Human rights take center stage at year-long symposium

Former President Jimmy Carter's voice grew louder, more insistent as he came to the topic he says he hopes to be most remembered by 100 years from now: human rights.

''When we are silent in the presence of human rights abuses here on earth, the silence is deafening,'' he said.

Then, after stating that he had not come to criticize President Reagan, he told the large, predominantly student audience here recently: ''Our present policies concern me very much.'' He urged the audience ''not to be silent'' on human rights and other issues.

Earlier the same day, a former close associate of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, told a handful of students here that the US needs and is ''on the verge'' of another protest movement, one likely to involve Hispanics, Indians, and others. The aim: help the poor better meet their ''basic human needs.''

Regarding past gains by minorities in the US, he added: ''I think we're slipping.''

Political and economic human rights - both issues are being examined in a variety of ways here during Emory University's year-long symposium on Rethinking Human Rights.

''Sustained reflection around a common theme'' is becoming increasingly unusual in universities today, says David Pacini, asssistant professor of historical theology and co-chairman of the project. The theme of human rights has never received such an in-depth university probe, he says.

Although Mssrs. Carter and Lewis were critical of President Reagan's positions, the university has made every effort to steer clear of a partisan role in its dozens of seminars, artistic performances, and exhibits. A human rights official of the Reagan administration is scheduled to speak in April.

Among topics in the year-long program are the rights of older people, women, gays, political detainees, members of religious minorities, as well as the issue of violence in the family, and religion and the future of human rights.

Mr. Pacini says that some of the speakers have pointed out that civil rights in the US is not a ''hot topic'' among students today, compared with such things as how black authors have tackled human rights.

Panelists try to present various aspects of an issue, not just defend a position, says Ellen Mickiewicz, co-chair of the project and dean of the Emory Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Some ''rights'' are contradictory, such as the right to life and the right to abortion, she says.

Human rights is ''one of the most difficult and complex issues of our times, '' Pacini says. Often it is also a ''misunderstood'' topic, he adds.

In the 19th century, the term usually dealt with a ''more humane future,'' he says. In this century it has come to be seen more in terms of laws that provide certain ''human'' rights, which raises the dilemma that such rights may disappear if the laws are reversed, he says.

When Eastern bloc leaders talk of human rights they usually look at social and economic issues, while Western leaders tend to describe political and civil rights.

In speaking here, Carter was looking mostly abroad while Lewis, one of the early black ''freedom riders'' protesting for full minority access to public transportation, was looking at this country.

Critics contend that as President, Carter had little to show in places such as South Africa as a result of his statements on human rights. President Reagan says he favors quiet negotiations abroad. As for minority progress in the US, the President continues to insist that the improving economy will be the best aid to all Americans.

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