our country’s civil rights movement, and in Eleanor Roosevelt’s vision for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “All these manifestations of the best of the American tradition involve human rights.” In quoting the former President Jimmy Carter, who said, “America did not invent human rights. Human rights invented America,” Schulz stated that the message for this conference is that, “Human rights will re-invent America once again.”
Keynote Address – Madeleine Albright
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright delivered a powerful keynote address in which she cautioned that “we can expect the future of human rights to be both controversial and complex.” “We must remember that foreign policy cannot be managed with a cookie cutter,” she said. “In a diverse world, flexibility will sometimes be more important than consistency. And in an imperfect world, perfect solutions are often not possible while imperfect means are all that exist. Human rights are then indeed complicated.” Therefore, “We cannot pretend to know all the answers, but neither can we be so conscious of what is complex that we lose sight of what is clear.”
What is clear is that the Bush administration has made mistakes that undermine America’s commitment to human rights. In speaking of the use of torture, Secretary Albright stated that torture is “a strategic blunder and a moral abomination. It is not a weapon in the fight against terror.” Secretary Albright also recognized the U.S.’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court as yet another “mistake,” citing America’s crucial involvement in creating the Nuremberg Tribunal, the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. “The America I love is not a child that pouts when rules good enough for others are suddenly applied to us,” she stated. “The America I love is the world’s leading defender and exemplar of international law.”
“Correcting these errors is the beginning of what the next president must do—but only the beginning.” — Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
Watch Secretary Madeleine Albright’s keynote address on the need for the United States to adopt a broad approach to human rights, acknowledge its own shortcomings, and strive to strengthen global norms:
Panel 1 – “How the U.S. Should Deal with Human Rights Abuses of Allies and Partners”
According to Ambassador James Sasser, the stature of the United States with regard to human rights has become “diminished over the past years…” Nations like China, who are unwilling to openly criticize the U.S., are of the opinion that “our views on human rights are somewhat as jaundiced in the sense that we apply human rights criteria to them but perhaps are not so strict in applying it to ourselves.”
Through their various areas of expertise, the members of this panel emphasized that it is in the best interest of the American government to reinstate human rights as one of the center points of their interests, both for the benefit of the U.S. and the international community. Though they are extremely important, human rights are rarely at the forefront of international relations. Nations often avoid prioritizing human rights, and many believe that establishing human rights as the principal nexus will have profoundly negative implications on security, trade, and other strategic interests.
The panel refuted the claim that human rights cannot coexist with other American interests and examined the ways in which the United States can leverage its power to get its allies and others to respect human rights when several other interests are at stake. With China, Pakistan, and Egypt as the countries of focus, our panelists sought to offer concrete recommendations that they hope will allow the next presidential administration to keep human rights at the center of American interests.
In discussing the tension between security and human rights, panelist Steve Coll stated that while genuine sources of emergency do exist, emergency is often exaggerated to the point that it creates a false construct in which security cannot exist alongside human rights and allows for “emergency measures” that are not necessary. Using Egypt as an example, Jennifer Windsor acknowledged that the United States’ support of their allies’ human rights abuses when the nations are in states of emergency is proving detrimental to human rights. In order to uphold international human rights doctrines, such as R2P, John Shattuck eloquently stated that the United States “needs to reinstate our commitment to human rights treaties and conventions.”
Brian Katulis (moderator), Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Steve Coll, President and CEO, New America Foundation
James Sasser, former U.S. Ambassador to China
John Shattuck, CEO, John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; and former U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic
Jennifer L. Windsor, Executive Director, Freedom House
Watch the panel on how the United States should handle the human rights abuses of allies and partners below.
Part One – William F. Schulz
“Any nation that would promote itself as a champion of human rights must ipso facto recognize the authority of the international community when it comes to human rights.” – William F. Schulz
William F. Schulz, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, gave a scintillating speech that framed the key issues previously discussed in the conference and provided the context in which the United States is currently functioning with regard to its human rights law. Schulz reinforced that America has much work to do in cleaning up the mistakes that have been made in the area of human rights, emphasizing that the United States must acknowledge the international standards of human rights. Suspending the penalties that the U.S. has leveraged against countries refuse to immunize American troops from possible prosecution by the International Criminal Court and commencing the process of resigning and ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court by sending observers to the upcoming conference in which provisions of the statute will be discussed are two of the many remedies that Schulz proposed that the next president can employ in order to right these wrongs.
One of the predominant follies in the approach to human rights that Schulz identified in the American government is the focus on American expansion. “The human rights cause has suffered enormously because it has come to be identified with the spread of American Empire…” Acknowledging that the link between all humans is the desire for a resolution to “the common misery,” Schulz stated that the key to improving human rights is to prioritize that shared desire over nations’ individual agendas. In the words of President Harry Truman, “We all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do as we please.” Using a heart wrenching story about a group of Rwandan schoolgirls who were tragically slaughtered during the 1994 genocide because when asked to identify themselves as Hutu or Tutsi, they refused to separate and instead chose to only identify as Rwandan, Schulz emphasized that the unified stance those young women took is “the most fundamental reflection of the human rights ethos.”
Part Two – Joseph Zogby
Joseph Zogby, the Democratic Chief Counsel of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, addressed specific bills and issues regarding human rights that are currently being debated within Congress. While there are many negative aspects to the United States approach to human rights, including the hypocritical use of water torture and the kidnapping and rendition of persons of interest, “there are hopeful developments” taking place today. From attorney general candidates being voted against for refusals to condemn waterboarding, the passing of the McCain Torture Amendment in 2005, and the recent creation of the judiciary human rights subcommittee in the Senate, the United States government is taking incremental steps toward returning human rights to a more central point within American ideals. When speaking about the importance of acknowledging the common misery of humanity and working to prevent atrocities that are happening around the world, Zogby spoke about Ishmael Beah, a Sierra Leonean human rights activist, who recently addressed the Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights. In years past, “the voices of people like Ishmael Beah have not been heard on Capitol Hill, and we’re starting to give voice to them. That’s a reason that I’m hopeful today, and I hope we’ll be able to do more in coming years.”
Watch William F. Schulz’s speech on the importance of acknowledging and participating in international human rights standards and Joseph Zogby’s address on the basis of his optimism surrounding the future of human rights in Congress and the subsequent Q&A session below.
Keynote Address – Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor, International Criminal Court
Introduced by: Richard Goldstone, former Justice, Constitutional Court of South Africa and Distinguished Visitor from the Judiciary, Georgetown University Law Center
“Sixty years ago, with Nuremburg Trials, those who commit massive crimes were held accountable before international community. This was a landmark, but the world was not ready to transform such a landmark into an institution. The world would wait to witness to genocide, first in the Balkans and then in Rwanda, before the UN Security Council creates the ad hoc tribunals for those specific situations. This paved the way for the establishment of the International Criminal Court.” – Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo
Luis Moreno-Ocampo is a champion of human rights who rose to prominence in his home country of Argentina and gained internationally acclaim as the Assistant Prosecutor in the Trial of the Juntas, the first major trial held for war crimes since the Nuremburg Trials, in which several Argentinian heads of state were tried and convicted. Since 2003, Moreno-Ocampo has served as the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and in the position, he has faced strong opposition from the heads of several nations, including the United States. However, Moreno-Ocampo holds firm to his duty as it is outlined in the Rome Statute “to investigate and prosecute to contribute to the prevention of future crimes” and continues to pursue justice without wavering.
In his keynote speech, Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo addresses the design of the Rome Statute, summarizes the activities of the International Criminal Court in the last five years, and identifies the present challenges facing the Court. When discussing the history and purpose of the ICC, Moreno-Ocampo quoted Kofi Annan, who spoke the following words at the 1998 Rome Conference: “We who have also witnessed time and again in this century the worst crimes against humanity have an opportunity to bequeath to the next century a powerful instrument. Let us rise to the challenge let us give succeeding generation this gift of hope. They will not forgive us if we fail.”
Watch Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s powerful keynote address on the past, present, and future of the International Criminal Court and the subsequent Q&A session below.
Panel 3 – “Introducing Social and Economic Rights into U.S. Policy”
“Social and economic rights, such as the right to education, to food, to safe and healthy working conditions, or to the highest attainable state of health, are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and have been legally recognized by the 157 countries who have ratified the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Although the U.S. is not a party to this treaty, economic and social rights were at one point a priority of U.S. administrations.” – Jane Stromseth
The belief that each human being has the right to social and economic stability was codified in the Universal Declaration of human rights in 1948. Then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been widely credited for laying the groundwork for social and economic rights through his emphasis on “freedom from want.” Subsequent presidents have acknowledged the existence and importance of social and economic rights; however, the support has decreased over time with even rhetorical support now a rare occurrence. “In many instances, U.S. officials have characterized these rights as separate from and less important than civil and political rights, arguing that economic and social rights lack clear substantive content and are merely aspirational.”
The panelists addressed the importance of social and economic rights and the positive effects of the American government embracing the notion of social and economic rights. Drawing from his experience working in the White House and on Capitol Hill, Eric Schwartz identified three main benefits of a shift toward prioritizing social and economic rights and explained the reason why international standards for social and political rights have yet to be implemented in American. When asked how the stature of the United States in the global community would improve, Schwartz stated, “Embracing the notion of economic social and cultural rights the first is it will help to blunt the worldwide perception of American arrogance,” however, conversely, Schwartz elucidated that there is “opposition to international human rights being applied to Americans” stemming from the U.S. government’s unwillingness to submit to external influence.
Looking ahead to the role that future administrations can have in prioritizing social and political rights, the panelists explained the various mechanisms in which social and economic rights can and should be considered equally as important as other rights that the U.S. government champions. Leonard Rubenstein used the right to health to demonstrate how social and economic rights play a significant role in the success of a nation. Rubenstein pushed back against the myth that social and economic rights are indeterminable and emphasized the necessity of using a “human rights approach” to establish standards to prevent infringement on social and economic rights. “Human rights give people something to believe in. They give people a sense that they can organize around it.”
Jane E. Stromseth (moderator), Professor of Law and Faculty Director, Human Rights Institute, Georgetown University Law Center
Raymond C. Offenheiser, President, Oxfam America
Leonard Rubenstein, President, Physicians for Human Rights
Meg Roggensack, Policy Director, Free the Slaves
Eric P. Schwartz, Executive Director, Connect US
Watch the panel on how to encourage the government to incorporate social and economic rights into its future policy agenda and the subsequent Q&A session below.
Tribute to Representative Tom Lantos
Congressman Thomas “Tom” Lantos (February 1, 1928 – February 11, 2008) served as the Democratic representative for the 11th and 12th districts of California. As a survivor of the Holocaust, Lantos drew from his own life experiences and became a devotee to human rights, justice, and equality. Among many of his accomplishments, Lantos founded and co-chaired the Human Rights Caucus in the House of Representatives and also chaired the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Not only was he dearly loved by his family, but Rep. Lantos was also a cherished member of the human rights community. As we honor Samuel Dash, it is a privilege to also honor the legacy of human rights champion Tom Lantos.
Watch the heartfelt tribute to Representative Lantos below.