The Mobilization of Shame: A World View of Human Rights

Nov 20, 2002

"We are on the wrong side of history," says Father Robert F. Drinan regarding the U.S. opposition to the International Criminal Court.


JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to welcome you to what promises to be a very special afternoon, for you will be spending the next hour with someone who is not afraid to express what he believes in, and for this and many other reasons, he demands our utmost attention and respect. Our speaker today is the highly esteemed human rights activist Father Robert Drinan.

He is here to discuss his book, The Mobilization of Shame. At first glance, this book appears to deal as much with the celebrity of its author as with its actual contents. There is nothing wrong in this, inasmuch as the life and work and Father Drinan is in many ways paralleling the history of the human rights movement. But if you were to read this book solely for this reason, you would be missing a great deal, because the material which is presented and the questions raised can only be asked by someone who has been thoroughly immersed in the human rights movement for decades.

While global consciousness of human rights grew dramatically during the second half of the twentieth century, it was only when the UN in 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration delineating individual rights and freedoms for everyone that the document became the first pillar of twentieth-century human rights law and the cornerstone of the human rights movement.

The Mobilization of Shame tells the story of the remarkable progress in global thinking that has marked the more than fifty years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was first adopted. For Father Drinan, however, the defining moment was the Vienna Conference in 1993. “It was there, for the first time,” he says, “that the world came together and solemnly reaffirmed every human right agreed to by the UN and its agencies.”

Even so, Father Drinan raises an important point when he asks: “Has Vienna really made a difference? Have all the pronouncements on human rights since 1945 genuinely elevated the status of freedom and equality around the world?” The answer to this question is one that Father Drinan will address this afternoon, as well as discussing the performance of the UN and the U.S. on this issue.

Father Drinan is an ordained Jesuit priest. He is probably best known to many of you for the prominent role he has played in the human rights movement. He has been President of Americans for Democratic Action, a member of the National Governing Board of Common Cause and the Board of Directors of People for the American Way, the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, a member of the National Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry, and a founding member of the Lawyers’ Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control. In addition, he has been a member of the Board of the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Even though this is just a sampling of his c.v., you must agree it reads like a Who’s Who of human rights organizations.

And although his voice is most often heard as a defender of human rights, others may remember him as one of the most outspoken critics of the Vietnam War when he was elected to Congress from Massachusetts, serving from 1971 to 1981.

He is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to The Mobilization of Shame, including The Fractured Dream: America’s Divisive Moral Choices and The Stories from the American Soul. Currently Father Drinan is a Professor of Law at Georgetown University.

Please join me in welcoming a most remarkable individual, Father Robert Drinan.


FATHER DRINAN: Thank you very much. Let me talk about three things today: First, the background from 1945 to the present; but then, more importantly, the things that Congress did, especially in the 1970s, to formulate a new foreign policy based upon human rights; and then, third, what you can do. Many people don’t feel empowered, and all of us should.

I was young when the whole world in 1945 said, “Something is fundamentally wrong; 35 million people have been killed.” The Holocaust was realized at that time, and the whole world said that the defeat of the League of Nations was a profound mistake. So Roosevelt, with his genius, persuaded the Congress to ratify the UN Charter. The vote was 97–2.

People had hopes that there would be a Commission on Human Rights in the Charter. For the first time in the history of the world, “human rights” as such is mentioned in a document. Human rights was not anywhere in the wording of the League of Nations, but in five different places in the UN Charter human rights is stressed. This is the new policy of the entire world. And it enumerated the economic and political rights, with no division between them.

Eleanor Roosevelt was disappointed that they couldn’t get more settled in San Francisco, but she helped to bring forty-eight nations together in Paris on December 10, 1948, and we have that marvelous document, the Declaration of Human Rights, which lawyers say is at least customary international law. It might be higher than that, jus cogen.

This is an old idea going back to Cicero, even to the Greeks and to the natural moral law. We owe a lot to Catholic and other churches for bringing it alive.

How did the world ever come to realize this? They knew that something had to happen. Once again, we owe a lot to Roosevelt. The UN Commission on Human Rights was founded and it is now fifty-three countries, eighteen of which are not democracies at all.

Then there came the era where committees were formed to monitor the compliance of nations with the great traditions or treaties on political rights, economic rights, the rights of women and children.

In addition, the anxiety and guilt of the world about the Holocaust brought forth the European Court on Human Rights at Strasbourg, and that has quite literally transformed that particular continent.

We had also the situation in Latin America in the OAS nations, and they now have a Commission and a Court that meets in Costa Rica. It has been very effective in quiet ways rather than by big decisions.

The United States was primarily responsible for Nuremberg. The dream then was that we should continue to have a permanent Nuremberg ¾ and alas, that has not happened.

During all of these years, the United States has been inconstant. During the Eisenhower administrations and into JFK and to Johnson, we didn’t really concentrate on the international. We were afraid of the segregation question. We walked away, quite literally, from 1954 to 1974. The United States did not live up to its obligations.

We in the Congress during the agony of Vietnam recognized that something was fundamentally wrong. In 1974, the Congress, for the first time, developed a philosophy of the enforcement of internationally recognized human rights. I remember vividly the excitement that we had for this project.

We suddenly discovered one day what the United States had done in Chile. We had destabilized Dr. Allende, who was popularly elected, and we somehow got Mr. Pinochet as the head of the government. We in the Congress were unaware of this until Senator Frank Church held hearings.

In the House we said that we wanted to prevent that from ever happening again. As a result, we put through a law saying that the United States is committed through the UN Charter to the salvation, to the implementation of internationally recognized human rights. They were exciting days when Congressman Don Fraser put this together, and we sent the first version of it to President Ford. On the advice of Kissinger, his Secretary of State, he vetoed. We didn’t have the votes to override.

We repackaged it, and the next year President Ford signed something that was monumental, creating a new agency in the State Department that must monitor human rights. It puts out a two-volume issue of “The State of Human Rights around the World” every February. And to the whole world the United States looks good because every year we say, “This is the state of human rights in 191 countries.”

The list of rights has increased. Why did the Congress do this? Because we recognized that we were not observing the basic doctrine of the United Nations, which says in Articles 55 and 56, “Every signatory must collaborate with all other nations in the UN to bring about the implementation of international human rights.”

The Congress also put through Section 502(b) that says that “no aid of any kind from the United States, either temporal or civilian or industrial, can go to a nation that has a persistent pattern of denying internationally recognized human rights.”

Jimmy Carter came to power and he made human rights the soul of his foreign policy. In the 1988 campaign, there was hardly any mention, but President Carter somehow, from the depth of his very moral soul, said “I will make human rights the soul of our foreign policy.”

This was an exciting four years. The State Department was engaged, everybody was engaged, and wonderful things happened. For example, on the liberation of Soviet Jews, we had the Jackson-Vanik bill, the implementation of federal law to help 1.5 million Soviet Jews escape Russia and go either to the United States or to Israel.

Unfortunately, when Mr. Reagan came to power in 1981, he was totally opposed to this. His Administration sought to wipe out the office that we in the Congress had created. And, to the astonishment of everybody, the NGOs, devoted to human rights rose as a body and defeated the nominee for Assistant Secretary. For a year or so, the post was vacant until the Reagan Administration appointed Elliot Abrams, who ranted and raved against the Communists.

Then, the first Bush came. And, lo and behold, in 1991 the Commies went away and the whole world said that “we have to come together and do something to update this.”

In Vienna in 1993, 172 nations came together. I was there as the delegate from the American Bar Association. A hundred and seventy-two nations came together and said, “We believe in all of the things that went before. That was made impossible or difficult during the Cold War, with the clash of the two major powers, but now it is a different world.”

What has happened after 1993? I wish I could tell you that everything has changed. But let us come now to the third point, namely: Where are we now?

I met yesterday, with five other lawyers, with the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. He is a Republican functionary and follows John Shattuck and Harold Koh. They were lawyers in the Clinton Administration who elevated the status of human rights to things that we had never dreamed of before. Harold Koh came years ago from Vietnam. John Shattuck had been the Director for ten years of the ACLU.

This Administration comes in and appoints a man who didn’t have much feel at all. We asked him directly, “Will the Bush Administration ever advocate the ratification of treaties which we named, one on women and another on children?” He said, “It’s under review.” We heard that a year ago, a year and a half ago.

So we pressed him. I said, “Mr. Secretary, I’m going to teach a class in international human rights at Georgetown this afternoon for two hours, and there are fifty-six future lawyers there. What shall I tell them is your intention?”

“Well, mmmm, mmmm, mmmm.”

Then we asked him, “What great improvements has the Bureau on Human Rights made since you were there?”

He beamed and he said, “We have more travel money.”

One of the terrible problems is that the Administration opposes the International Criminal Court. I was on a task force with the American Bar Association restructuring that. A delegate from the ABA with many others went to Rome for two or three weeks of negotiations. President Clinton signed, but he didn’t submit it for ratification because he knew that the votes weren’t there.

