Horrific things are happening – in Syria, Nigeria, or the Sudan. We don’t send troops in – and face universal censure. We send troops in – and later, when the bodies of American soldiers are dragged through the streets, or we face a long, debilitating war in a far-flung place, we want out. Any commitment to human rights is cancelled. It’s their problem, after all.
We don’t want war. We can’t make peace.
So what’s the answer?
The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, doesn’t have an answer either, but he challenged some current household gods in a provocative talk at Stanford last night. In particular, he questioned “human rights absolutism,” finding that the lens that human rights organizations bring to issues is sometimes “freezes time,” without historical perspective or historical judgment, capturing complex events in one moment that clearly divides victims and perps like oil and water.
What would Human Rights Action have said about Abraham Lincoln? He suggested that, with Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Sherman’s March, and “obvious gross human rights abuses,” the president would flunk the human rights test today. Yet we can also view these moves as bad actions in a cause we judge as good, rather than funneling them through a “single measure,” he said.
Of course, Lincoln’s drama unfolded over years. Today’s immediate 24/7 media coverage means complex situations are frozen in a single, horrible moment almost instantly. Think Abu Ghraib. “If there’s a famine in Somalia, now you’ll hear about it” – Gourevitch snapped his fingers – “right away,” We seem to be living in an anti-historical, freeze-time era, fast as a camera shutter.
“A premise in our culture, in most religions, in the human rights movement and the law, is that we are united by a common humanity,” said Gourevitch, “that the suffering that is happening far away might be our business.” However, he said, “In reality, few of us live that way. What is near to us is near to us, what’s far away is far away,” he said. But now it’s on CNN or twitter and in our living rooms – in an instant.
“Americans’ reaction is ‘why don’t we do something?’” said Gourevitch, a former editor of the Paris Review. “Why should I expose myself to grievous suffering if I can’t do something about it?”
“Frankly, it is naïve to think we know what’s right” – and even more naïve to think we can implement it. “Action is often a story of distortion,” he said.
Human rights groups are the “last universalist organizations still standing.” They are neither left-wing nor right-wing, but rather they “take the side of the suffering,” and demand that human rights abuses be adjudicated as crimes.
They’ve met with success in public awareness: 20 years ago, there were no summer sessions in human rights and no human rights majors.
But their vision is “not entirely accurate,” he said, because “none of us live in an extra-statal world.” Without considering political reality, “you might provoke a worse atrocity.”
“Human rights abuses are often a symptom,” Gourevitch said – a symptom of more systemic problems. While a human rights agenda is essential, it tends to be a legal agenda. It’s “an entirely negative measure” – in other words, you find human rights abuses, and then you penalize them. In such a view, “it starts to look like there are no politics,” he said.
And often the results need a rethink. In 2009, the International Criminal Court indicted Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir for crimes committed against the people of Darfur and issued a warrant asking the rest of the world to arrest him.
“They’re calling for a coup d’état. What’s your response?” he asked. “Do you care who comes next?” When considering atrocities, “It’s always important to remember that the nastiest thing you see can be exceeded.”
We hope indictments, sanctions, and other actions act as a deterrent – but where does this confidence come from? he asked. “Right now it’s pure speculation.” We know that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime, “but the same exact people are arguing for the deterrent effect on heads of state.”
Often, we are dealing with nations where “there have always been wars about succession” and where “there’s never been a head of state who has left office alive.”
For these leaders, “the primary fear is not that you might wind up being in a Swedish jail,” he said. “It’s bad for your image – but it’s not the worst option.”
Is it appropriate to let dictators “sneak out the door”? Such arrangements were made for Liberia’s Charles Taylor, who had a safe exile in Nigeria for awhile. He was eventually apprehended and turned over to Liberia – a series of actions that undermined such safe options, anyway. Are such deals “promoting a culture where there is no accountability”?
“These are problems we should be thinking about,” he said, rather than focusing on them simply as legal issues. “Is this in the interests of that people? Is this better for the people in that place? A lot of the time it has nothing to do with the people in that place. What they [human rights organizations and activists] are interested in is international law. They’re lawyers.”
In such cases, “the consequences for Rwanda are irrelevant. It’s a different set of issues. Moral clarity rams into political reality every step of the way. It’s impossible to solve problems without it.”
And are these issues as black-and-white as they seem? What would human rights scoresheet have looked like during, say, the Siege of Troy? Would Homer’s lines be less moving if they described UN blue helmets and post-conflict resolutions for the Greeks and Trojans? Or what about Macbeth? “We look at those stories in their complexity,” he said. (Incidentally, he’s providing another small argument for the study of literature.)
Gourevitch recalled meeting a survivor of a Rwandan atrocity, after school students refused the Hutu guerrillas’ orders to separate into Hutus and Tutsis, and were massacred. “That dark courage – that’s what hope looks like in that place,” he said.
But the story didn’t stop there. The guerilla commander who is alleged to be responsible for the massacre has now been reintegrated into the Army – he’s even been promoted to colonel. Gourevitch was able to get his phone number within a day. He met the officer, who said that he had nothing to do with the slaughter. Yet it’s widely believed that he did, and there has been no trial.
“All of this is completely at odds with human rights thinking,” Gourevitch said. But he was told by one Rwandan, “if we keep adjudicating, we’ll never build a nation and integrate the army.”
“It’s a very troubling proposition,” he said – but he suggests that the alternative may be even more troubling.
Justice? Write to your congressman, attend a protest, send off an op-ed. Instead, Gourevitch quoted the first line of William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own: “Justice? – you get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law.”
Meanwhile, Gourevitch below on the Paul Holdengräber Show: