Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch since 1993, has investigated human rights abuses around the globe, with special expertise on issues of justice and accountability for atrocities committed[…]
After WWII, the US was on of the foremost proponents of human rights.
If you look back at the United States, it was probably one of the foremost proponents of human rights certainly coming out of the Second World War. The fact that Eleanor Roosevelt was the chief architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is no accident. America really was at the forefront of this novel concept of human rights. And for many years it was a partisan of convenience, because it found that these rights were useful to fight the Cold War with; that . . . that they highlighted a lot of shortcomings in the Soviet Union. With the end of the Cold War, there was a lot of question as to where America’s commitment would go. And it took a while for, say, the Clinton administration to find its footing. It let the genocide in Rwanda go without interfering indeed with actively resisting efforts by others to stop the genocide. But by the time later in the decade Bosnia and Kosovo came along, it belatedly did act. And there was a willingness to stand up for human rights even if it was costly. That, you know, seemed to, again, speak toward a positive trajectory. But when 9/11 came along, there was a real retrenchment, because it was one thing to stand for these rights as sort of a beacon around the world; trying to bring the rest of the world up to a certain standard; and maybe sometimes even intervening militarily for the benefit of human rights; but it was quite another when the United States itself felt threatened. And there on the one hand, we saw the shallowness of the commitment of at least some Americans to these values. We also saw a government that was in no sense committed to these values, and viewed them simply as an obstacle toward its efforts – in frankly a ________-fisted and counterproductive way – to try to protect America from the terrorist threat. I think today with a little perspective on 9/11, we understand that this resort to say torture, or disappearance, or detention of people at Guantanamo, or at CIA secret facilities, that this has been a disaster for the fight against terrorism; that it has not made us safer; that indeed it has bolstered our enemies. We have . . . we have read from Osama bin Laden’s playbook. We’ve done exactly what he would have wanted the United States government to do. So it may be that for pragmatic reasons, the American people are going to return to respect for rights. And we are seeing bits and pieces of that in the growing rejection of torture; the growing clamor to close Guantanamo; the beginnings of congressional action to reign in the Bush administration. But I wouldn’t say that any of these rights are secure. And if there is a big terrorist attack tomorrow, I still worry about how the American people and the American government will react. I don’t think we’re yet at the level where the commitment in principle to human rights, which does very much exist in the United States, is strong enough that it can resist the temptation to do whatever it takes to protect us in the face of a threat – which is frankly the way many American people responded after 9/11.
Recorded on: 8/14/07