Remarks At Southport Congregational Church

On September 23, 2012 Jonathan Fanton delivered an address to the Southport Congregational Church on the role of the United States and other international organizations in promoting human rights around the world.

Remarks at Southport Congregational Church

Jonathan F. Fanton

September 23, 2012

Paul said I need not prepare for this conversation but I always have a few notes. But after a few minutes of opening comments about the MacArthur Foundation and my human rights work, I am happy to talk about whatever is of interest to you.

My years at the MacArthur Foundation took me to many of the 60 countries where it works, especially Russia, Nigeria, India and Mexico where it has offices.

In the U.S. it works on urban revitalization , housing, juvenile justice and education, in particular how technology is changing the way young people learn. It also gives the well known MacArthur Genius Award to 25 talented people every year and supports public radio and television.

Overseas it works on population, conservation, disarmament and human rights and international justice. Human Rights is of particular interest to me.

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, where I currently chair the Advisory Committee on Africa.

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 I are joining together to influence governments and confront problems, from the environment and hunger, 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.

Human Rights Watch is a good example. 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.

Our most recent reports include:

  •  “Curtailing Criticism: Intimidation and Obstruction of Civil Society in Uganda”
  • “Even a ‘Big Man’ Must Face Justice: Lessons from the Trial of Charles Taylor”
  • “Torture in the Name of Treatment: Human Rights Abuses in Vietnam, China, Cambodia, and Lao PDR”
  • “No Place for Children: Child Recruitment, Forced Marriage, and Attacks on Schools in Somalia”
  •  “I Had to Run Away: The Imprisonment of Women and Girls for ‘Moral Crimes’ in Afghanistan”
  • “Tightening the Grip: Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chavez’s Venezuela”
  • “Neither Rights Nor Security: Killings, Torture, and Disappearances in Mexico’s ‘War on Drugs’”

And that is just a sample of the 75 reports Human Rights Watch has released in the past year alone.

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 is off to a good start and I had the pleasure of giving a reception for the new Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, at Roosevelt House on Friday.

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.


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