RHR 2008: Boker or from RHR!
RHR 2008: The Dignity of Work and the Indignity of Slavery

RHR 2008: Renewing America's Commitment to Human Rights

The morning's first plenary is Renewing America's Commitment to Human Rights with Linda Gustitus, Chair, National Religious Campaign Against Torture; Sammie Moshenberg of the National Council of Jewish Women; and Michael Posner, President of Human Rights First, moderated by Mary Ann Stein, President, Moriah Fund.

Mary Ann Stein begins:

What faces the new president, in terms of challenges? Thank God, he knows how to deal with more than one thing at a time! Torture is obviously going to be high on his list. In the category of undoing the damage that has been done by this administration, there are many issues of tremendous importance. Torture tops the list; also Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, the Patriot Act which criminalizes many things which need to be decriminalized, and then there are issues of immigrants; much damage has been done recently in terms of how immigrants are treated. Issues of refugees which need to be addressed. Internally displaced persons. Privacy and reproductive rights. Children deserve more than an abstinence-only education. There's the Mexico City policy; prohibitions on funding for health services.

The U.S.' ability to be a protector of human rights in the world has practically disappeared. It's hard to exhort other countries to behave in a certain way when we have lost our way. And we're seeing this: countries committing various breaches of human rights, at the same time saying, "Well, we're fighting terrorism! If the United States does this, we can do this!" There is much that needs to be done as we assert our leadership. We need to face the issues. Many of you here have been involved in campaigns on Darfur; we labeled it genocide, and didn't do a whole lot. There's the issue of Burma. There's the issue of China. Somalia. The DRC. Zimbabwe...those are some which stand out in my mind as serious human rights issues that this country is going to need to take action on.

Most of the issues we've been talking about are political human rights, not the social and economic rights which are intended by the Declaration of Human Rights to be considered. But given the financial meltdown, world food crisis, more and more displaced people who have no country, our own citizens who are losing homes and jobs and more and more will be facing hunger, issues of education; there are issues of immigration, rights of immigrants, the issue of trafficking as well; trade agreements that have been crafted by this administration and previous administrations which are creating serious damage to the economics and the life possibilities of poor people in many countries; and there are international corporations which are damaging human rights and livelihood across the world. So it's a broad category! We won't discuss them all today, but my hope was to get you thinking that there are these many issues; let's delve into a few of them and then take questions.

Linda Gustitus:

Let me say, in light of that introduction, that the most important act President Obama can take on his first day of office to signal to the world that human rights has returned as a foundation for the United States is to issue an executive order prohibiting torture. He can do it with the stroke of a pen.

Most of you here have followed the issue of torture, so I will only tread lightly on why torture is wrong because you already know it and you've been leaders in the field.

I got involved with this issue in December of 2004. The Abu Ghraib photos came out in April of 2004. And the lukewarm response from the President was astonishing; because this was policy on the highest level!

I'm a Unitarian Universalist, and that year I thought, I can't go into the year-end holidays not making a statement against torture. I thought, Hey, I live in Washington DC; there are opportunities for demonstrations! I happen to live in Vice President Cheney's neighborhood. So I decided to hold a demonstration outside his house. I was going to do it myself, and then I thought, I have a UU congregation behind me. Many of them, including my minister, joined me. In June that year, we held a conference at my congregation, representing 62 area congregations, dedicating that day to figuring out how we can end torture. And at the same time, Reverend George Hunsinger, a Protestant theologian, was calling national religious leaders to form an interfaith national organization to end torture...

Would people support torture if it worked? Regardless of what happens nationally on torture, we still have our work cut out for us, to change the cultural attitude towards torture, so people realize torture is wrong. There are three acts that no state can commit, regardless of circumstances. They are slavery, genocide, and torture. We know torture is wrong; the question is, how do people start to think it's okay? The answer lies in the concept of accepting the fact, telling yourself, that the people you are torturing are not human, that they're the Other.

Shortly after 9/11, Vice President Cheney took us down this path when he went on Meet the Press. This whole torture program wasn't that well-disguised; right then, that was probably 9/14 or 9/15, Cheney said on Meet the Press that we're going to have to go to the dark side. "A lot of what needs to be done here...it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal to achieve our objective." [Read the transcript of that interview.] Soon thereafter, Department of Justice officials developed a memo supporting the concept that the President had the constitutional authority to engage in torture.

In one of these memos, by John Yoo, the argument is made that the President has the authority as commander in chief to do whatever is necessary to protect the United States, regardless of what international law says. His proposition is that terrorists, and suspected terrorists, are the Other, outside protection of law. He said to Jane Mayer, "Why is it so hard for people to understand that there's a category of behavior not covered by the legal system? There's a category of people so bad that they're not given protection of law." That's how a culture can rationalize itself into supporting torture. Our mission is to raise up the humanity of every single person, because that's who we are as people of faith.

