Campus News

Goldstone, Wiesel Address Issues of Human Rights at Panel Discussion

Story posted May 28, 2004

May 28, 2004

Justice Richard J. Goldstone and Dr. Torsten N. Wiesel, two of Bowdoin's distinguished Honorary Degree recipients for 2004, presented a public panel discussion today on international human rights issues.

Goldstone is former South African Constitutional Court Justice, champion of international justice and human rights, and the world's first international war crimes prosecutor.

Wiesel is president emeritus of The Rockefeller University and a Nobel Prize winner in medicine. Since 1994 he has served as chair of the National Academy of Science's Committee on Human Rights, and he is a member and former chair of the Human Rights Watch, Arms Division.

As Bowdoin Dean for Academic Affairs Craig McEwen said in introducing Goldstone and Wiesel, "Here at Bowdoin, we're all familiar with one of the guiding principles of the College, a commitment to 'The Common Good.' Justice Goldstone's and Dr. Wiesel's involvement, dedication, and leadership in the areas of human rights and medicine their commitment to The Common Good have benefited humankind."

Following are excerpts from the discussion:

I am not an advocate of human rights in the true sense; I am a concerned citizen. My own interest is perhaps personal. My father was a psychiatrist and I grew up in a mental hospital. As a child I had already seen individuals who were prisoners, or incarcerated, because they didn't fit into society. This has been in the back of my mind all through life. I grew up in the time during the '30s and '40s when we had terrible things happen in Europe and the world and it had a great deal of influence in my way of looking at things. As a young man, I decided I should always have an eye on the world so that such things could not happen again.

To my mind, these are very much legal issues. We have the Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention. These should be taken very seriously. I think we should take advantage of the fact that we have a real expert here to dialogue in real depth about the problems we face today.

My own involvement with human rights was a very personal one. When I first became a student at the university in Johannesburg, coming from a typical upper-middle class white home, I had never met any black South Africans as peers. They had been domestic helpers; they put gas into my father's motor vehicles. When I was just 18 I came in touch with Black South Africans as peers. It didn't take much time for my frustration and same to catch up. We need these kinds of personal contacts and episodes to come to the full realization of some of the horrors around us literally next door. I became angry at the unfairness of a system where I could go home to a pleasant white suburb, whereas black students, once they left the campus, had to carry documents I didn't have to, and were forced to live in squalid townships studying by paraffin lamps and candle light. I became an apartheid activist. My strong views on the protection of human rights were shaped by my own background in a very oppressive, racist country.

There's no doubt at all; I believe that the treatment that the Iraqui prisoners were meted out and are demonstrated on the photographs that have come to light quite surprisingly (torture usually happens in darkness - this is something very unusual) falls in the definition of torture. I don't think there can be any doubt at all about that. The ironic thing about the U.S. policy is this duality, this contradiction. It was the U.S. that took the lead in getting the'84 treaty ratified by almost every country in the world. It is the U.S. pushing for international human rights, conditions, and agreements, but wanting to step outside them. It's a good idea for the rest of the world, but don't count us in.

The politicians hide behind words, or non-words. One reads in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times how the administration at the moment is not using the word torture. They don't want to bring themselves into the parameters of the torture convention. It was similar in genocide of 1994 - we got clear requests from Washington not to use the word "genocide." It's the peculiar duality on the part of politicians. The importance of the kind of work that Wiesel has done, and organizations such as Amnesty International, is that these organizations make it almost impossible for politicians to simply leave these issues off the agenda completely.

In the U.S. politicians do pay attention to protest; that's part of a democracy because every four years there's an election. We who are fortunate to live in democracies must appreciate that and exercise our rights and make our voices heard.

I don't think there are any circumstances that justify torture.

It's clearly higher officers that supervised this. Probably you will see more of this in the future. It's important that the focus not be on the perpetrators, but those in the system.

The evidence is establishing that this is systemic. The young rookie soldiers don't behave in that way on their own. It's a system of nods and winks. It's unfair to stop blame at all the people at the bottom. I was upset when Bush said it was the work of a few bad apples. We don't know that yet. What's going to happen is that the military is going to start charging people. The U.S. military has a very effective court of which it can be proud. It has been fair in giving the best defense of people, even if it means embarrassing their employer.

I think a lot of information will come out in these trials. Armies in all democracies are going to be better as a result of this becoming public.

Of course, morality can't be legislated. But legislation should be moral. If you have a gap between the law and morality, the law falls into disrepute. For black South Africans in apartheid to be sent to prison carried no negative social stigma. The reverse was often true; an inversion of the moral society. The law always comes in reaction; it's not proactive.

Many of these human rights laws were so broadly defined. It's like the Magna Carta - broad statements that set the tone for a civilized world, yet are separate from more specific consideration.

The press play an important role and have failed miserably in alerting the public to Afghanistan, Guantanamo ... They are trying to recover, but there is a lack of deep journalistic reporting on these issues.

Generally speaking, I'm optimistic. Historically, the last 55 years have seen huge advances in recognition of human rights. There are many more democracies. At the same time, there are huge areas of the world where human rights are violated in the most horrible ways every day. For that reason, I'm sad that America is not taking the lead it should. One reads about a leader in Malaysia who said of Guantanamo: "Good! We're going to have one of our own." The powerful good the United States has been is being diminished by examples of the U.S. turning its back on the strict letter of the of the human rights conventions of which it is a part. It is not easy in the face of terrorist to protect human rights. The difficulty is in finding the balance.

The U.S. has always been the beacon light starting with the Declaration of Human Rights. And now there's a deterioration of the effectiveness one can have to help prisoners being harassed. We now are losing the light to lead in this area. There is more to the declaration; you can't just focus on one issue. It also describes the need to think about health, housing, education for all people. We must think about countries with poor people, with indigenous people - many of whom are facing genocide.

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