And now, with all due deference to President Bush, somehow he and the head of the Pentagon said, “This would be a disaster,” and they are putting intense pressure on countries not to apply this to the United States.

They haven’t read the document. The document says that if there is someone from any nation who is committing crimes of war, crimes against humanity, or genocide, he can be tried before a tribunal. But, before anything happens, the country of origin is notified and it says that you can take care of this in six months and we won’t enter in. Consequently, there is no possibility of an American soldier in some far-away place being indicted or tried by this international community.

This will become international law. Sixty-five nations have now ratified. Within a year or two, the permanent Nuremberg will be set up at The Hague or elsewhere. We are on the wrong side of history. And our people wonder, how can you do this?

There are several American corporations doing business abroad. Unocal, for example, is involved in Burma and Thailand, where they are building a pipeline for natural gas. The human rights community is suing Unocal and saying, “You are abusing the citizens of Burma, involuntary servitude.” Here is all the documentation. I am on the board of an NGO that is doing this. We had a great victory the other day in the Ninth Circuit, saying that this is triable; you can go back into the trial court and prove your case; and if you do, the victims will get damages ultimately from Unocal, The problem for us is that the State Department is with Unocal.

There was one good sign last month when Mr. Bush announced that we will rejoin UNESCO which is a very creative organization to spread literacy around the world and to enhance culture. The Reagan people way back in 1984 said, “Oh, they’re not well managed,” and we walked out. For eighteen years the United States has denied our funds to a program to advance literacy among adults and children.

We do give some help to UNICEF, but not what we are supposed to do. UNICEF helps children all around the world and is one of the most dramatic improvements in the world climate that the United Nations has ever brought about. UNICEF, for example, provides the inoculations that every child in America gets routinely.

A year or two ago, they said to Peru, “We say two years from now that Holy Week will be the week for UNICEF to come.” With terrific collaboration around the world, virtually every child in Peru got the expected inoculations.

When they scream at us about terrorism, et cetera, I say there are forty-eight Islamic nations, 1.2 billion people, every fifth person in the world is a Muslim. Why don’t we go and help them and their children so that they are not screaming at us that we’re going to bomb them?

I have talked with Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia. Do they hate us? That would be against their religion. But they have the gravest suspicion about us, that we don’t give a damn about them and all we think about is America first, last, and always.

What can we do in this particular situation? The new thing that links all of us around the world is internationally recognized human rights. This is the bond. We all agree that we don’t want to impose any religion on others, we don’t want to deny religious freedom.

Jimmy Carter in the last year of his Administration said, “We have to do something about getting these internationally recognized human rights to the world.” He appointed Sol Linowitz, founder of Xerox and U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, as the chair of a presidential commission.

In a report in 1980, this prestigious commission said that the number one objective of our foreign policy should be the elimination of hunger, especially hunger among children. But the Reagan people came in and we never heard of that report again.

The Congress did its part, and the State Department follows, and then, on December 10th, which is Human Rights Day around the world, the White House will have something and we will celebrate. But are we really sincere about this?

Let’s get down to some of the things that we haven’t done.

There is a declaration about the rights of prisoners from the UN in 1954, one of the first things that they did. Eight states have adopted that here in this country. It is not a covenant, it is not a treaty, it is just a declaration.

And yet in the United States we have something that is contrary to international law. We have 2.1 million people in prison. They have quadrupled over the last twenty years. And the number of women in prison in this country has quintupled over the last seven years. And ¾ are you ready for this? ¾ 52 percent of them are black. There are 3,800 people on Death Row. You could argue that capital punishment is now a violation of international law. We are the only nation, aside from China, that still maintains the death penalty.

More and more nations refuse to extradite people to the United States if they think that they will be executed. All of our partners, like Canada, England, all of Europe and Latin America, have abolished the death penalty.

We don’t join the International Criminal Commission. We are the “Lone Rangers.” Why do we have this streak of isolationism that we don’t need outside help, that we make up the law? It is new in American life. It was there latently in the Eisenhower days. We say, “We don’t need help, we don’t need to cooperate.”

Yet I love to think that the American people are all good. We may not be well informed about the world and we are very sheltered by two oceans, but let’s hope that things can change.

Will anything change on land mines? The NGOs, the human rights people, say, “We want to make that into a human rights issue.” The United States planted thousands of land mines in Vietnam, and every year thousands of children and farmers are hurt.

There is a Convention of the Rights of the Child, ratified by the UN in 1989. The Holy See was the fifth nation to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Now the United States is the only country on earth that has not ratified it. Somalia for a time didn’t ratify it. They had an excuse. They had no functioning government.

It would be good for us, because there are many children in America who are denied their human rights every single day. Thirteen children will die today because of gunshots in the United States, and that is a violation of international law. Every day, 32,000 children die of starvation. That is preventable. It used to be 40,000 a day, but now it is 32,000.

What should be the agenda for you in the next few days?

The Assistant Secretary of Human Rights said that we are promoting democracy everywhere in the world. No one is opposed to that. But that is a bit of a cop-out. They say, “We’ll get some people elected.” And then they forget about it. They are very proud that in Latin America now every nation has an elected democracy except Cuba.

The new, European-based group called Transparency rates every nation with regard to corruption, bribery and public morality. The multinational corporations will not go into a country if there is persistent graft and bribery. We come out among 180 nations, a respectable fifth or sixth. We have honesty in government and we have never practiced cruelty. There is a whole Covenant against cruelty.

Let me conclude before your comments with a statement that sums it all up. It was said by Solon, the ancient Athenian jurist, 2,000 years before Christ: “Justice will not come until those who are not hurt feel just as indignant as those who are hurt.”

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Father, you mentioned our withdrawal from UNESCO back during the Reagan years. You did not mention that England also withdrew at the same time. The New Republic delivered a very persuasive case that UNESCO at the time was a hopelessly corrupt organization, which spent all of its money on luxury conferences.

FATHER DRINAN: You are entirely right and you are well informed. But we should have said back then, “If this is an unacceptable organization, we have such a moral commitment to increase literacy, we should do it by some other means. Devise another means.”

QUESTION: The United States has been so inculcated in the abuse of human rights here domestically, and the problem is that it is embedded in the U.S. attitudes and administrations, current and past.

Look at the history of the abuses of the Constitution in the United States. I start with 1919 and 1920, when the Palmer raids incarcerated and sent out of the country 10,000 individuals. Then you go on to the Smith Act and the McCarran Act and McCarthyism and now the so-called Patriotic Act of the Congress. How do we eliminate this inbred panic?

FATHER DRINAN: In theological terms, this is how do we get the sinner out of his sin?

There a serious defect in the soul of Americans where we can’t rise to something new. Every nation has its peccadilloes, faults, and guilt. But that is in the past. Can’t we say that this is a new age, and the United States, especially after the collapse of Communism, has a whole new moral role? We have always had that. We are the children of revolutions. We got rid of the English and we have the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

This Administration would say, “We are trying to do that. We want to get the world rid of terrorists.” Let’s define what that means.

I don’t have an answer, and you make very good points. But none of us is prepared to say, “We’ll just let America do these horrible things.” There is some goodness in America that is perhaps unique among all nations. Why can’t we organize that?

The Administration says, “We’re gonna get the terrorists, we’ll add $60 billion more to the defense bill” ¾ we will not make them go away by having more guns and more land mines.

I wish sometimes that I was a pacifist. That would make things simple, that you can’t have violence against anybody. But international human rights is one thing on which we all agree.

It is remarkable what the Congress did on the Jackson-Vanik bill. That was the consensus. And it was the consensus when we put through 502(b). The whole Congress said, “This is a good thing.” We never intended that the State Department would be the adjudicator. We in the original bill had an independent commission on human rights, just like the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights with respect to the 1950s. That was struck down by the Republicans on the floor.

But the power of human rights is fantastic. Now we have all these new nations, the fifteen nations that split off from the U.S.S.R., and I hope that they can come our way.

QUESTION: You mentioned Section 502(b) and also some of the certification procedures. Your time in Congress was the heyday for this process. This was introduced as a conditionality for U.S. assistance programs. In El Salvador, in particular, we have very detailed certifications that ultimately the President was required to make. Today we are seeing with the war against terrorism that there is a push again to return to a certification regime, particularly with the despotic regimes in Central Asia that are getting U.S. security assistance.

If we look at that regime in El Salvador, the Reagan Administration’s response was to certify everything, even when they were certifying what couldn’t conceivably be certified.

Was that a procedure that was effective at the end of the day, and is it something we should be looking at again, with the new problems in Central Asia?

FATHER DRINAN: I was out of the Congress when that process came. It was not particularly effective. I am glad that you brought that up, because the El Salvador situation is very acute in my soul. What about reparations? Why don’t we try to help that country economically? We just walked away. The UN came in and settled it with a peace-keeping force. The legislature there gave total amnesty to all of the thirty-nine thugs that killed the Jesuits.

