“Compassion and Justice Are Not Choices”

Fairfield History Museum and Center

On April 22, 2012 Dr. Jonathan Fanton delivered a keynote address at the Fairfield History Museum on the global issue of  violence against women. The event was sponsored by Emerge. Emerge aims to empower people to stop violence in intimate relationships, broaden public knowledge of the causes and solutions to domestic abuse, and strengthen institutional responses to aggressive spousal conflict. Click here for additional information about this organization.

I am always inspired to hear Donna talk about the life saving work of Emerge.  Lifesaving and life giving: Emerge opens opportunities for women and their children to develop their individual talents, live a stable and safe life and give back to society.

I want to thank Larry Roberts, Roma Fanton and Rosine Shalala for organizing this event and you who are supporting Emerge.  Thanks too, to the Fairfield History Museum.  This event is emblematic of two powerful themes: the role of volunteer citizens in addressing serious issues and the importance of working together to advance human rights.  I want to talk with you for a few minutes about those themes in global perspective and then open the floor for a discussion.

We are in the right place to talk about how Emerge fits within a global human rights framework.  Two hundred and thirty two years ago this July British troops sacked Fairfield.  Those who lived here before us knew firsthand how it felt to face oppression, lose homes and livelihood to forces bent on turning back our unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Connecticut and Fairfield pioneered the theory and practice of protecting individual freedoms.  In 1639, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut were adopted, affirming that the “foundation of authority is the free consent of the people.”  Two years before the Declaration of Independence, towns across the state passed resolutions supporting independence and asserting the “natural rights” of Connecticut’s citizens in defiance of the British Crown.

As early as 1774, Connecticut began to restrict the trade of slaves. In 1840, a number of Connecticut citizens worked to shelter and free slaves seized here on the Amistad.  In 1866, Connecticut was the first state to ratify the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law.  In 1869, the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association was born, and in 1943, the Connecticut General Assembly established the Inter-Racial Commission, the nation’s first civil rights agency.

Fired by the honorable tradition of this town and state, we must join together to continue our obligation for leadership in protecting human security, individual dignity, and opportunity for all.

That is what Emerge is all about.  I salute you who are supporting Emerge and urge others to join in.  But as we draw inspiration from this close to home example of protecting individual rights and respecting the dignity of women and families, let us reflect on abuses people in other countries face.  We have an obligation, I believe, to work through not-for-profit civil society groups to address these abuses.

I can bear personal witness to the importance of volunteer service and engagement in issue advocacy.  I feel blessed to have had interesting and challenging jobs, but my deepest satisfaction has come from my 30-year involvement with Human Rights Watch, six as chair. I want to talk with you for a few minutes about Human Rights Watch, especially its work in protecting women’s rights around the world.

Human Rights Watch works in 70 countries, bringing to light human rights abuses from Rwanda and Sierra Leone to Iraq and Egypt; from North Korea and China to Columbia and Cuba.  It also attends to America’s own shortcomings: appalling prison conditions; indefinite detentions and abusive practices at U.S.-run facilities in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq and racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Human Rights Watch is emblematic of civil society’s growing importance over the past 50 years.  By civil society, I mean non-governmental groups that do careful research and monitoring to expose problems, propose specific remedies rooted in law and reality, and pioneer models of direct service.

Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, C.A.R.E., Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children – the honor roll is wide and deep.  These global groups support and draw strength from a burgeoning number of local civil society organizations such as the Moscow Helsinki Group, Mexico’s Sin Fronteras, and Nigeria’s Access to Justice.

All over the world, people like you and me are joining together to influence governments and confront problems, from the environment to AIDS to human rights violations, directly through the power of civil society.
These groups play an indispensable role in the policy process and at the same time advance the prospects of creating and sustaining healthy democracies around the world.  They give voice to ordinary citizens, check governmental excesses, fill in service gaps, and prod international agencies to establish norms that express humankind’s highest aspirations for justice and fairness. Emerge is part of this world wide movement.

William Sloane Coffin was right when he said “compassion and justice are companions not choices.”  The work of Human Rights Watch confirms that wise observation.

It has been a leader in defending the rights of women, fighting gender discrimination, advocating for conditions that support healthy and stable families, and seeking accountability for abusive treatment of women.

Its methodology is to document abuses, analyze how the abuses violate international law and treaties, and make recommendations to the U.N., regional bodies like the African Union or to the government of nations where the abuses take place on actions which will end the bad practices.

