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Keynote for the Ninth Annual Midwest Light of Human Rights Awards

June 10, 2008 - Chicago, Illinois

Read the keynote introduction by Hon. Judge Ann Williams

Thank you so much, Judge Ann Williams, for that remarkably kind and overly generous introduction, It is such an honor to be introduced by you.

And thanks so much to all of you for inviting me to speak here today at this Midwest Light of Human Rights Awards Ceremony. Let me pay special tribute to the committee chairs--Larry Schaner and one of my lifelong heroes, Judge Abner Mikva-- and Sid Mohn, President of the Heartland Alliance. Over the last few months, I have learned a great deal about the amazing history of the Heartland Alliance. I am so proud to help recognize those individuals and corporations who advance the human needs and human rights of asylum seekers and torture survivors here in the Midwest: the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture.

I am also proud to share the same stage with the winners of the Jeanne and Joseph Sullivan Award: "Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders," and with a lawyer who is truly, by all accounts, a saint, Mel Washburn of Sidley Austin, the winner of the Midwest Light of Human Rights Award.

In these two award winners, we have a most powerful answer to the eternal question: "Why should we care?" There is a tendency among many Americans to think of immigration and torture as other people's problems. And Lord knows, in this day of rising gas and food prices, housing foreclosures, and the war in Iraq, don't we have enough problems?

Judge Williams mentioned that I once represented Haitian refugees. Once, when I went to speak before an Asian American group, a man stood up and asked "Why are you representing these black Haitians? Why aren't you devoting your time to our people?" And I said to him, "Sir, do you mean to say that in the face of Haitian boat people, you don't see Vietnamese boat people? Do you mean to say that in the Haitian internment, you don't see the Japanese internment? Do you mean to say that in the quest for Haitian democracy, you don't see the quest for Korean democracy? And don't you see that we may all have come in different boats, but we are all in the same boat now? What I am saying is that if you think about it, the Haitians are ‘our people.' And if we care about their problems, we are addressing our own problems as well."

In that spirit, I hope you will let me use this occasion to address a most serious subject: Repairing America's Human Rights Reputation. Let me say up front that what you are about to hear is most definitely not a partisan message: as Judge Williams described, during my career, I have worked both in and out of government; in the Justice Department and in the State Department; I have worked for both Republican and Democratic Administrations, and I have sued both Republican and Democratic Administrations for human rights violations. And I believe that Repairing America's Human Rights Reputation is one of the most serious problems we as Americans face today.

Since all of us have been alive, our country, the United States has been the world's acknowledged human rights leader. That is certainly why my parents came here, and probably yours as well. Since World War II, ours was universally regarded as a nation that values human rights and the rule of law, that speaks out against injustice and dictatorship, and that tries to practice what we preach. Of course we have never been perfect, but we have usually been thought to be sincere.

When I was a diplomat for the United States government, I was always struck by how seriously other countries would listen to what Americans had to say. They listened to us because we were powerful, sure, but they thought us powerful because they thought we were principled. Our commitments to human rights and the rule of law were seen a major source of our soft power.

But in the last few years, sadly, much of this has changed. I travel a lot. Maybe you do too. And if you have traveled abroad in the last few years, you cannot help but notice the steady decline of our global human rights reputation. In the last six years, we have gone from being viewed as the major supporter of the international human rights system to its major target. Our obsessive focus on the War on Terror has taken an extraordinary toll upon our global human rights policy. Seven years of defining our human rights policy through the lens of the War on Terror have clouded our human rights reputation, given cover to abuses committed by our allies in that "war" and have blunted our ability to criticize and deter gross violators elsewhere in the world.

After September 11, we were viewed with universal sympathy as victims of a brutal attack. But we have responded with a series of unnecessary, self-inflicted wounds, which have gravely diminished America's standing as the world's human rights leader. You know the list as well as I do:

  • The horror of Abu Ghraib
  • Our disastrous policy on Guantanamo
  • Our tolerance of torture and cruel treatment for detainees
  • Our counterproductive decision to create military commissions
  • Warrantless government wiretapping
  • Our attack on the U.N. and its human rights bodies, including the International Criminal Court
  • And the denial of habeas corpus for suspected terrorist detainees that thankfully, was recently struck down by the United States Supreme Court

Whatever you may think of these policies, there can be little doubt that the impact on our human rights reputation has been devastating. A recent survey showed that in 1998, a vast majority of our European allies thought thought the United States was doing a good job in the area of human rights leadership. Today, a vast majority feel the opposite, and most Europeans believe that our policies on Guantanamo are illegal. In a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, favorable opinions of the United States had fallen in most of our 15 closest allies -including Spain, India and Indonesia-even though those polled largely shared our views as to the greatest dangers in the world. And in these countries, amazingly, America's continuing presence in Iraq is cited as a danger to world peace at least as often as the growing threat of Iran.

When I was Assistant Secretary for Human Rights in 1999, I told a UN body that the United States is "unalterably committed to a world without torture." That was not a casual statement; I had cleared that statement with every relevant agency of the U.S. government. But in just a few short years we seem to have gone from what was a zero-tolerance policy toward torture to what now seems to be a zero-accountability policy.

Increasingly, that problem afflicts our popular culture. The New Yorker magazine reports that before 9/11 there were only 4 torture scenes on TV each year; since 9/11, the average has risen to at least 100 torture scenes a year, with US government officials regularly shown as justifiably committing crimes against humanity. On the popular television show "24" American officials are seen committing torture nearly every week. The question we should ask ourselves is: "is torture really making us safer?" After all, "24" is the single most exported show via dvd sales to Morocco and Egypt. If millions of television watchers in the Middle East think that Americans routinely torture detainees, why should we expect them to act differently toward their detainees, who may in time come to include our own citizens and soldiers?

And what impact does this have on our ability to help to solve the acute problems around the world, especially in the Middle East? The Washington Post recently noted that the United States is no longer a player "across the board" in the Middle East. More countries in the region simply do not listen to us any more, and openly make moves that go against our stated policies and strategy.

So this is our problem, how to repair our tarnished human rights reputation? As a nation, and as families, we face many problems -- the price of gas, housing, and food just to name a few-- but as a law dean and human rights lawyer-let me ask you not to ignore what I think is the most serious problem facing Americans today.

The reason is simple. Since World War II, our country has been the balance wheel of the global human rights system, because our reputation for human rights principle and commitment to law made us the engine that drove the global human rights system. In the post-Cold War world, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of the Twin Towers, we tried to revive the human rights system, in the Balkans, in Sierra Leone, in East Timor, in the Hague. But in last few years, the "post-post Cold War era" has seen us siding with Pakistan in defending torture, siding with China in defending arbitrary detentions, and siding with Russia in defending human rights abuses as part of a war on terror. When our human rights system loses its balance wheel, why are we surprised when the world seems to goes out of whack? And so, in the last few months, we have witnessed the constitutionalization of emergency rule in Egypt, the loss of democracy in Pakistan, stolen elections in Zimbabwe and Burma, and U.S. government officials who refuse to say that waterboarding is torture, even when it is committed by foreign countries against our own troops.

As Tom Friedman of the NY Times recently noted, last year was by far the worst year for freedom in the world since the end of the Cold War. Freedom House reports that almost four times as many states declined in their freedom scores as improved. And among the least democratic countries in the world are those who derive most of their revenues from oil. So as the price of fuel rises, and with it the price of food, we must cut our reliance on fossil fuels not just to save money, not just to protect the environment, not just to promote our national security, but to promote the rule of law and reduce our dangerous dependence on a commodity that strengthens petro-dictators and weakens democracy worldwide.

If this is our problem, what is the solution? The answer could take hours, but let me suggest four simple steps. First and most simply, we have to return to telling the truth. We must start by saying simple things. Waterboarding is torture. The leaders of Pakistan, Burma, Zimbabwe are crushing democracy and the rule of law.

Second, we need to stop pushing for double standards in human rights. If we believe that human rights are universal, we must respect them, even for suspected terrorists. If human rights are universal, we should not have law free zones, like Guantanamo. We should not have law free courts, like military commissions. We should not have law free practices, like extraordinary rendition; and we should not have law free persons whom we call enemy combatants.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court held that even with respect to terrorist suspects, the Government is bound to respect Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. A few days later, I testified before Congress. A Senator said to me: "Professor, the last time I checked, the terrorists had not signed the Geneva Conventions." I said to him, "Senator, the last time I checked, the whales had not signed the Whaling Convention either!" Like much of international law, the Geneva Conventions are not about them and who they are. It is about us and who we are. It is about how we're obliged to treat them, however they behave. And as a matter of universal principle, we must give all detainees basic humane treatment, however heinous they may be.

Third, we need to put our own house in order and stop pursuing Human Rights Disasters of our own: whether at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, or other Black Sites where ghost detainees are being held. Not only must we dismantle old bad policies that have been adopted since September 11, we should stop new bad policies that some are now offering to replace them. For example, some are now calling for Congress to respond to the habeas corpus decision with a Terror Court that would allow suspects to be held in potentially indefinite detention. But when did our standard for due process of law become "at least it's better than Guantanamo" And why, we should ask, won't a system of preventive detention become a breeding ground for terrorists, as occurred in British prisons for the Northern Irish? And finally what about "credible justice?" Why should those in the Middle East we are trying to persuade accept the justice meted out by secret terror courts? As a nation, we should not accept that indefinite detention without trial, abusive interrogation, and other unacceptable practices have now become necessary features of a post-9/11 world. Our goal in the next period should be to end debacles like Guantánamo, not to set its worst features in concrete.

Fourth and finally, we need to support, not attack the institutions and tools of international law. I know that international law and the U.N. are imperfect; but frankly, they are all we've got. We need to support the International Criminal Court, and to endorse universal standards by ratifying such human rights treaties as the Convention on Disability Rights, the Convention Against Forced Disappearances, the UN Treaty for Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Right now, amazingly, we are one of only two countries in the world that is not a party to the Children's Rights treaty. The other is Somalia, whose excuse is that they have no organized government. We have no excuse.

I know that the last eight years since 9/11 have been tiring. But in fact, the last eight years are far less important than the next 8 years: For the next eight years will determine whether the pendulum of American policy will swing back from where it has been pushed, or whether it will stay stuck in the direction in which it has been pushed for the last 8 years? In the next eight years, we simply cannot allow our policy toward international law and human rights be subsumed entirely under the War on Terror. There are simply too many other global issues that demand our country's attention.

And believe me, this should not be a partisan point: One presidential candidate recently wrote:

"We Americans recall the words of our founders in the declaration of independence, that we must pay "decent respect to the opinions of mankind". .. We all have to live up to our own high standards of morality and international responsibility. We cannot torture or treat inhumanely the suspected terrorists that we have captured. We will fight the terrorists and at the same time defend the rights that are the foundations of our society."

The speaker was John McCain, but the same views have been expressed just as strongly by Senator Obama, who said.

"We are going to lead by example, by maintaining the highest standards of civil liberties and human rights, which is why I will close Guantanamo and restore habeas corpus and say no to torture. ... Because if you are ready for change, then you can elect a president who has taught the Constitution, and believes in the Constitution, and will obey the Constitution of the USA."

Obviously, we must ask our government officials to speak up for these steps-to tell the truth, to end double standards, to put our own house in order, and to support law and institutions. But the truth is, whatever Administration is elected next year, its leaders will have their own reasons why they cannot change course immediately.

That is why we the people, cannot leave it to the politicians. For the core concern of politicians is politics, not principle. That is why it is up to ordinary people, like us, to take ownership of this issue. And in recent months, they have. It was the career Justice Department officials, for example, who resisted the government wiretapping program. It was the career military who spoke up against torture. It was a horrified soldier who gave the digital photos to the media that exposed Abu Ghraib. And it was that wild group of radicals, the librarians of America, who protested the extension of the Patriot Act to library records.

I know what you are thinking: in this world, what can one ordinary person do to change the course of human rights history? But surely a woman named Rosa Parks thought the same, before she decided that she would no longer move to the back of the bus. Surely a baseball player named Jackie Robinson had that thought before he went out to play on an all-white baseball team, in an all-white league.

And they are not alone. All over this world there are human rights heroes, like Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Aung Sun Suu Kyi of Burma, Andrei Sakharov of Russia, Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, who said "We can protect our freedom, but only if we have the courage to stand up, so let it begin with me."

Or at Hotel Rwanda, a quiet hotelkeeper, Paul Rusesabagina, who said, "When we say never again, we should mean never again, so let it begin with me." And armed only with a fax machine, a few bottles of scotch and his wits, he saved hundreds of his countrymen from genocide.

Perhaps Robert Kennedy said it best in 1966, when he spoke the words inscribed on his tomb at Arlington Cemetery:

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage .. that human history is ... shaped. Each time a [person] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, [that] crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring ... build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

And as proof that he was right, you need only look at the place where he said that, South Africa, a country transformed by a million individual acts of courage. All they are saying is another version of the Prayer of St. Francis, who said simply "Let there be Peace on Earth and let it begin with me."

So what each of us should say today is "We need to restore our country's human rights reputation, one step at a time, and let it begin with me."

Why is this so important? Because we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all persons are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity that our forefathers ordained and established a Constitution for the United States of America.

What I am saying, in short, is that ours is a country built on human rights. What our laws and traditions tell us is that our Human Rights Reputation defines who we are as a Nation and as a people. And if this country no longer stands for human rights, then we really don't know who we are anymore.

I know what you are thinking: that the pendulum has swung too far in the last eight years for us to do much about it. But still I have hope. Why?

Because I remember that it was sixty years ago, when my parents came to this country. My father's dream was to serve democracy in his home country of South Korea. His government was overthrown, and he became a political exile here, with six children and no job. His only contact was with the Deputy National Security Adviser, Walt Rostow, whose brother Eugene happened to be Dean of Yale Law School. And at Walt's suggestion, Eugene Rostow called my parents and invited them to come to teach a course at Yale Law School 47 years ago. That is how I got to New Haven. And that is why no day goes by that I do not recall that I live in this country because of an act of conscience by the Dean of Yale Law School.

In 1993, I was part of a team that won a court order winning the release of more than 200 Haitian refugees from Guantanamo. One of the refugees came in, wearing wrist bracelet that was bar coded, as if he were a piece of meat at a grocery store. He came to me agitated holding a piece of paper on which he had written his name. And he said to me pointing to the piece of paper "Mon Avocat (my lawyer). They gave me the wrong name!" And I realized that the name on his bracelet and the named on the paper were spelled differently. I took a step toward the immigration officials and then I stopped. I realized that the only reason this man was in America was because of a court order that listed him, with a misspelled name. And so I turned to him and said, "This is your Ellis Island. That is your name now." And he looked at me and asked "What is your name?" And I said, "In this country, we spell it K-O-H." And he said, with a smile on his face, "OK. So that is my name!"

My client had a young son, who after the family entered the country, attended a high school in Boston. And a few years ago, they were kind enough to invite me to his high school graduation. And only years after he left Guantanamo, that Haitian boy was dressed like an American teenager, and he walked across the stage to get his diploma, with his pants hanging low, and a baseball cap turned sideways on his head. A woman next to me looked at him with alarm, and she whispered to me: "What on earth do you think will ever come of that boy, looking like that?" And I thought for a second and whispered back, "Ma'am, I don't know about you, but I think we just saw a future dean of Yale Law School."

So what I am saying is that we cannot lose hope. In this remarkable world and in this remarkable country, it is possible, in the words of Langston Hughes to "Let America Be America Again." He wrote:

"Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. … O, let my land be a land where Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath – The land that never has been yet-- And yet must be--the land where every man is free. … We must take back our land again, America! ….We, the people, must redeem … And make America again!"

Restoring our human rights reputation is simply too important a task to leave to politicians. Restoring our human rights reputation is a challenge for each and every member of this country we love. So thank you all for listening, and thank you all for joining me to work to make America America again.

Thank you.