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John Murray Lecture: The Future of Human Rights

General Assembly 2008 Event 2041

The United States—nation that was once regarded as a leader in human rights—is now seen abroad as a "wounded rogue elephant," according to Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz. The good news, he says, is that restoring our good reputation is well within the reach of the next administration if specific steps are taken within the next few years.

Schulz—the former executive director of Amnesty International and a past president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and now the board chairman for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee—believes that America's consistent failure to recognize the human rights of others has done much to get us into trouble around the world. Because "we've forgotten that all blood runs red," he said, polls are finding that opinions of America are plummeting in worldwide, from France and Germany to Indonesia and Turkey. (The good news, he points out, is that they're up slightly from 2006—"but only because the world is so relieved we have term limits in this country.")

America's lack of credibility is a global problem, says Schulz. Nuclear proliferation is a problem because even when we're right, nobody trusts us; and even when we can help, as we could in Darfur, nobody trusts us.

No matter which party wins in November, he continued, the result will be a substantial improvement. He quoted one of this year’s U.S. presidential candidates who said:

"Our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume we have all the wisdom and knowledge necessary to succeed. We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies. When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic, or diplomatic, we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them.”

Schulz suggests that America must be a model citizen if we want others to look to us as a model. How we behave at home affects how we are perceived abroad. We must fight the terrorists and at the same time defend the rights that are the foundation of our society. We can't torture or treat inhumanely suspected terrorists we have captured. I believe we should close Guantanamo and work with our allies to forge a new international understanding on the disposition of dangerous detainees under our control. He remarked, “There is such a thing as international good citizenship."

To the surprise of the audience, Schulz noted that that quote came from John McCain.

Americans as Moral Missionaries
Still, he said, as tempting as it is to think that the new president will set everything right again, it's not going to be quite so easy. From the Puritans onward, Americans have had a sense of moral mission, first expressed by John Winthrop as the "shining city on a hill." "Both the city part and the hill part were of equal importance," said Schulz. After all, what good is sainthood if nobody knows about your saintliness? A hill puts you in the eyes of the world. As Winthrop wished it: "If we succeed, they shall say of later plantations, Lord, Lord, make it like that of New England." America has always seen itself as model for the less enlightened—starting with the Native Americans.

That sense of moral mission has never left us, he said. We can still hear it in George Bush's insistence that we're about ending tyranny and bringing democracy to the world. From the beginning, we understood that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" was not just for Americans, but for all mankind. And that sense of mission, says Schulz, is the still the biggest piece of common ground shared by conservatives and liberals.

Neoconserativism was brought to America by Leo Strauss, who found shelter from the Nazis here and decided it was the promised land. However, Strauss also promoted an idea that appealed to the worst in Americans—the notion that a common history, land, language, or culture isn’t enough to sustain national unity. "Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed," wrote Strauss. "Such governance can only be established when men are united. People can only be united against other people." You need an enemy to unify a nation and sustain enough "moral clarity" to achieve "national greatness."

And so America has had an endless procession of enemies ever since the end of World War II. The neocons were thrown into panic by the end of the Cold War, fearing the disunity that could result when American lost its "defining foreign demon." 9/11 was seen as a fresh opportunity. Faced with the loss of one threat, the neocons found solace in the emergence of another. This re-energized their sense of mission to spread liberty to the four corners of the earth—- by force of arms, if necessary.

Unfortunately, Schulz noted, what the neocons lacked was "a tragic sense of history—a sense that life has real limits, and not everybody will be saved." Driven by America's historical sense of mission, they sought to make the world over in our image.

Most of us know how foolish this line of thinking was. But liberals have a lot more in common with neocons than we like to think, Schulz suggested. Human rights advocates also believe that humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights. “We see the world as divided by the children of light, and those who would oppress them. We acknowledge that sometimes force must be used to achieve good ends. We believe the U.S. has a special responsibility. We believe democracy must spread. And we also lack a tragic sense of history, which expresses itself in our fond belief that if the world would conform to human rights norms, we could put an end to suffering.”

In both cases, notes Schulz, these beliefs have often provided a cover for the spread of empire, and eroded America's ability to provide leadership, even when it's desperately needed and we could probably accomplish a great deal of good. Many international groups spurn our help, because being seen in our company costs them credibility with those they serve.

Restoring Our Image
So, Schulz questioned, “How do we restore America's international credibility and honorable reputation?”

The first step, he suggested, is that “we have to acknowledge the international community exists—a belief not shared by neoconservatives.” He summarized the neocon objection this way: God did not put America between two great oceans, bring us through the Civil War and across the prairies, and help us win two world wars and defeat Communism—only to see us subordinated to some Dutch bureaucrat in the Hague.

"Foreign policy in a Republican administration will proceed from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interests of an illusory international community," Schulz quoted Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as saying in Foreign Relations Magazine." Neocons regard "the international community" as a figment of liberal imaginations. And because of this, Schulz posited, international human rights laws and courts have no meaning.

Rebuilding America's stature begins with signaling that we're back in the international ball game. Schulz listed several things a new president could do immediately to make this statement, including signing the Charter of the Rights of the child, paying our back dues to the UN, revisiting the issue of joining the International Criminal Court, and issuing an official apology to the world for the debacle in Iraq. (This last line got huge applause and some standing ovations from the audience.)

Then, we need to turn to the much harder problem of resolving the issue of our involvement in Iraq. "Until we withdraw from Iraq, we will never be on a clear path to the restoration of America's credibility," Schulz declared. The biggest threat he sees is that if the Shia/Sunni civil war continues after we leave, the Saudis will come in on the side of the Sunnis, and Iran will join the side of the Shia. "The whole Middle East will explode," Schulz declared. The only way to avoid this is to engage both the Saudis and the Iranians in negotiations that will bring them on board with efforts to support and stabilize post-occupation Iraq—"and for the U.S. to eat some humble pie in the process."

At the same time, Schulz said, we also need to renounce practices that put us at odds with the international community. To that end, he suggested that we should close Guantanamo, and send the detainees home or into the US justice system. "Most Americans have NO conception what Guantanamo has done to America's image around the world," Schulz declared. We need to restore habeas corpus (which the Supreme Court did, substantially, in the weeks leading up to General Assembly). And, just as we issue annual reports on human rights abuses in every other country in the world, we need to start putting out reports that honestly assess our own record on that front.

"What happens at home affects our prestige around the world," declared Schulz. The world notices that China—for all its own human right human violations—responded far more effectively to their recent earthquake than America did to Hurricane Katrina. Events like that shape perceptions; doing right by our own weakest citizens helps our reputation around the world.

We also need to return to our role as an honest broker between Israel and the Arab world. For as long as it continues, the Palestinian conflict will give Middle East countries an excuse to violate the rights of their own people. The good news, according to Schulz, is that unlike the situation in Iraq, every observer on both sides knows exactly what the broad solution to the problem will ultimately look like. Peace will come when the Palestinians have their own secure and viable state with the right of return; Israel accepts permanent and stable borders; and there is adequate compensation to parties on both sides for land lost in the settlement. For a permanent Middle East peace, he said, "The U.S. should exert maximum pressure on both parties to do this sooner, rather than later."

And the last and hardest thing, said Schulz, is that we need to continue to promote democracy in the world. "We have an obligation to use those guns on behalf of those who are truly the most vulnerable." He explained that the United Nations (U.N.) has resolved that the world community has a responsibility to help people whose own governments are committing genocide—but that means nothing without enforcement, and we (the United States) represent, still, the best enforcer country there is.

Schulz was concerned that, having been ‘burned’ in Iraq, Americans would step back from this role in the future. "The Iraq stupidity will be compounded if we use Iraq as an excuse not to act in the future—and let hundreds of thousands of innocent people die."

In response to audience questions, Schulz added a few more thoughts to this list. For one thing, he said, globalization isn't going away. The world is becoming more economically interdependent; and we need to figure out how we're going to manage that. The most important issue for the next president (of the United States) will be defining and managing our relationship with China, and figuring out how we will co-exist over the next several decades. We will also need to re-think the international legal framework for terrorism, because our current laws simply don't allow us to address the issue effectively.

A Theology of Human Rights
Finally, Schulz gave a short lesson on the theology of human rights. Historically, he said, human rights arguments have been grounded three different ways. Some ground them in religion and God's law, which is problematic because there are a lot of conflicting views about who God is and what He wants. Others ground them in natural law, which is problematic because "natural law" tends to be defined as whatever the current popular philosophers say it is.

He pointed out that many people now ground the idea of human rights more pragmatically, as the product of a growing international consensus. That is, finally, the ultimate basis on which human rights will be recognized and protected. Schulz notes that Supreme Court Justices O'Connor and Kennedy have both cited inter-nation norms in decisions in recent years, which is a good sign that these emerging norms are becoming part of American legal thinking on rights.

Ultimately, though, Schulz said, I don't care how you get there: I will judge you by your actions. And that includes recognizing our rights and responsibilities toward the global community, and regarding other countries as equal and important to the human rights struggle.

How long will this take? If the next administration acts boldly, he said, it could happen more quickly than we might imagine. He pointed out that the world still admires America's long traditions of decency, virtue, and taking responsibility; our open-mindedness and willingness to take strong stands for human rights. Our history is distinguished by heroes who stood for justice in the hardest circumstances; and we've been at our best when we return to those traditions and stand for those very Unitarian values.

Schulz concluded by returning to John Winthrop, who knew the realization of his hopes lay in America becoming a model of decency and virtue. "If it fails to be a model of decency and virtue, then our prayers shall turn into curses, and we shall surely perish out of that good land whither we passed over that vast sea."

Reported by Sara Robinson; edited by Deborah Weiner.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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