Among the situations Human Rights Watch has addressed in the past few years are:  domestic violence in Morocco, exploitation of domestic workers in Lebanon, sexual assault in police custody in India, involuntary sterilization of women and girls with disabilities, accountability for poor maternal healthcare in South Africa.

Let me tell you about two issues in more depth.

First, the Democratic Republic of Congo.  More people have died here, an estimated 5.4 million since 1998, than in any other conflict since World War II.  But rebel forces in the eastern Congo continue to fight the central government and the army uses tough measures to crack down. Both sides are guilty of sexual violence.

In 2008 alone the U.N. Population Fund reported 16,000 new cases of sexual violence, the majority against adolescent girls.  A 2001 report published by the American Journal of Public Health found that 1.8 million women in DRC had been raped during their lifetime.  For the survey period, the rate was 48 rapes every hour.  This is probably an underestimate.  Let me quote from an HRW report:  “Sexual violence was widespread and sometimes systematic, a weapon of war used by all sides to deliberately terrorize civilians, to exert control over them, or to punish them for perceived collaboration with the enemy.  Armed groups also abducted women and girls and used them as sexual slaves.  Many of the crimes committed amounted to war crimes or even crimes against humanity.  Women said the war was being fought ‘on their bodies.’ ”

Part of the power of Human Rights Watch derives from the stories people tell.  Hear their words:  “We were three young women and we were on our way to Cirunga…they [the soldiers] raped us and dragged us to their camp which was not far away.  I stayed there for one month, under constant supervision…there was no conversation between us, he had sex with me at any moment, when he felt like it, and with a lot of violence.  I spend my days crying.  I begged God to free me from this hell.”

Another woman reported:
“There were six soldiers who came into my house.  They first raped my three year old sister, and then two of them raped me while the others looted our house.  They threw my newborn baby onto the ground, and because of the shock he is in a lot of pain whenever anyone touches his legs.  After they raped me, they took my mother away with them.  She hasn’t come back yet, and I think she must be dead.  Five other houses in Kihonga were visited the same night by the soldiers.”

The Human Rights Watch report described how the Congo is bound by international law to prevent rape and other forms of sexual violence from being used as an instrument of war.  Such acts are prohibited by the Geneva Conventions of 1949.  And the Rome statute that created the International Criminal Court specifies that rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, can constitute war crimes or crimes again humanity.  And if a nation does not prosecute those who commit such crimes the International Criminal Court can exert jurisdiction.

Though the ICC investigators speak of the overwhelming number of crimes against women to investigate, there has been progress.  In April of 2004, the ICC formally launched an investigation into the crimes of the DRC.  Since then, several rebel and government leaders have been indicted on various charges, including rape, child soldiering, and other sex crimes.  In 2008, DRC vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba was indicted by the ICC with six counts of crimes against humanity.  In 2004, the ICC also set up a Gender and Children’s Unit to advise lawyers on the prosecution of sexual violence crimes in the country.  More recently, the Court has worked effectively with local courts to identify low-level suspects whose heinous crimes often avoid prosecution.

These efforts coincide with the actions of the Congolese government itself.  In 2006, the government amended its penal code to “prevent and severely reprimand infractions relating to sexual violence and to ensure systematic support for the victims of these crimes.”  The new law imposes harsh sentences on those found guilty of sex crimes.

I think it is fair to say that Human Rights Watch and other non-governmental groups have played a critical role in bringing the systemic use of sexual violence as a war tactic to the public’s attention.  And while the problem is not solved, nor all the perpetrators brought to justice, there clearly has been some improvement.

Let me talk about another issue that Human Rights Watch has confronted in a report entitled “Violations of Women’s and Girl’s Human Rights in Child Marriage.”  International human rights standards call for the minimum age of marriage to be set at 18 and protects both boys and girls from forced marriages.  Estimates are that worldwide one girl out of seven is married before the age of 15, some as young as 8 when forced to marry.  Human Rights Watch has studied the issue in depth in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Yemen.  It concludes:  “The testimonies of the children we interviewed illustrate the profoundly detrimental impact of child marriage on children’s physical and mental well-being, education, and ability to live free of violence.  For child brides in particular, the consequences of child marriage do not end when they reach adulthood, but follow them throughout their lives as they struggle with the health effects of getting pregnant too young and too often, their lack of education and economic independence, domestic violence, and marital rape.”

International law is clear about the right of women to choose their own spouse; the U.N. Convention on Consent to Marriage and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women are two key instruments.

But 50 million girls and women between the ages of 15 and 19 are married worldwide, many of them forced.  The stories chronicled by Human Rights Watch are moving.

