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Jack Healey

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Can Human Rights Be Saved?

Posted: 12/19/11 04:31 PM ET

This is a piece I never thought I'd be writing. A unique moment is about to begin in American history.

The United States is about to add an unknown number of political prisoners to its jails. After a legacy of torture inherited by the Bush/Cheney team, we are about to see the Obama administration sign off on a law that would permit indefinite military detention of American citizens without trial, process, or even formal charge. Add the National Defense Authorization Act to a long list of disappointments. There has been no closure of Guantanamo. Torture at the hands of American authorities may have been deterred, but renditions which outsource prisoners to be tortured in other countries continue. Detainees in Guantanamo have been held without trials for over 10 years, despite the fact that some of these men have been acquitted, and declared "legally" free. Looking at the situation we're in today, I'm reminded of the main prison in Port-au-Prince in Haiti, which I visited years ago. The prison held men who had actually been issued their release papers. How is it possible that our judicial system is beginning to resemble one of the most broken systems in the world without the American public taking notice?

It's not getting better. It's getting worse.

The authorized execution of two American citizens went through with the approval of this administration. Drone attacks have increased, and have occurred with little media or advocacy oversight, so we don't have any reliable or comprehensive numbers of how many innocents have been killed. The legal cover for torture that the United States has created to justify its actions has stained our record and has created cover for people like Zimbabwe's Mugabe or Syria's Assad to disregard the basic universal rights of its own population. With the National Defense Authorization Act about to become law and SOPA on the brink of it, we are facing new challenges that do not merely fail to address the grotesquerie of the Bush/Cheney years; they are deepening and extending the violations.

More than a decade after 9/11, our national identity is still governed by the specter of fear that can be called up casually with the mention of Islam or terrorism. Indeed, they have become interchangeable terms. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has denied the reality of Palestinian identity, Herman Cain knows nothing about Libya, Bachmann is engaging in open hate-mongering, and Romney is declaring his support for using military force to take back a spy drone that crashed in Iranian territory. The nuclear threat of Iran is used to fan our fears and to justify our military expenditures. We are expected to believe that Iran is a greater threat than North Korea's repeated avowals to use its weaponry to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire." We beat the drum of Islamophobia drum against Iran, a nation with a population that has a strong cultural affinity to the United States. There is no human rights baseline for our foreign policy anymore.

Outside of the government, there exists some human rights groups (Enough and Human Rights Watch) who have endorsed the use of American military "advisers" to enter transnational missions to hunt and kill men like Joseph Kony. Regardless of whether someone is a despicable violator of human rights (and Kony certainly is), it is a disturbing precedent to have human rights advocates calling for military involvement.

Under these conditions, how can we increase access to human rights? How can we save them in these dim times?

Currently, less than five percent of the world's population is even aware of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Though there are inevitable questions of enforcement, people must first have access to the knowledge that they have rights. We might print the UDHR in all passports internationally. We might try to teach one another that rights are important to protect especially when they're difficult to protect. We might demand the media to press candidates at all levels of political office to ask questions about human rights at debates and in political positions. We might incorporate human rights awareness into the curriculum of educational systems. We might actually have a national discussion on this issue that can ground and provide a baseline for all others.

We must make people look at one another to see the basic spark of humankind that binds us together. If we can create enough awareness, it might be possible to move beyond a simple conspiracy of hope to the reality of another world beginning. Ordinary people and citizens of all nations must educate and agitate in defense of human rights in their universal relevance and specific applications. Indeed, Occupy Human Rights. We are the 100%.