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Joshua Rubenstein

Human rights at risk, now more than ever

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joshua Rubenstein
November 22, 2007

IN A post-Sept. 11 world, where the challenge of terrorism meets the necessity of preserving human rights, human rights groups must not back down from defending their values and beliefs. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it was only natural that the federal government would seek to expand its powers in order to protect the country and find those responsible. But it is the job of human rights groups to insist that the government not cross at least two red lines: the prohibition against torture and the prohibition against holding people indefinitely without charge.

Human rights activists have a unique and compelling message. Does anyone question that when the white-minority government of South Africa wanted to negotiate with the black majority, it had to release Nelson Mandela and suspend the death penalty in order to show its sincere intent? And in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had to call a halt to political arrests and issue a broad amnesty for political prisoners before the world could recognize that he was serious about remaking Soviet society. It was the human rights movement, both within the Soviet Union and abroad, that set the moral agenda for Gorbachev's reforms and the terms of his acceptance in the West.

Just as in Burma today, promises of democratic reform by military leaders cannot obscure a fundamental reality. As long as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds, if not thousands, of others are being held, the regime will have a dubious moral standing.

At the same time, human rights groups are painfully aware of their limitations. From the outset, Amnesty International was set up to identify individual prisoners and campaign on their behalf. But in response to mass killings in places like Uganda, East Timor, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur, we can interview refugees, document the suffering, alert the United Nations and press for the dispatch of peacekeepers, insist on accountability, and still come away with the sinking feeling that our efforts cannot match the full magnitude of the violence.

This fall marked two auspicious anniversaries in the history of Amnesty International USA. In 1977, Amnesty International received the Nobel Prize for Peace, and the Northeast office held the first regional conference in the history of Amnesty's US Section.

Both events reflected the maturing of our movement. At the international level, the Nobel Committee was recognizing our efforts during our initial 15 years, and specifically cited our campaigns on behalf of prisoners of conscience. At that time, Amnesty was challenging the cold-hearted assumptions of the Cold War. For Amnesty to oppose torture and campaign for the release of prisoners of conscience without regard to the political orientation of the government or the prisoner was seen as a rebuke to both sides in a world where human rights was often turned into a slogan, a bludgeon for one side to use against the other.

The Nobel Peace Prize was also becoming a signal to governments that respect for human rights was inseparable from peace. In 1975, the award to the Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov embodied that spirit. Sakharov had stood up to the Kremlin in a relentless campaign to defend imprisoned activists and challenged the evolving process of détente, in which, it seemed to him, the West was failing to insist on its own values when it negotiated with Soviet leaders. As the Nobel Committee observed, "In a convincing fashion Sakharov has emphasized that the individual rights of man can serve as the only sure foundation for a genuine and long-lasting system of international cooperation."

The first regional conference reflected a determination to make Amnesty's US Section relevant in the international movement and here at home. Amnesty International was determined to develop a grass-roots presence throughout the country. By 1977, it was organizing local Amnesty groups in the Midwest and South, areas of the country that were only beginning to learn about the group's work.

Back in 1977, Amnesty International USA's keynote speaker was Dr. John Karefa-Smart, a onetime independence leader in Sierra Leone and former government minister who had been imprisoned by political rivals. Karefa-Smart was living in Boston, where he served as medical director of the Roxbury Community Health Center. This fall, the keynote speaker was Ishmael Beah, who is also from Sierra Leone and the author of "A Long Way Gone," a memoir about his experiences as a child soldier in the region's civil wars. The political independence that Karefa-Smart had worked so hard to attain had deteriorated among many African countries into terrifying, violent anarchy, engulfing even children.

It is one thing to speak up for human rights at a time of peace and prosperity. It is another thing to defend human rights at a time of anxiety and war. But we cannot be deterred. Prisoners of conscience are still being held. Torture remains a tool of punishment and interrogation. The death penalty is carried out in scores of countries. Governments expect to hear from us. We cannot disappoint them.

Joshua Rubenstein is the Northeast regional director of Amnesty International USA.

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