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Published: Mon Oct 15 2001
Eva LundsagerFirst Attempt (detail), 2019, oil on canvas
Interview with Richard Reoch

Richard Reoch is a former public information officer of Amnesty International. He is the editor of Human Rights: The New Consensus*, and he compiled the official manual on combating torture for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.* His book To Die Well: A Holistic Approach for the Dying and their Caregivers was published by Harper Collins Publishers in August 1997.

MPF: How did your life lead you to become a human rights activist?

RR: Oddly enough, though I’m a Canadian, from Toronto, I grew up in a Buddhist family. With the outbreak of World War II, my parents, disillusioned with their local church, began seeking a spiritual path. Following the war, they discovered that the Japanese community, reconstructing itself after the trauma of mass arbitrary internment, had built a beautiful Buddhist center. They visited it, were deeply impressed by what they called “the inner light” of the minister, Reverend Takashi Tsuji, and from then on we attended services regularly for years. Every day as a child, I chanted the phrase “labor for the welfare of all humanity,” and that particular phrase stuck with me.

Human rights begin in the heart. For some people it’s a single shocking experience, and sometimes it can be traced to many influences. My family was always passionately engaged in civil rights issues in the United States and also in South Africa. By the time I finished university, I had connected with Amnesty International, and I went to London to become a volunteer in their tiny office. Human rights became my life’s work.

Many people think you have to have a law degree or be a highly skilled specialist in treating bullet wounds or something. But these days the field of human rights expertise has broadened, which is great. There are a lot of openings now. People with expertise are still needed, but the vast majority of human rights activists come from a broad spectrum.

MPF: Given the persistent work of Amnesty International and other similar nongovernmental organizations why does the world’s human rights abuse record appear to be getting worse? Is it a case of greater transparency and reporting? Or both?

RR: When we hear so much about human rights abuses, we tend to think they are increasing. The news media is paying far more attention to human rights abuses than they used to. Strangely enough, what appears to be bad news is actually good news. The good news is that real progress has been made. For example torture has been outlawed. The state is no longer immune from prosecution, and we are now on the way towards having an international criminal court to try crimes against humanity, which include torture, for the first time in history. It doesn’t mean that torture has stopped, but again, thirty years ago, an international criminal court was a dream.

If we look at prisoners of conscience, people held just because of their beliefs, origin, or orientation, the number is dwindling. Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South Africa no longer hold the vast numbers that they used to. And it seems that as democratization is continuing to progress around the world, you are actually less likely now to get arrested for holding and expressing ideas.

I think the optimistic perspective is so important to keep in mind, because just on the basis of one day’s news it is easy to think the world is no better and possibly worse. It’s hard to see the larger picture: that an ancient pattern in human behavior is changing, and this fact is more newsworthy than that some of us are still doing the same old thing.

In 1972, Amnesty International launched its first report and campaign, and I went down to the photo archives of the Associated Press, to see what photos they had on human rights abuse and torture. AP had one file with one photograph in it of a club in Miami where men paid to be subjugated by a dominatrix. For a moment, I thought, maybe we’d made it all up, if AP doesn’t know there is torture going on in the world. It wasn’t that AP didn’t know that torture was going on; it is that it wasn’t newsworthy. It was invisible. Now it’s regarded as shocking.

MPF: There’s a great deal of confusion in the area of human rights vis-a-vis the globalization of the free-market economy and trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the bilateral “favored nation” agreement signed between China and the United States.

RR: Human rights transcend trade deals. Human rights are inherent in the dignity of the person, a fundamental principal of international law. There’s nothing which says that for the sake of commerce, the state may persecute its citizens or carry out torture and genocide.

Another level of confusion that has poisoned the international understanding of human rights is that throughout the Cold War, the West tended to define human rights solely as civil and political rights like the right to a fair trial or freedom of expression, but this was one-sided. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined a much larger vision that included economic, social, and cultural rights: the right to food, health care, education, and safe working conditions. A complete understanding of human rights has to include this full spectrum.

The real challenge is to ensure that all forms of international relations, including economic ones, are brought into line with these fundamental standards. Bodies like the World Trade Organization or the World Bank have just as great a responsibility of governance, and many people would say more so, to understand and respect the full range of human rights.
For this reason, more human rights activists are targeting those organizations. So rather than seeing globalization as hindering human rights, it has, inadvertently, expanded the narrow “Cold War” definition towards a wider debate and more intense action.

MPF: Justice systems exist to protect civil and criminal rights, but economic rights seem harder to define and harder to protect.

RR: Economic rights are not more elusive than civil rights. The majority of governments signed a treaty promoting economic, social, and cultural rights, which means that if private companies and institutions as well as individuals are violating those rights, the failure of governments to protect those rights is an object of complaint and legitimate international action. We are a long way from that. We are still building human rights protection. I do feel that economic rights have lagged behind.