The Director of an African Medical Center said, “too many of the cases we deal with have child marriages or marriage by force at the heart of them – cases of violence, running away, self-immolation and suicide attempts.”

Rangina , age 13, who ran away from an abusive situation won’t seek judicial help for fear of being forced to return to her husband – tormenter.  “I don’t want to go back.  I can’t go back.  They want to kill me” was her anguished statement.

Or hear the sad truth telling by a twelve year old bride in Yemen.  “All I am good for is to be a mother, a homemaker.  I’m illiterate.  They didn’t teach us anything.”

U.N. Development Program studies show that child marriages limit access to education, increase poverty and result in high death rates for girls and their children.  A child born to a girl under 18 has a 60% higher chance of dying in the first year than one born to a woman 19 and older.

So early and forced marriages can be a matter of life and death.

Human Rights Watch has a concrete set of recommendations that include compelling nations to pass a minimum age for marriage and requiring the consent of both spouses, enacting penalties for people who force child marriages, recognizing marital rape as a criminal offense.  It urges civil society groups to develop prevention campaigns against child marriages and to support programs to end violence against women and girls and more.

While Human Rights Watch has been a leading advocate against child and forced marriage, other international and local groups have also been important, including the Nigeria Group, Women Living Under Muslim Law, the International Alliance of Women, Kiran-Asian Women’s Aid, and the Antislavery Society in London.

There are more places where Human Rights Watch has documented abuse of women and their families, I think of Argentina, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Singapore and more.  But those stories will have to await another talk because I want to get to discussion period.  So let me close with a final observation.

The architecture for the worldwide protection of human rights is pretty much in place: agreements like the universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture, The Convention Prohibiting Discrimination Against Women, and more give a basis for robust action.
The challenge ahead is enforcement of these rights and punishment for those who violate them.  A vibrant system of international justice is emerging, with the new International Criminal Court at its center.

The Court has jurisdiction over the worst human rights abuses: genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity – acts like torture, enslavement or forced disappearances committed on a massive scale causing great suffering.

It may surprise you that the United States has not ratified the Treaty of Rome, which created the International Criminal Court, and that it is not part of the ICC.  It opposes the Court for fear that United States citizens might be brought to trial under it – an unlikely possibility because the Treaty states that the Court will assume jurisdiction only when a country is unable or unwilling to conduct an investigation of its own.

But America’s refusal to join its allies like Britain, Canada, France and Germany, Poland, Spain, Japan and Mexico will not stop the Court from going forward.  This is the most important new international institution since the founding of the United Nations, not only because it may well deter future Pol Pots or Pinochets, Gaddafis or Assads, but because it is causing nations around the world to reform their own laws and bring them into compliance with international standards.

Because the United States has a functioning criminal justice system capable of addressing allegations of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity, U.S. citizens, military personnel, and government officials have nothing to fear from the International Criminal Court.  Dictators, corrupt armies and armed groups in failing states do.

The United States should not undermine the ICC, which can bring justice to hundreds of thousands of victims and families who do not have the privilege of such recourse in their home countries.

A recent national poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs reports that 69% of Americans support the ICC – a strong majority.  Why then is our government out of step with public opinion?  It may be that we as citizens have not raised the issue forcefully enough or made it a priority among other important issues we care about.

I urge you to educate yourself about the Court and to speak up in favor of American ratification of the Treaty of Rome.  The United States government should get in step with the American people, who understand that our failure to join the Court puts us on the wrong side of history.

You can tell that I feel passionately about human rights.  But there are other issues worthy of your attention, so I conclude with this simple observation.

Being engaged in community organizations, issue advocacy groups as well as religious and service institutions, will add value to your lives and contribute to our search for a more just and human world at peace.  And as you feel the difference you are making, you will take heart that the deadly forces of apathy, fatalism and despair can be turned back by the power of individuals coming together directly, unmediated by governments.

The most powerful force for good in our time is the worldwide mobilization of citizens to act directly: sometimes to supplement government action, sometimes to resist it; most often to bring compassion and competence, hope and determination, when formal mechanisms fail.

And this is why I feel so passionately about Emerge.  It helps women and children escape abusive situations and start a new life.  But more, it galvanizes us to demand that our leaders in government do more to protect women from abuse and for us to do more to help women and children in need.

Emerge is part of a worldwide movement that elevates the status of women, honors the importance of family, and stops abuse dead in its tracks. When we support Emerge we not only help women and their families here but we strengthen this worldwide movement.

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