We have energy now against the National Rifle Organization. Mrs. Brady has 72 percent of people saying, “Ban guns or severely restrict them.” I keep hoping that this will come about. The NRA has lots of money and fanaticism, and they have money to give to candidates. We hope that the new scheme of campaign financing might eliminate that.

QUESTION: The underlying philosophy today seems to be self-responsibility, that we in the United States will help those who help themselves. The countries that prove that they can govern themselves will get help. Should this be incorporated in the human rights movement? It doesn’t seem to be an aspect that has been particularly visible in the past. Is there some legitimacy here?

FATHER DRINAN: I don’t doubt that. Some of these governments aren’t particularly well-behaving. There are some people who are not internationalists. They are honest and sincere and think that we have no duties around this world; we just have to feed our own people.

And then there are others who say that everyone should be exterminated. And now they are still saying, “Oh, the terrorists, let’s just go and blow them up.” That’s oversimplified.

We should go back and argue that we took on a legal obligation by signing the UN Charter to help other nations to implement all of the political and economic rights. That vision faded, and now people don’t even know the vision.

Jimmy Carter did and he was passionate for those four years. It changed the whole climate of the country. I saw it vividly in Vienna ¾ 172 nations hoping that now, with the demise of the Cold War, the United States could join all this.

We have more difficult problems to solve. As you know, China restricts severely the number of children, and there are millions of people there who are told, “You can’t have a second child.” Their penalty is sterilization. A couple came to the United States last year and said, “We deserve amnesty here because if we go back, we will be sterilized.” They got amnesty. How many people will hear that word and come?

We go back to 9/11 and we have to prevent that. How? Why? Will it occur again? Will we have the same treatment that Israel is getting now, with all of these guerrillas? Could that happen here? These are tormenting questions.

The one legal, moral anchor that we have is our devotion to all international human rights.

QUESTION: In the last fifty years, one of the phenomena that we have seen is the growth of nongovernmental organizations working in the field of human rights. Could you comment on how you see this development with respect to international mechanisms, such as the United Nations and governments, in promoting the social, economic and cultural rights of individuals?

FATHER DRINAN: Amnesty International is the grandmother of them all. It was established in 1961 by a lawyer in England who saw children or students being harassed in Portugal. He wrote letters and formed this organization which now has over a million people.

I saw the immense moral power of Amnesty International when I was in Chile five years ago and the Pinochet Government was still there. A family came to us saying, “Our father, my husband, an M.D. said truthfully that Pinochet is practicing torture. He was sent into exile 1,000 miles away.” We gave this information to Amnesty International. Within two days, they had fifty-three nations protesting. They went to the Embassy. Pinochet said, “Bring him back.”

We have Doctors for Human Rights. The Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights that is based here was formed by Mike Posner in 1980. It is a very effective private group. But it is always very frustrating, because why doesn’t the government do this?

Six years ago, a woman came here from Togo, requesting asylum because if she goes back, she will have female genital mutilation (FGM). She was granted amnesty. And now maybe half of Muslim countries have abolished the FGM.

It is one inch at a time, and then new evils come up. We have a whole new problem too, that eighteen nations now have had something like South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I lectured in South Africa one summer, just after the liberation. People were deeply divided, “Should we allow truth and reconciliation?”

Peru had that problem after all of the guerrillas. We haven’t had that problem yet of forgiving them. I don’t know if we will.

But once again, it goes back to something fundamental, that we have to follow the Good Samaritan Rule.

The labor unions now are very effective. They want to form unions and preserve them in faraway places, like Burma and Malaysia. They have world law on their side. The workers have a right to organize and bargain effectively.

Recently, it came to my consciousness that for centuries men have been depriving women of the basic right to marry the person they want. There are arranged marriages in all types of cultures. There is little remedy against men who beat their wives or abuse their children. We are just beginning to realize that if women are equal, then how can we allow this?

One of the former directors of UNICEF told a public gathering, “I was making $1 million, $2 million, a year, and suddenly I saw all of the children starving around the world.” He left his Wall Street practice to become the head of UNICEF. In 1990 he formed a whole world group at the UN to pledge several million dollars. He said, “I like to think that I did some good, because in the 1990s, due to this initiative, 17 million children lived who otherwise would have died.”

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much. You spoke about the power of human rights, but the inspiration of Father Drinan is just as effective.

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