Remarks by Jonathan Fanton about Human Rights at the Wayfarer's Club, Chicago, Illinois
April 11, 2000 | Speech

Before I had fully absorbed the fact of my appointment as President of the MacArthur Foundation, a letter arrived from Rich Franke inviting me for an evening of conversation with the Wayfarers. I should not have been surprised that Rich was the first since I now understand the leadership role he plays in so many facets of Chicago life. I knew warmly of The Wayfarers through my good friend Ned Rosenheim; that coupled with an invitation from a trustee of both Yale and the University of Chicago prompted an enthusiastic acceptance. It is an honor to be with you.

Cynthia and I are delighted to be back in Chicago which has prospered in our years away. The city seems more vibrant, more beautiful, more cohesive than ever. More than any city in the United States, Chicago has a robust civic intellect by which I mean an easy interaction among academics, professionals, political leaders, people in business and community activists. It seems to me The Wayfarers Club is the perfect embodiment of the civic intellect, a meeting place for theory and practice, local and international, the humanities, the arts and sciences.

The very breadth of your interests made it hard to get advice about a topic for tonight. Should I talk about higher education, or the arts — given the New Schools embrace of Parsons School of Design, Mannes College of Music, The Actors Studio and the Joffrey Ballet School, or whats ahead for the MacArthur Foundation? While these and other topics are fair game for the question period, I decided to talk about my extra-curricular passion which is Human Rights Watch.

But first a few words of context and a biographical note. One characteristic of the age in which we live is the growing global importance of non-governmental organizations. Alexis de Tocqueville long ago commented on Americas love of private associations when he wrote:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies . . . . but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainment, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries . . . . in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. . . . If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of association together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.

This phenomenon we call civil society today, has expanded exponentially in the last generation in other parts of the world. Under Adele Simmons prescient leadership, the MacArthur Foundation has been an early and steadfast supporter of non-governmental groups all over the world. She rightly saw that a central feature of globalization would be the rise of non-state actors and the need to nurture NGOs in developing countries and connect them to strong international networks. So it is that MacArthur is a key supporter of Human Rights Watch, but also Conservation International, The Population Council, Transparency International, and Pugwash. We also support local organizations in our fields of interest. For example: the Program on Arms Control and Regional Security at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, Trasparencia an organization created to give peasant, indigenous and community groups in Mexico a voice in World Bank policies and projects, Catolicas por el Derecho a Decidir in Mexico and Brazil; and the Constitutional Rights Project and the Civil Liberties Organization, both human rights organizations in Nigeria and an environmental group called the Socio-Ecological Union in Russia.

Non-governmental organizations play an indispensable role in the policy process and at the same time advance the prospects of creating and sustaining healthy democracies around the world. They give voice to ordinary citizens, check governmental excesses, fill in gaps and build acceptance of governmental — including multilateral — decisions. This subject is a talk in itself, but not for tonight. My point is that in addition to the civic groups we are participating in at home, there are abundant opportunities for each of us to engage in important work abroad both through international groups based in the U.S. and in developing countries. And besides doing some good, involvement can be tremendously rewarding personally.

Now for the biographical note. My background is about as narrow as it could be. Raised in a small, homogenous Connecticut town where my family has lived since the 1680s, educated within thirty miles of home, no foreign travel until my twenties and then only to France and England, trained in American History, poor at foreign languages you get the picture. Hardly the background you would expect for the Chair of a worldwide human rights organization. Without Human Rights Watch and The New School I would have had a much less interesting life, much less satisfying life.

Consider these vignettes. Prague, October 1989 in the middle of a demonstration that proved to be the beginning of the Velvet Revolution, I was dragged by the secret police from the crowd for the sin of photographing a person being beaten; and then two years later I was talking alone with Havel about the breakup of Czechoslovakia. January 1990, part of the first international group visiting Bucharest after the violent overthrow of the Ceausescu regime and sent into the subway to persuade a group of idealistic young people to give up a ten day hunger strike protesting the hijacking of the revolution by former communists; or a confrontation with then Prime Minister now President Demirel of Turkey in 1992 over the persecution of the Kurds, alas just as CNN featured Rodney Kings beating across the world; or a 1993 visit to Baku the day the first democratically elected government fell to an almost coup yielding to a restoration of the old Communist leader Haider Aliev, or a mission to Bishkek in 1995 at the behest of Deputy Secretary of State Talbott to convince Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akaev to hold elections rather than extend his term by parliamentary referendum as his Central Asian neighbors had done.

I offer these vignettes as examples of how my world expanded through my volunteer work for Human Rights Watch. I hope I contributed to the cause by supporting the young professional staff with whom I traveled, making the point to foreign leaders that human rights has a broad base of support in mainstream America and should not be dismissed as a single issue fringe left group.

Now a few words about Human Rights Watch and then lets open up for conversation. You may not know the group, but you see its work. The news stories of atrocities committed by the Russians in Chechnya come from our staff interviewing refugees at the border; our staff were similarly involved in on-the-ground reporting in Kosovo gathering evidence on six of the seven cases that lead to the indictment of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic; so too our work in Rwanda has provided key evidence for the War Crimes Tribunal; the arrest of Chad dictator Hissane Habre on the Pinochet model for crimes against humanity was largely our doing; and we successfully led an international coalition to press for the adoption of a treaty banning the use of child soldiers and played a major role in getting land mines banned.

In 1975, the countries of eastern and western Europe and the United States joined together and signed the Helsinki accords, an unprecedented agreement to ensure peace and security in Europe. Among its many provisions, the accords guaranteed respect for "human rights and fundamental freedoms." Even more importantly, the accords confirmed the "right of the individual to know and act upon his rights and duties in this field." For the first time, the countries of the eastern bloc and the Soviet Union were declaring that human rights activity could be safely conducted within their own borders. When this did not, in fact, turn out to be the case, Human Rights Watch was established in 1978 to defend the many human rights monitors who were imprisoned for trying to act on the rights assured in the accords.

We work in seventy countries focusing on civil and political rights. Our methodology is to hold countries accountable to the provisions of their own constitutions and to international accords which they freely signed. In addition to the Helsinki Accord covering Europe and the US, there are many UN agreements in force worldwide, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1960), the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (1948), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965). Examples in holding the countries of the former Soviet Union accountable for the free expression provisions of the Helsinki accords of 1975; bringing cases of "disappearances before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights; and, perhaps most compelling of all, holding warring parties accountable for their treatment of civilians in conflict areas, as set forth by the Geneva Conventions.

The staff go into the field to find the facts and then issue detailed reports that are picked up by the press, both international and in country. Beyond public embarrassment, our reports can lead to international sanctions or international aid, such as our ongoing debate with members of Congress on setting human rights conditions for U.S. aid to Colombia's military in the face of its complex relationship with the bloody paramilitaries or the 12 million dollars that USAID committed to Russian orphanages after our report exposed the sub-human conditions in those state institutions. And our reports provide encouragement for local human rights groups, in some cases protection for independent activists whom the government can no longer touch with impunity.

Indeed the last twenty years has seen an explosion of local human rights groups all over the world. These activists on the ground are our indispensable partners everywhere we work. Indeed the language of human rights is now in every day use, which is both a plus and a minus.

The danger is that too many things can be called a human right to the point where the movement loses focus and the rights claimed become unenforceable. There is some tension between those who want to stay focused on civil and political rights rooted in constitutions and covenants and those who broaden the agenda to social and cultural rights, basically distributive justice issues that need to be resolved through the political process: jobs, housing, healthcare, equality. The two conceptions can come together when these basic human needs are allocated in a discriminatory basis. Indeed, HRW has tackled women's right legally to inherit property in countries like Nigeria or Rwanda, where such rights traditionally only accrue to men; or systematic discrimination against the Roma, more commonly known as Gypsies, that denies them access to education, decent housing, medical care or jobs in a shocking number of countries across Europe, and labor rights in the maquiladora sector in Mexico, where many American companies such as General Motors and Sunbeam have established factories.

A new, and somewhat controversial, technique in the pursuit of human rights is to hold the private sector accountable for benefiting from human rights abuses and therefore becoming complicit in those abuses. HRW has a business and human rights program which has taken up such issues as abuses committed by security forces as they protect energy installations in Nigeria or Sudan; the use of forced laborers in logging and the energy sector in a number of Asian countries; an ongoing effort to work with the business community as it expands into China to ensure that international standards apply to working conditions.

It is too early to tell if this technique will be successful, but we have had particularly promising success in our multi-year dialogue with several oil companies, who are now very committed to the belief that although they often deal with governments who are the target of human rights critics, they must be vigilant in their effort to avoid any complicity in those abuses.

As human rights groups have proliferated at the local level, the international human rights organizations have spent more time on systems of justice. I have mentioned the ban on child soldiers and on landmines. Really the most important development is the International Criminal Court signed in Rome in July 1998 but in need of ratification by sixty countries before taking effect. So far only twenty-one countries have signed and six ratified, the US is unwilling to so long as Senator Helms maintains control of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Yet we stand on the cusp of having an international justice system which denies those who commit crimes against humanity impunity for those crimes. Eventually there will be no place to hide and, we hope, the emerging system will serve as a deterrent to the future Milosovics, Pinochets and Idi Amins.

There have, of course, been many actors in the steady march of human rights to the center stage of history. Human Rights Watch, like its better known colleague Amnesty International, has played an important role. It has been an immensely satisfying experience for me to have witnessed the evolution of the movement from the defense of Russian dissidents like Sakharov to a worldwide force impacting for the better millions of lives. And of course human rights is but one field in which brave and determined individuals use the instruments of civil society to move government to do the right thing.

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