Yet experience to date has shown that punitive economic measures like sanctions rarely produce immediate and obvious improvements to the protection of human rights. The sanctions against Iraq, for example, are the most glaring example of massive failure. The suffering inflicted on the citizenry has failed to affect any change in internal human rights policy. Probably the only example that people can cite as successful was South Africa, but that involved an integrated international effort, not a one-track policy of relying solely on a boycott.

What we often witness is simply reluctance, a lack of guts on the part of governments to stick with human rights. There’s no link to human rights if economic concerns are tacitly given precedence. In the case of China, Western officials have conveyed the impression that human rights is a low-priority issue, flogged in order to deal with cosmetic political issues back home.

We must take the long view. The lesson that campaigners have to learn is that it is completely childish to stop at the first hurdle. If we’re going to deal, as in the case of China, with changing the pattern of human rights abuses that affect a fifth of the world’s population, then the level of intelligence, the level of strategy, and our persistence are going to have to be on that scale.

And if people simply get depressed, you know, because for five years a U.S. administration doesn’t act, or because several successful resolutions at the United Nations Human Rights Commission don’t produce results, then those people have a very short-term view of what it really means to work for human rights. When people ask me if things are getting better or worse, I try to take the longest possible perspective.

How large a perspective can one take? The question of human rights abuse clearly goes back to the dawn of history: massacres, slavery, torture, hideous punishment, the subjugation of vast numbers of peoples. The perpetrators of those atrocities were glorified. The people who dared to think otherwise became the victims or risked their lives. That is our psychological and emotional inheritance from over four thousand years of history.

Parallel with the hanging and the disemboweling, there were people of courage who stood up—leaders. Many religions grew to some degree in response to oppression. Visionary people argued for a completely different basis upon which to establish human relations instead of control and dominance. You find those names in every culture.

MPF: The human rights movement has been criticized as being a product of the West, and of not addressing a difference in cultural values—namely, that in other traditions, the rights of an individual are superceded by the needs of a society as a whole. What do you think?

RR: You have to look at who is making that argument—whether it’s the people who are sitting on top or the people who are sitting on the bottom. It’s invariably those who have a very firm grip on power. I have never, in my thirty years in human rights, heard a person say, “Please do not take up my cause” because what happened to them was acceptable within their culture.

One of the most insulting notions is that human rights as a movement came out of the West after the Second World War with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which I believe is the greatest single achievement in the last century. It marked the first time in history that the signing nations declared that respect for the members of the human family was the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace. That represents a shift in public posture and a shift in understanding. The interesting question is whether that moment in history and the five decades since are going to be an aberration, a heart tremor in history, or whether that’s the beginning of something irreversible.

One of the expressions used in the early days to describe Amnesty International was “keeping the balance of nuisance.” Whatever the issue, whatever nuisance political prisoners were to the government that was holding them, Amnesty International had to be more of a nuisance. Sometimes it is like dripping water on a stone, other times, massive action is required. Ultimately, it is public opinion that has to upset the apple cart so that it becomes politically necessary for the government to deal with human rights issues.

Activity must result in political pressure. That’s the genius of organizations like Amnesty International. By engaging local activists who sit at home and send letters or e-mails, gradually you ratchet up the number of people who are getting to senators and representatives, and slowly the volume builds up to the point where there is a constituency that is strong enough attention. That happens not only in democracies, but also in single-party states, and sometimes it accounts for oppressive regimes that seem to disappear like a cobweb: everybody goes on the streets and says, “That’s it.”

The Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and the communist rulers of Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union were all forced from office (and in some cases into exile) by mass demonstrations of public will. One of the most astonishing events took place in Czechoslovakia in 1989 when almost the entire population of Prague filled Wenceslas Square jingling their house keys. The regime gave up the ghost the same day. Of course, success is not guaranteed, and the risks are high, as Chinese and Burmese democrats found at their great cost when the armed forces openly massacred them—and Western governments, to all intents and purposes, found it convenient to look the other way.

MPF: The International Criminal Court has declined to enlist the death penalty for even the most heinous crimes. Yet President Bush supports the death penalty and believes in its deterrent force. How will this position in the presidency affect the worldwide campaign to rescind the death penalty?

RR: I think you have to realize that the U.S. is one of five countries—China, Iran, Iraq, and Congo being the other four—other countries still maintain the death penalty, but in terms of the volume of numbers, these are the five big hitters when it comes to executing their own citizens. That fact highlights another misconception: that democracies don’t violate human rights. When Clinton was running for president, his advisors told him he would never win unless he supported the death penalty. To make the point, Clinton signed the death warrant on an inmate who had shot himself and thus suffered a profound head wound before being arrested. The man could not understand what was going on when the wardens brought him his last meal. He wanted to save his leftovers for after his execution.

MPF: Amnesty International has stated that non-action or military intervention are not the only two options. Prevention, consisting of education and the development of civil institutions, is a third option, but often hard to justify politically, and therefore difficult to obtain resources for. For example, in Haiti, the lack of sufficient commitment on the part of the international community led to a bulking up of the police force in the absence of civil institutions. How can the sustained investment of significant resources be encouraged?

RR: Prevention work is hard to support because it is not politically expedient, and it’s hard to justify the commitment of resources towards situations that are not perceived as critical. But in my experience, nothing is impossible if there is sufficient public pressure. It isn’t as though there are no resources; the question is, what are those resources currently being used for? There are tremendous resources available for war and persecution. There is implicit in such a perspective a kind of helplessness: even in flourishing democracies there is still this kind of mental subservience of citizens to state institutions, which the citizenry actually create and fund. Part of the issue of building a stronger civil society is precisely for people to wake up from that kind of sleepiness and say, “Wait a minute, we don’t have to take these givens.” We can think about things in a new way, like a peacekeeping force instead of an army. Our job is to bring about a real change in attitude.

I once gave a lecture on human rights at a university in Armenia, and the professor told me I was just a dreamer. There are in fact two dreams: one is the glorious dream of a world at war, a dream in honor of which thousands of statues of men on horses have been created and which has been celebrated by anthems though time immemorial. And there is another dream, the dream of a world at peace, without torture, in which the dignity of the human person is central and protected. I’d say that if that’s my dream, then I am a dreamer and proud of it.

MPF: What can be done for Tibet?

RR: We need to see the failure to act on Tibet in the wider context of the international hypocrisy on human rights. This hypocrisy is one of the greatest obstacles that all human rights groups face. Over and over again, governments use the human rights abuses of their adversaries as a weapon with which to beat them up in public. At the same time they defend their allies against the same charges if anyone dares to make the same criticisms. This global hypocrisy has lead to widespread cynicism and disenchantment.

In Colombia, in Turkey, you have governments persecuting their own citizens on a massive scale. Yet these governments have been backed by the West. In the NATO bombing of Serbia, the West proclaimed and targeted the human rights abuses of only one side, while ignoring abuses on the other.

This is why human rights activism by ordinary people is absolutely vital, because in a certain sense public pressure is the only brake that can be applied. Often countries get brought to the attention of the Human Rights Commission only because public pressure is so intense. It becomes impossible for governments not to include those countries on the agenda.

It’s the failure of the international human rights community to take the human rights tragedy in Tibet seriously. It is one of the most painful examples of hypocrisy. If you watch television, you can be forgiven for thinking that the only way to gain the attention of governments is to wage war or to carry out acts of terrorism. And that behavior has deep, long-term consequences for people’s faith in nonviolence.

The Tibetan people and their leaders have often expressed admiration for the work Amnesty International does in Tibet. Amnesty focuses on getting the facts out about individual human beings, and this is something of an antidote to rhetoric. Human rights itself is at the heart of the answer to the question of the survival of Tibetan culture and religion. Regardless of questions of territorial control, trying to protect human rights in Tibet is the greatest contribution one can make to the preservation of that culture.

The Dalai Lama has said that human rights work is compassion in action. So that compassionate activity in itself helps ensure that the highest human values are preserved, which is the same goal of Tibetan Buddhist culture.

Looking to the future, the greatest challenges are that more and more countries are adopting a democratic or semi-democratic model. So the struggle for human rights in the future is going to be directed less towards autocratic states controlled by small numbers of people and much more towards dealing with public attitudes where people’s positions of power depend on broad public support. That is a tremendous achievement.

MPF: Given China’s well-known human rights abuse record, how do you think the fact that the Olympic Games are to be hosted in Beijing will affect current human rights efforts?

RR: One of the lessons you learn in human rights work is never to give up. Any genuine social change takes time, and it takes a lot of people pushing in many ways to achieve deep, lasting progress. So it is important not to read too much into each temporary set back. There is growing, powerful pressure for human rights within Chinese society. Despite all the obstacles, the Chinese human rights movement keeps on going. The most important thing is not to give in to despair and to do everything we can to support their efforts. We have to understand that full respect for human rights in China—as in so many other countries throughout the world—will take at least another couple of generations. We should regard everything we do as laying the ground work for that victory which will, without doubt, benefit millions in the future.

See what's inside AGNI 54

Meg Penick Federico is the author of Welcome to the Departure Lounge: Adventures in Mothering Mother, released by Random House in 2009. She currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (updated 6/2010)

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