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The Fragile Scaffolding of Human Rights


January 25, 2005

Dr. William F. Schulz has served as executive director of Amnesty International USA since March, 1994. An ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, Schulz was president from 1985 – 1993 of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, where he pursued international and social justice causes. During his tenure with Amnesty he has traveled extensively, both in the U.S. and abroad — recently to the Sudan, Ireland, and throughout the U.S.

Dr. Schulz is an outspoken proponent for racial justice, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and has deeply opposed the death penalty. Author of several books, including In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All (Beacon, 2002) and Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights (Nation Books, 2003), he appears frequently on radio and television, publishes and is quoted widely in newspapers and magazines.

He lives on Long Island where his wife — also a minister — leads a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I met with Dr. Schulz in his office near Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and discussed the genocide in Darfur (which he calls “tantamount to genocide”), human rights in the U.S. and abroad, and how the Bush administration’s human rights policies are making us less safe from terrorists.

[Joel Whitney for Guernica]

Guernica: You begin your book, Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights, with some startling statistics. Citing a poll from November, 2001, you suggest that two thirds of Americans would accept assassination of foreign leaders, one third would accept torturing suspects—as part of the greater war on terror. Do these numbers mean that human rights are becoming antiquated in the public view?

William Schulz: I don’t think they were ever… (smiling) quated… or whatever the appropriate term is. Fundamentally, we lack a culture of respect for human rights in this country. Very few people have heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If they know about rights at all they have a very very modest and circumscribed perspective of what rights are all about. When I go into high schools, even top-notch high schools, and ask kids to name rights, they may be able to name free speech or the right to worship. But beyond that it’s pretty limited. And I think these polls reflect that, and reflect the success of politicians in leveraging that ignorance into fear that has resulted in a kind of failed policy.

Guernica: In one chapter, you set out to demystify terror. You write, for instance, that “terrorists are not insane.” Doesn’t that go against conventional wisdom?

Schulz: Well, I think it does. I think it is quite attractive to people to think that terrorists act not out of any particular ideological view, worldview, religious view or sense of their own interests, but act rather out of some kind of madness that is beyond our comprehension. And I think that if indeed people are acting sheerly out of madness, then there’s no possibility whatsoever of addressing either the underlying issues or having an appropriate longterm strategy. But given that I don’t think that’s the case, I think it’s a somewhat more hopeful situation than if we regarded these people as insane.

Guernica: So “terrorists have rational goals”?

Schulz: Well, I would say that most terrorists have a connection between their acts and some conception of the nature of this world or a future world that they would like to see implemented. Are they rational in our terms?—many times not. But do they have a connectivity to them that can at least be described or understood. I think they often do.

In Northern Ireland, for example—which is a place I’ve spent a fair amount of time—it would have been a lot harder for the IRA and the radical factions to sustain themselves had the British not played right into their hands, by making martyrs of so many of those who protested.

Guernica: “Terrorists need support to be successful”?

Schulz: As I say in the book, there’s a tremendous misconception that there is a group of X number of terrorists out there, and if we can destroy those thousand people, five thousand people, fifteen thousand people, we will have taken care of al Qaeda and the terrorist threat. And I think that that is simply a total misconception of how terrorism is sustained. We know from experience with terrorists in Peru and in Northern Ireland and elsewhere that terrorists are sustained and terrorism regenerates itself out of the larger community. And I think therefore it is a bad misconception to believe that we don’t have to address the issues of the larger community. We have to move or sustain or motivate the larger community at the same time that we are addressing the enforcement issues with regard to terrorists themselves.

Guernica: “Terrorist leaders are usually middle class/ their followers not”?

Schulz: First of all, that is a perspective that has been propagated, particularly by right-wingers who want to refute the notion that terrorism can be addressed in economic or social means, or in terms of addressing social or economic rights. And so they will frequently describe terrorists as middle class. The first thing to say about that is that it isn’t by any means universally true. And I cite in the book a number of terrorists who were drawn from the poor or working class. Secondly, while it is true that many of the people who engaged in 9/11 and further related terrorist attacks have been drawn from the middle class—again they could not be sustained without wide support among the poor and working class. And they certainly are not going to generate the kind of financial support, locational support, political sympathy, support of governments that fear their own masses… They will not be able to sustain that without those larger groups of people who sympathize with them and give support.

