Eighty years ago, when the League of Nations was established, the phrase "human rights" did not appear in its charter. Peace, attempts at arms control, resistance to aggression, were all on the international agenda in the years following World War I. But the promotion and protection of human rights were barely in the vocabulary of international discourse. All that changed after World War II, when the newly created United Nations made the promotion of human rights one of its fundamental goals.
Since then, the international system has devised numerous conventions and protocols, convened endless commissions, authorized the creation of tribunals to try war criminals, and even, in the name of NATO, dispatched humanitarian interventions to bring an end to mass killings. The question of how to promote human rights remains at the heart of UN deliberations and US foreign policy. No administration - Democratic or Republican, conservative or liberal - can afford to ignore, at least publicly, insistent calls on behalf of prisoners of conscience or victims of torture. This is a major achievement unlikely to be reversed.
In "The Mobilization of Shame," former congressman and Jesuit priest Robert F. Drinan, who once led Boston College Law School and now teaches at Georgetown University Law Center, provides a summary of developments within the human rights movement, including points of deep contention within the corridors of power.
At the outset, Fr. Drinan asks, "Can the protection of human rights be the public morality of the global village?" For him, the answer is obvious. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Social, Cultural, and Religious Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to name the most prominent agreements, are supposed to regulate how governments treat their citizens. There may not be adequate machinery to enforce these rights, but the fact that the covenants exist provides a useful means to embarrass governments and, on occasion, to compel better behavior.
Although Drinan welcomes all the human rights initiatives of the international community, he is quick to point out that "the separation of economic rights from political rights" has frustrated "the fundamental purposes of the United Nations." This is an awkward but necessary point that US policymakers and human rights activists need to understand. In a world of growing disparity between rich and poor, it is callous to focus solely on traditional political rights when so many people routinely go hungry. At the same time, we need to resist the false claim by governments of the right and the left that it is sometimes necessary to "suspend" political rights in order to assure economic development.
Drinan reserves some of his harshest criticism for US foreign policy. He makes clear that in recent years, the unwillingness of the United States to endorse the creation of the International Criminal Court and the American Convention on Human Rights, serves to diminish the effectiveness of these agreements and undercut American claims to moral leadership.
Here Drinan betrays his own ambivalence about America's role in the world. While he provides details of America's cynical failure to support concrete international agreements (which our government usually works hard to formulate), Drinan still contends that the United States "is the principal cheerleader for [UN] efforts to promote and protect human rights." His own analysis, regrettably, undercuts this claim.
Drinan served in Congress in the mid-1970s when conditions were placed on aid to repressive regimes and the human rights bureau was created in the US State Department. But these initiatives have not guaranteed effective policymaking. No doubt it is hard to create a consistent policy when crises in places as diverse as China, Chechnya, and Central Africa pose such different challenges. But too often, presidents have either refused to recognize the severity of human rights abuses or, having acknowledged them, failed to formulate a policy that even remotely responds to the crisis at hand.
Joshua Rubenstein is the Northeast regional director of Amnesty International USA and the author of 'Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg.'
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor