16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
What Do Human Rights Mean to Us?
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 11/13/2005
Reading- A. Powell Davies
The American commitment is to universal justice, the rights of all people -- not the special interests of some. It is a commitment to fair play, to patience, to tolerance, to neighborliness. It is a commitment to THE COMMON GOOD. It protects…the opportunity of each with the good of all. It is compassionate, humanitarian. It believes in humanity and in its future. It is the Golden Rule ["Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"]…It battles prejudice and false opinion. It seeks the truth. It is opposed to barriers of exclusiveness. Its principles are universal. It despises cowardice, including moral cowardice. But it has no use of obstinacy, inflexibility, and intolerance. It prefers honesty to cleverness, kindness to self-sufficiency, goodwill to narrow minded aims.
If anyone asks by what right I define these characteristics as American, I point him to those Americans the rest of us revere as great. I say that America is defined by the moral progress she has sought and by exemplars -- not by the hour of perfidy (and by her little-minded, greedy foes).
And if anyone tells me that these characteristics are more than American, that they are universal, I will reply that that is why they are American. Because this nation was not founded on thedivisive and the separate, but upon the rights of all people. Can we restore these standards? Can we seek again the touch of greatness? The future will depend upon the answer…upon what takes place in [the American] heart and conscience. [Pause…] A nation, like an individual, must have a soul.
Reading from Scott Alexander- from his sermon entitled "Soul of America", September, 2005
The moral crisis we face in America today -- the moral crisis we cannot avoid and must address…all of us…together…as a people…citizens, one with another…with full heart and moral being - has nothing to do with the laundry list of so called "Moral Issues" that American social and religious conservatives want us focus on - things like gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, sex education, prayer in schools, displays of the ten commandments (as important as they are as social issues). The moral crisis we Americans face is the systematic and unacceptable DIMINISHMENT (over recent years) of the SOCIAL CONTRACT…THE SOCIAL CONTRACT OF COMPASSION, CONNECTION AND CONCERN we Americans must extend to one another as fellow citizens…most especially those Americans in human want, scarcity and need.
When Hurricane Katrina blew itself away and the rain washed down causing the levys to overflow, what was left in its wake was devastating for New Orleans and for our country. While a hurricane is color-blind and takes no credit cards in exchange for good treatment, the economic structure of the city of New Orleans built on centuries of racial divide created a race-divided result for the hurricane's victims. The people shown on television hanging onto roofs and light poles and crammed into the city's convention center were overwhelmingly African American. This should not be surprising given the large numbers of economically disadvantaged African Americans living in New Orleans who did not have the resources to leave the city when the warning came.
Louisiana, like much of the rest of our country has deep racial inequalities in wealth and assets. The average income of African Americans in Louisiana is $21,000 while that of whites is twice that. While the population of African Americans in Louisiana is 31.5%, 69% of children in poverty are African Americans.
The Katrina disaster made the evidence of this inequality immediately visible. People with means, primarily white people, left the area in their cars, in planes, in buses, in any means they could because they had the means. People who have no savings, homes that are not insured, and often no safety net of employers and family who could help could do nothing but stay where they were when warned of the life threatening event about to befall them. When our television sets showed us the horror of black faces crying out for help from the highway overpasses, from the Superdome, and from the crowded and dangerous Convention Center, we wondered where were the police, the federal aid workers, the government that we take for granted will be there in a disaster?
It is now unclear how we as a society will respond now that the flood waters have receded? Will the re-building efforts take into account the people who are poor and have no resources to start over? Will we see glitzy redevelopment efforts that make millions for corporations and leave poor people homeless? Will the people of the city of New Orleans be consulted about the re-building effort or will the powers that be give the city away to new developers?
What does this crisis in economic and racial disparity mean to us? Why should we care?
Let me repeat the words we read earlier written by A. Powell Davies, minister of All Soul's Unitarian Church in Washington, DC during the 1950's. He said:
What are human rights and why are they important? Are they just an American ideal? Why should we care about them in this country and how do we translate our concern about them to the people of the world? Do we have a moral responsibility for human rights in every country?
After World War II, these were questions that were primary to many Americans and our allies who came together to form the United Nations. And in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a document that had been written by a group of world citizens concerned about human rights including Eleanor Roosevelt. This document was called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document declared:
It goes on to detail the rights that we as Americans know are contained in our Bill of Rights, which we have grown to know as a democratic government.
But what makes us think that we as Americans should try to convince the rest of the world that this is the way everyone should live?
William Schultz, executive director of Amnesty International, and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, advances the proposition that promoting human rights is not just the morally right thing to do, but in fact, is advantageous to us as a country and as individuals. In his book, In Our Own Best Interest, Schultz proposes that countries that promote human rights for their own citizens are less likely to go to war with others and are more likely to be engaged in healthy, fair-trade relationships. He also outlines reasons why promoting human rights in other countries is economically advantageous to us.
Schultz quotes Fareed Zakaria, who writes in the publication Foreign Affairs in 1997, that "constitutional liberalism" protects individual autonomy and people's right against coercion. Zakaria says that it's not enough that a country is moving slowly toward free elections and can say that they are "democratic". Many countries after holding what they call "free elections" will then crack down on many free institutions such as the press and human rights will go right down the tube when the TV cameras are not aimed at them.
Governments that promote a system of checks and balances and spread power out to many constituencies will also protect individual rights. Other commentators on this idea, Mansfield and Snyder call for governments to promote "full democracy" with encouragement of a "marketplace of ideas". They warn the United States against making promotion of democracy as the key cornerstone of foreign policy . They say that simply changing governments into a newly democratic structure without also addressing full human rights legislation can be a pitfall. Zakaria points to "illiberal democracies" that after free elections, the freely elected leaders then use their power all too freely to restrict human rights. Promotion of human rights in these countries also moves these countries towards respect of other's countries boundaries, these analysts say.
Foreign policy analyst Steven David also predicts that the "stability of central governments" rests in large measure on their degree of promotion of human rights in their country. He says that this level of human rights promotion will also move that country toward stable economic relationships with other countries.
Schultz points to world leaders who felt they first got away with repression of their own citizens, then moved aggressively toward other countries. He points to Saddam Hussein's ill treatment of the Kurds within Iraq's borders before he felt emboldened enough to invade Kuwait. Schultz uses this as an argument toward our foreign policy focusing on not just democratic governments but on key human rights issues.
Some argue that human rights are a Western value and therefore not something that we should be imposing upon other cultures. Schultz declares that human rights are universal values as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We are reminded that cultures in which human rights were valued have been stable and long lasting societies that were examples of "best practices" of government. Going back to Greek society in which human rights were tantamount, many strong democratic cultures have shown how respect for individual's rights leads to strength among nations and prosperity.
U.S. Foreign Policy has had an effect on promoting human rights abroad. We need only look at the former Soviet Union, South Africa, Latin American, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia as examples. Schultz points to the true advances in human rights in these countries over the past ten years as having been influenced directly by our foreign policy. Some "realists" say that the U.S. cannot be the world's policemen. But Schultz says that there are many ways that our country can promote human rights without getting involved militarily.
Controlling trade in arms or other commodities that support arms trade is one way. Insisting that dictators who abuse their citizens be held responsible for their actions is another way. Our country can insist on extradition and war trials for those guilty of human rights abuses. Withholding recognition of a country who is perpetuating human rights abuses is another way. Developing countries want to be recognized as players in the world arena. Withholding financial support or private investment is a large carrot and stick to countries like China who are trying to develop their economic markets. Schultz recommends that the U.S. could use these economic incentives with greater effect.
Large corporations with financial interests in other countries hold a lot of power in the area of human rights, particularly since these companies employ the citizens of that country. Areas such as fair wages, safe working conditions, child labor abuse, codes of conduct for security workers, and standards for production with subcontractors can all be influenced by large foreign investors. They have a great effect on a country's human rights practices if they use their economic power to demand certain human rights related to their business. Political pressure can make a difference. Paul Fireman, the President of Reebok, wrote a letter to the President of Indonesia seeking the release of a human rights activist. The activist was eventually released from prison and the letter could very well have been the overriding factor.
The result of economic sanctions on human rights is a mixed one. Rarely, if ever, is a regime toppled because of economic sanctions. But sometimes there are good results. This was evident in the cases of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and our sanctions against South Africa during the apartheid.
While many of us feel that military intervention is the last resort that should be used against a country with an oppressive regime, there are times when military intervention should be used. Many argue that the U.N. with full U.S. backing should have intervened in Rwanda before we witnessed hundreds of thousands of people massacred. Schultz says when genocide is occurring, we must intervene militarily.
Schultz says that it is in our strategic interest to promote full human rights in other countries. We must have a comprehensive policy of helping shape democratic practices in other countries in order to create good trading partners and peaceful stable neighbors. But these rules must apply to us in all our dealings. They must apply to us in our treatment of prisoners and it our handling of disaster relief.
Recently, it has been reported that the US is holding many prisoners at secret CIA run facilities in countries such as Yemen. They are holding several dozen prisoners who are deemed to be a part of the terrorist network. The US admits that several men are being held at foreign sites. On the Amnesty International web site there is a description of three such men who were taken from their homes with no explanation, held in prisons in countries such as Yemen, Iraq, or Guantanomo. They continue to be held with no charges. In these prisons in other countries, laws around physical and psychological brutality do not exist, and the secrecy surrounding the prisons allow practices that would never hold up in a U.S. court of law. The Amnesty International web site reports, "There have been persistent reports that the USA operates secret detention centers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Qatar, Thailand, Uzbekistan and other locations in Eastern Europe…"
How can the United States be a force for justice in the human rights area while perpetrating these crimes in terms of prisoner abuse? What influence can we have on how other countries treat their citizens if we treat their citizens with no respect, as if they had no rights? The Universal Declaration grants human rights to every person regardless of nationality. Our country seems to think that if you speak an Arabic language, wear funny clothes, or were trained in Muslim traditions that somehow you have no human rights. These people have become grist for our "war on terror".
Scott Alexander, our esteemed colleague and friend from River Road Unitarian Church spoke recently about the moral crisis that we are facing in the country. He said that this moral crisis has nothing to do with the issues of gay marriage, abortion, or lack of public religious discourse. He said it has to do with how we are citizens view the "social contract" we have with other people. He said,
And this social contract goes further than just to our fellow citizens; it extends to all citizens of the world. As A. Powell Davies demonstrated not only by his words but by his actions in terms of civil rights action that he took during the 50's in our city, "…this nation was not founded on the divisive and the separate, but upon the rights of all people."
As Unitarian Universalists, our second principle affirms that we will promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. This means that human rights is a part of our faith. We must do more than just affirm this principle. We must act upon it. Next week we will celebrate our Guest at Your Table Sunday when we talk about our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and some of the work that it does. I hope you'll join us as we support the work that UUSC does towards justice, equity, and compassion in our world.