Guernica: Is this the definition of the terror retinue?

Schulz: Exactly.

Guernica: Do terrorists hate us, as some say, “because we’re free”?

Schulz: Again, a very popular notion that the president and others have designed in part to avoid having to address those more fundamental issues that, if not cause, then at least sustain terrorism. If it were merely a matter of freedom then countries like Sweden and Denmark would be among the prime terror targets. Obviously, it is a combination of our economic and political power, of the symbol of the United States, combined with our policies that have generated this animosity.

Guernica: On page 20 of Tainted Legacy, you write: “Terrorism has deep roots and diverse causes. But one thing its various manifestations almost always have in common is that they have been fueled by violations of human rights.” Could you explain this?

Schulz: Terrorists, in order to draw this sustenance from that retinue often exploit instances in which, if not economic rights as we’ve been discussing, then other rights, like political rights, have been violated. In Northern Ireland, for example—which is a place I’ve spent a fair amount of time—it would have been a lot harder for the IRA and the radical factions to sustain themselves had the British not played right into their hands, by making martyrs of so many of those who protested. They were described as ‘the British occupation’. I think we could go into one situation after another. Whether it be the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru, in Peru, or some of the Palestinian attacks in the Middle East, you will find that they often take advantage of and exploit human rights violations committed by those in power.

I think this is a very important point because inherently one doesn’t resort to terrorism if one has large numbers of military resources, for example, at hand. Terrorists act as they do because they don’t have great power at their easy disposal. The result is that they rely upon the ability to exploit the mistakes of others.

Guernica: Of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the 9/11 mastermind, you write: “But what is revealing about his life is that at one turning point after another, whatever inclinations he may have had to take a violent route were reinforced by his encounter with violations of human rights.” Can you actually point to such a pattern?

Schulz: You know, when I was researching the book I didn’t find huge numbers of studies of the personalities of too many terrorists. So it’s very hard to make generalizations. We know that in that particular case he had been tortured in Egyptian prisons, and we know that he had gone to Afghanistan and seen many violations that the Soviets had committed during the occupation. And in both cases, his friends report that those experiences radicalized him. And those experiences may have reinforced inclinations that he had before. But they provided an internal rationale for his then opting for a violent course. I mean, after all, this is someone who’s trained as a physician, and presumably at one point in his life saw his role as bringing healing to the people, and at some point made a decision that that role needed to be supplemented, if not replaced, by acts of enormous violence.

Guernica: You also write that “al Qaeda depends on its adversaries to make mistakes.” Your book provides a long list of cases where the U.S. turned a blind eye to abuses of especially Muslim populations—in Chechnya, Burma (Myanmar), China, Indonesia, Kazahkstan, Malaysia, etc. On page 33 you write that the United States “has badly bungled its response to terrorism and in those ways offered al Qaeda a whole suit of trump cards.” What are some of the gravest mistakes and what were their effects?

Schulz: I think this is a very important point because inherently one doesn’t resort to terrorism if one has large numbers of military resources, for example, at hand. Terrorists act as they do because they don’t have great power at their easy disposal. The result is that they rely upon the ability to exploit the mistakes of others. In the case of the United States—when we have aligned ourselves with a country like China, which is persecuting Uighur Muslims in the Western provinces, most of whom are actually non-violent, or Russia which refuses to address the fundamental issues of the Chechen conflict (where the community is largely Muslim)—we have aligned ourselves with countries that are easily described as anti-Islamic in their performance and indeed their policies by those who would like to exploit that. Similarly in our own country when, right after 9/11, we rounded up large numbers of Muslim residents, when we refuse the basic protections of the Geneva Conventions to the essentially Muslim population in Guantánamo Bay, when we hold so-called “material witnesses,” which are large numbers of Muslims in this country, all these things are easily exploited by radicals, by extremists, to generate hatred and opposition toward the United States in the Arab world.

Guernica: You point out too that the U.S. has always had a deep cultural and political ambivalence toward human rights. You point out that the Bush administration especially embodies this ambiguity. It claims to promote freedom in the abstract, but how is it doing in the concrete?

Schulz: (Laughs) It’s hardly a surprise that I think the Bush administration has been responsible for some very serious human rights violations. But more importantly than that, it’s been responsible for attempting to remove consensus around the foundation upon which human rights are based—namely, respect for the concept of an international community, and respect for the voluntary alliance of key power-members of that community, with the various principles, conventions, and treaties that encapsulate the human rights regimen. The Bush administration has been trying to destroy the very concept of an international community, then of course in very concrete ways trying to undermine the authority of the United Nations, of the Secretary General, of the international covenants and treaties themselves such as the Kyoto agreement, the Geneva Conventions, by refusing to abide by determinations of the international courts, such as the Vienna Agreement—which says that those who are under penalty here have to be allowed access to their embassies and counsels. There are many people on death row who’ve been denied that right. In all of these ways the administration has not just violated human rights—all administrations have done that. What’s different in this administration is that it has actively tried to destroy the fundamental principles (what I call the “fragile scaffolding”) upon which human rights themselves rest.

Guernica: Has this caught on? Have other countries followed the Bush administration’s lead?

Schulz: Certainly, at least in terms of similar violations, some countries have done so. The United Kingdom has an act that is similar to some of the provisions of the Patriot Act. Certainly there are dictators like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe who have parroted Bush’s line and labeled their non-violent political opponents ‘terrorists’ who are therefore legitimately subject to suspensions of their fundamental rights—as Bush has done here with the Guantánamo prisoners and others. So, yes, others have followed their lead. Certainly there are not others within the democratic community who have as actively undermined those fundamental principles. Now that has been a goal of China, for example—and has been for many years. And now it has a great ally in the United States.

Guernica: How does the U.S.’s continued use of the death penalty weaken its war on terror?

Schulz: One very concrete way is that it has made it all more complicated and difficult for some European countries, who are deeply opposed to the death penalty, to cooperate, to provide evidence against those they fear would be subjected to the death penalty, evidence that has been gathered in Europe, to extradite or allow the extradition of prisoners taken into custody in Europe who are wanted in the United States. There have been a number of instances in which European countries have resisted that. Or they have only extradited if there is an agreement that the United States will not seek the death penalty against those individuals. But in any case, it’s complicated the matter. And in the broader sense, the fact that the United States is one of the few remaining developed countries—I guess Japan is with us in this respect—that continues to utilize the death penalty. But we’re one of only two countries that executes those who committed the crimes under the age of 18. That again makes the United States appear to the larger world, and therefore easily describable to those who might be sympathetic to terrorism to say of the United States that it is failing to evolve in a manner which would reflect respect for international law.

Guernica: How do the abuses in Guantánamo, where children were held indefinitely without rights, and one elderly man claiming to be 104 years old —and we may presume they too were subject to the same torture cited in your book—

Schulz: We don’t know for sure…

Guernica: Well, possibly then?

Schulz: Yes, possibly.

Guernica: How do those abuses also weaken the war on terror?

Schulz: Well Abu Ghraib and the related abuses we now know, if not stemmed from practices at Guantanamo, then were parroted in or were parroting such practices. This has probably done, more than anything else, the most damage to the United States’ reputation throughout the world—particularly the Islamic world. I was just in Morocco on a few days’ holiday and the famous posters of the individual attached to the electrodes standing on a crate, or whatever it was, are displayed throughout Islamic countries all over the world—certainly in the Middle East and elsewhere. Again, these images become a prime example of American hypocrisy and a prime piece of evidence, at least in the hands of those extremists who are looking for such evidence, that the United States’ war on terror is a war against Islam. This has generated more resentment than anything, perhaps even more than the Iraq war itself. Certainly it caused enormous damage to the U.S.’s reputation.

In Northern Ireland, for example—which is a place I’ve spent a fair amount of time—it would have been a lot harder for the IRA and the radical factions to sustain themselves had the British not played right into their hands, by making martyrs of so many of those who protested.

Guernica: You write at length about this notion of the ‘enemy combatant.’ Do human rights apply to ‘bad’ people?

Schulz: Fundamental human rights do, yes. That is the nature of fundamental rights. And I distinguish, as the law does, between derogable and non-derogable human rights. Non-derogable, or fundamental (to use a less legalistic term), like the right not to be tortured, the right to life—those apply to everybody. That’s why Amnesty opposes the death penalty. On the other hand, there are other rights, derogable rights, which under certain circumstances can be denied. It might be the case that someone who has the right to vote may have to give up that right, depending upon certain behaviors. And there certainly are some interpretations of rights: how long may someone be held in prison before they are charged with a crime? 48 hours? Seven days? Two weeks? How long is it? That is a derogable issue which can be debated. It’s not forever though; that’s quite clear. And that’s what’s wrong with Guantánamo Bay. So yes, there is the distinction that fundamental rights apply to everyone—even bad people.

Guernica: So torturing Saddam Hussein for information that may prevent deaths—that’s non-negotiable, that’s not acceptable?

Schulz: That’s non-negotiable. And I describe in great length why the traditional argument about torturing people to extract information is limited.

Guernica: Tell us what you’ve seen in the Sudan. Is there genocide under way there?

Schulz: There’s ethnic cleansing. There’s war crimes. Crimes against humanity. What’s happening is tantamount to genocide, whether it meets the technical legal definition of genocide or not, which turns on the question of intent. What we clearly know is that there are identifiable groups of people who are being systematically targeted and slaughtered, displaced from their homes, raped. So I would say it is tantamount to genocide, if not genocide.

Guernica: Is that where the most serious violations are happening right now in the world?

Schulz: It’s usually described as the ‘worst humanitarian crisis.’ There are actually similar crises in the Congo right now, and Uganda. But it’s certainly a profoundly serious crisis.

Guernica: How has the reaction been from the U.S.?

Schulz: In this case actually the United States deserves to be commended for having taken a leadership role in terms of trying to generate opposition from the world community with relatively little success. And in this case the United States became party to this problem because it was in the process of negotiating a resolution to the north/south conflict in Sudan. Nonetheless it is in large measure I think to be commended.

Guernica: How about the rest of the international community?

Schulz: And the international community is in large measure to be condemned for its failure to do more than issue hollow threats, and they’ve largely proven to be hollow.

Guernica: What else needs to happen to avert further catastrophe?

Schulz: The most important thing that needs to happen is that the African Union, which has a few troops on the ground—there were about 300 when we were there in September—the United Nations has authorized up to 4000 I think… The African Union has agreed to provide those troops. Sudan has at least theoretically agreed to receive those troops on the ground. The troops have at least theoretically been given the possibility of doing more than monitoring the crisis but actually protecting the people. Sudan has not yet followed through and the international community has not yet provided sufficient resources for the African Union to get those troops from their home countries to Darfur and to equip them with the resources—helicopters, Jeeps, and communications equipment and so on—that they need to actually do the job of protecting the people. So the most important thing that needs to happen immediately is that larger numbers of African troops, which are probably the only troops that are going to be put there—NATO isn’t, the U.S. isn’t and shouldn’t… But the African Union is willing to and the most important thing is to get those troops on the ground in Sudan and get them equipped.

Guernica: In terms of human rights, how does the Bush administration rank? What grade would it get compared to other presidencies in its first term? Given such a record, what have we lost?

Schulz: On balance, certainly when it comes to the war on terror, the Bush administration gets a failing grade. When it comes to Sudan, the Bush administration passes. Does it pass with flying colors? No. I think it’s very difficult to compare one administration to another. Obviously someone like Ronald Reagan, for example, made some positive contributions with regard to Russian prisoners of conscience. He took that issue very very seriously. On the other hand he was responsible for enormous violations in Central America. Someone like Jimmy Carter, the great champion of human rights, certainly did many things that may be applauded. At the same time his policy in Afghanistan in some measure may have set the stage for much of what followed. So certainly on an issue-by-issue basis I’d have to describe the Bush administration as far from successful in terms of human rights violations.

Guernica: Given that record, what opportunities have we lost, and—looking forward—what do you foresee for Bush’s second term?

Schulz: The only hopeful possibility here is that because of the debacle in Iraq, one hopes that the administration has learned that it needs the international community, it needs a set of allies to act toward its goals and its ends. If that awareness has dawned, then it will follow that the United States needs to be more respectful of international human rights, of the notion of the international community, all the things we’ve talked about, that it cannot continue to actively and unilaterally undermine the human rights regimen. Or it’ll never be able to attract the kind of support it needs to accomplish its ends. And that will absolutely be true in Iran and in North Korea and anywhere else that the United States has its own interests at stake.

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