“If you want Peace, work for Justice.”
Many people attribute that quote to Pope Paul VI. Others have traced it back to Henry Louis Mencken, an American journalist and humorist of the early 20th Century. Frankly, given some of the other views expressed by each of these individuals, I’m not all that eager to credit either of them.
But the sentiment struck a chord with me when I first came across it, as a 15-year-old activist protesting nuclear proliferation. And I remember my father telling me that it was also a slogan they had used during the Civil Rights movement, in which he proudly participated. This expression has remained with me over the years, helping foster and reinforce the belief that societies cannot truly succeed and prosper until they provide their citizens with the basic human rights – on paper and in practice.
The importance of human rights was once again thrust to the forefront of my thinking in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Having just taken some well-deserved time off, I started to follow the news more closely then, and I was able to do a lot more reading than ever before.
As I became more aware of what was going on in our country and around the world, I noticed an emerging trend that I found particularly disturbing. There has been a growing willingness to abandon freedoms – the rights of the individual – under the presumption that this somehow protects those very same rights. Fear and faith have long been the tools used by tyrants to subvert the rights of the people under the false pretense of safeguarding the public.
This can be seen in the many “illiberal” democracies abroad – such as Russia and Iran – where “democratic” elections are held but there is little or no guarantee of civil liberties. And while faux democracies are hardly new, their acceptance has become increasingly tolerated.
One of the reasons for this is that we, as a nation, have made democracy – not human rights – the end game of our foreign policy. Not only does this open the door for the compromising of what we have come to know as true, liberal democracy, but it also misses the point. Democracy is a human right – the right to participate in one’s own government – so we should be pursuing a policy of promoting human rights rather than simply focusing one specific right.
And one does not have to look abroad to see the negative effects of this trend. There is a disturbing drift towards the emergence of an illiberal democracy right here in America. The signs are abundant: the rise in religious intolerance, certain clauses of the PATRIOT Act, a number of recent judicial decisions, several practices in the treatment of detainees, sweeping actions against US citizens by organizations like the NSA, and numerous statements by top government officials that are shamelessly biased.
I am deeply troubled by the injustices that are going on around the globe – particularly throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East – often by regimes our government considers “friendly” or even “democratic.” But I’m even more disturbed by the backsliding we are seeing here in the United States.
Our government seems to think it has been given a mandate to operate under the rule of war instead of the rule of law, while declaring that this war – against enemies who it claims are “classified” – may last indefinitely. In addition, for the first time since prohibition, we are considering Constitutional amendments that will limit our freedoms instead of expanding them. And while we battle Islamic fundamentalism overseas, many – including a significant number of our leaders – are aggressively embracing Christian fundamentalism here at home.
It is essential that the United States lives up to its ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice. Not just for the future of America, but for the advancement of these ideals around the world. And our failure to do so only serves to encourage those who do not support the universal rights of all – whether they are a global terrorist organization or a former Soviet state.
So if we want peace here in America, and throughout the world, we first need to address the injustices that are occurring around the globe. We can no longer turn away and pretend that it does not concern us. That’s a lesson we should have learned on September 11, 2001.
And if we are to seek justice throughout the world, to defend the basic human rights of all people, we must first begin at home. There is still plenty of injustice here in America, and we need to overcome this if we hope to inspire others to do the same.
That is why the protection of human rights has become such an important cause for me. Not only does it reflect a passion ingrained in my youth, but it is also the key to a better, more peaceful world – America included.
If we want peace, we must work for justice. And until all humans are afforded basic rights – on paper and in practice – there will be no justice.