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Human Rights and the United States: Through a Mirror but Darkly

David P. Forsythe is the Editor in Chief of the Encyclopedia of Human Rights which was the winner of the 2010 Dartmouth Medal.  The five-volume encyclopedia offers comprehensive coverage of all aspects of human rights theory, practice, law, and history.  Focusing primarily on developments since 1945, it offers an unrivaled reference source for students and researchers.  In the original post below Forsythe looks at how we are handling our own human rights fumbles.

The United States was founded as a city on a hill, a beacon of freedom to all. So said both Ronald Reagan, the 40th president, and John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts. Reagan plagiarized Winthrop to good effect.

Many Americans have shared this vision of America as a special nation, not at all ordinary. It remains a mystery exactly how the Puritan vision of America as a divinely inspired experiment for global freedom endured over increasingly secular time. There have always been those who translated the vision into isolationism, to lead by example at home. And there have always been realists like Henry Kissinger who did not buy into the vision at all but who preferred traditional balance of power politics to manage nasty world affairs. Not for them any moral crusade to rid the world of evil—whether of the communist or terrorist version.

The American penchant for at least the rhetoric of freedom and democracy morphed into the modern human rights movement after World War II under the leadership of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. During the Cold War U.S. alignment with brutal authoritarians like Mobutu in Zaire, or the overthrow of even elected governments, as in Chile in 1973, or the supervision of torture in Latin America never destroyed the dream of America as moral beacon. In public we accepted the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture. In the shadows we played the game about as tough as anyone else.

9/11 accentuated this duality, perhaps schizophrenia. George W. Bush said al-Qaeda hated us for who we were, our personal freedoms in thought, including religious thought, and our gender-blind democracy. They hated us because we rejected their deferential and patriarchal theocracy. But in secret we engaged in forced disappearances, torture, cruelties arguably just below that level of abuse, denial of reasonable dues process in places like Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Force Base, and military brigs in South Carolina. In defense of our moral greatness we engaged in policies that undercut that greatness. As Winston Churchill paradoxically noted in World War II, truth was so important it had to be defended with a  bodyguard of lies. So for us after 9/11, the rule of law and personal rights were so important they had to be defended by secret detention and torture.

So what now? Was transitional justice after gross violations of human rights, principally via criminal trials and truth commissions, only for the small and weak and not for the big and strong? Should Pinochet and Milošević have to answer in court for their atrocities, but not leaders from consolidated democracies? Should South Africa and El Salvador have truth commissions to deal with the abuses of the past, but not the United States? How best to guarantee that in the wake of the next successful attack on the U.S. homeland, which will occur sooner or later, the country does not again resort to measures that violate both the best of American values and the prohibitions founds in domestic and international law? Obama worries about tearing the country apart, as particularly most Republican males follow Dick Cheney down the path of approving torture for supposed reasons of national security. (Overall, about 40% of Americans believe torture might be justified sometimes.)  But now that the Justice Department has said that John Yoo, author of several torture memos, was guilty of only bad judgment and not professional misconduct, what barriers exist against vengeful abuses in the future?

Recent Comments

  1. Admiral

    Wow, this is a really embarrassingly bad analysis. Surprised OUP let it go up. Just a few points:

    1. Reagan didn’t plagiarize Winthrop. Reagan often explicitly mentioned Winthrop by name when using the terms, as did JFK incidentally. Besides plagiarism not applying to phrases, other issues with your characterization remain. I trust you already know them.

    2. It is ironic that the good vs. evil Republicans often recognize the shades of gray in the torture debate, whereas authors such as you do not. Most of them do not consider waterboarding torture, though it may be a violation of the 8th Amdt, and it should probably be mentioned here, but is not.

    3. John Yoo was obviously not guilty of professional misconduct. He rendered a legal opinion and took part in no unethical action as per any federal or state bar rules. When the Justice Dept says they thought Yoo used bad judgment, what they really mean is that they disagree. Presidents have to be confronted with legal opinions on a range of issues and your implication that Yoo should have suffered some penalty for his own is pretty shocking.

    Otherwise, great job with the FDR through GWB narrative. It’s fairly accurate and needs to be said.

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