The New Non-Human Rights Approach

04/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Amazingly, the Washington Post carried an editorial on March 10 questioning Hillary Clinton's approach to human rights in her new position as Secretary of State. The Post claims that she undercuts her own State Department's human rights reporting by praising Turkey and Hosni Mubarek of Egypt at a time when their media is under fire for speaking of human rights abuses. The Post added that she was dismissive of China's human rights abuses on her recent visit. This act called forth moans and groans from human rights communities around the world, especially from the Tibetan and Burmese refugees.

The Democratic victory of hope and change brought hope and possible change to two areas. The first is how Americans are seen the world over and secondly, how American foreign policy would be altered in an Obama administration. The clarity of the president's executive order that there will be no torture lifts the spirits of any activist in the world.

Another day of hope for Americans occurred on the first day of the senate hearing for Leon Panetta. The second day, confirming U.S. continuation of rendition, left many of us human rights people confused. Rendition returned on the second day.

Thus, some clarity and some confusion. Nothing new in human rights or American foreign policy.

Let us go back in time, past President Bush. In terms of human rights he is too easy to speak of and too easy to hit with any wild swing. He spread democracy with a gun barrel and drones. The moralism of the right folded under its own mistakes and missteps. A Justice department that approves of torture is just not comprised of that which is decent.

But pre-Bush was an interesting time. Prisoners were moving from their cell-blocks to presidencies. Revolutions were soft, pink, violet, usually non-violent and victorious. The total collapse of the USSR was celebrated with the sounds of hammers and sickles, as the Berlin Wall crumbled into dust. Southern Africa sifted from white minority rule to elections based on majority rule, with little blood shed before or after the change. Latin America, after suffering for decades, was freed of its many military dictatorships. Human rights had been elevated onto the tables of all governments , whether they liked it or not. The people and media remembered by all were not the heads of states, but the people of great proven decency like Biko, Mandela, Tutu, Romero, Aquino, Scharof, and Havel , to name a few. The unique possibility of having a single standard for human rights was looming large in the minds of activists. The United Nations even created a new position of Assistant Secretary of human rights in Vienna at the 1993 Human Rights Conference. Human rights groups began popping up all over the world and growing in numbers. The 90s saw a time of human rights explosion.

Then the war on Iraq hit and democracy became a bullet in the gun of the American foreign policy. Rendition, the act of moving people to other countries to get information through torture, spread, becoming state policy. As did holding people without trials and listening in on whoever the government felt they should. Gitmo and Abu became common words for abuse.

All of these changes after the turn of the century can be argued to have been the result, and the appropriate response, of the 9/11 attack. If so, then we Americans can do whatever we want, if and when we are attacked, or perceived to be attacked. No single standard exists for human rights in such an instance. My guess is many Americans would approve of torture in these circumstances. Water boarding was approved by many, but by none who had ever experienced it.

Next time torture is brought up in the Senate, why not test it publicly on TV?... "Today Senator Bond of Missouri, who approves of water boarding, will give us an example of how this technique works." Then let Senator Bond testify to the public how this practice does not terrify the depth of one's soul to the max. Let us see a senator taste it before he approves of it for others. Confusion would not follow. Clarity about a single standard for human rights at the State department and the Senate levels would be achieved. Those in torture chambers in China, Egpyt, Turkey, Burma, etc., would cheer so loud that the new Secretary of state would hear the sound.

Our new administration campaigned for hope and change, but they did not arrive in the White House without the individuals of the U.S. and of the world who supported them and lifted them to this place. The seeds of this change have been sown and it is time for us as a country to guide our leaders towards an ethical standard for human rights, to step out of the darkness of these last few years and re-enter the spirit of MLK Jr, Nelson Mandela, Biko, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi and beyond.

It is possible for prisoners to become rightful leaders, for countries to become democratic, for military dictatorships to fall, for torture victims to be freed. If the new administration were a boat, this ship would leave a strange and wiggly wake. But it is still in its infancy, and with our knowledge of past victories in human rights, it is time for people to take our leaders' hands and show them the way. The Secretary of State needs to return to her own words she spoke in China, "Women's rights are Human Rights".