I am optimistic. The reason I'm optimistic is that President-Elect Obama has spoken out strongly against torture. I want to quote to you what he said in October 2007 to the New York Times, when we learned that the torture policy was actually hatched in the White House itself. He said then:

The secret authorization of brutal interrogations is an outrageous betrayal of our core values and a grave danger to our security. We must do whatever it takes to track down and catch terrorists, but torture is not a part of the answer; it is a fundamental part of the problem with this administration. Torture is how you create enemies, not how you defeat them. Torture is how you get bad information, not good intelligence. Torture is how you set back America's standing in the world not how you stregthen it. It is time to tell the world that America rejects torture without exception, without equivocation.

It is time...to live by the golden rule, do unto others what you would have them do unto you. The President-Elect can return the United States to its moral grounding. That's not all that needs to be done; there will need to be legislation...and a full investigation and a complete report about what the US has done in treatment of detainees. We need to know what was done. Human rights groups estimate that we've tortured to death at least eight people. We need an investigation, a complete accounting for what we've done; this is a critical step in coming to terms with our dark side and making sure that it never happens again.

Many of us are seeking a select committee of Congress or a presidential commission with subpoena power to get this information. We need to close the secret prisons, end rendition for torture, call for the golden rule as the standard of treatment for all detainees. As candidate Obama said, it's time to tell the world that America rejects torture without exception, without equivocation.

Sammie Moshenberg:

Just a few short metro stops from here, the transition team is working to shape our new future. The organization I work with, NCJW, has a lot of excitement and anticipation. For eight long years we've played defense, rallying our energies and grassroots to hang on to hard-won civil and reproductive and human rights.

In 2001 we launched Benchmark, NCJW's campaign to Save Roe, asking the senate to affirm for the Supreme Court only those who had a firm commitment to rights, including reproductive rights. Our aim was to mobilize and educate the Jewish community to speak out, because the jurists in those lifetime seats would have an impact on every domestic issue which is high on the Jewish agenda for generations to come, an impact felt long beyond any presidential term. It was, and is, a surprise that so few Jewish organizations joined us in this. But you know about that, because so few Jewish organizations stood with you against torture.

When we came out against John Ashcroft's tenure as Attorney General we were told that we should forget any possibility of invitation to the White House Chanukah party or anything else! I cannot predict who will be on the Obama administration's list for any Chanukah parties they might host, but I do know that a new administration means new opportunities, and if the transition is any indication, this is an administration with an open door, ready to listen. Faith-based groups and clergy are well-respected and positioned to be heard and to be influential, not just in the White House but in Congress as well. We must be heard, because there is too much at stake.

Already NCJW has been part of meetings with people in the transition, trying to listen to groups about what they care about and what they want. In an extraordinary move of transparency, the Obama administration has set up on its change.gov website something called Seat At the Table. Starting on December 5, they've posted all of the documents they've gotten from any coalition in terms of transition, and are soliciting comments from everyday folks, and have been completely transparent about it. It's disconcerting! But this transparency presages an extraordinary openness on the part of this administration.

These are difficult times. We're already hearing that there will be little floor time in Congress for anything other than energy, economy, health care. I was in NYC a few weeks ago with Jews Uniting to End the War. It was clear that we still have an uphill battle. Add to this the perennial challenge of getting members of Congress to take up anything even slightly controversial, and you realize we do have our work cut out for us. But people of faith can be persuasive with Congress, because they are perceived as leaders of groups of congregants. When a clergy person ascends to the pulpit, in many cases there is a large group listening and hanging on their words.

We must be ready also to work within our own communities, with an eye to coalition-building. Turning now to some of these issues:

Human trafficking is described by the department of state as a modern slave trade, mostly impacting women and children, taken across borders for the purposes of service or sex. Our current administration has made this an issue, and those of us working in this field have worked with the FBI, with Health and Human Services, with the State Department. This issue has proponents on the right and on the left, but be aware as you explore the issue that there are deep divisions within the community about how to regard prostitution and sex work. It's omnipresent when you talk about this issue.

Jewish organizations concerned about this issue have to be ready to speak out about the situation in Israel as well. In the Jewish communal world, it's not easy to shine a light on Israel's serious deficiencies in this area.

In the absence of just, comprehensive immigration reform, undocumented workers are subject to abuse around the country... there's a policy of raids and deportations. In our community the issue came to a head with what happened at Postville; the working conditions that came to light hearkened back to the era before modern labor laws. These conditions prompted the movement for Tzedek Hechscher, informing consumers that a food was produced in compliance with the laws of justice, not just the laws of kashrut.

The struggle against abuse of immigrant workers, the struggle for just and human immigration laws, is a human rights issue of large proportion... And here in DC I would also add: the issue of voting rights in DC. The citizens of our nation's capital have no representation in Congress... The challenges are great, and you are a small organization, looking to focus on one or another issue. But given the opportunity to be heard and at the table at the Obama administration, and the desperate need for Jewish leaders to speak up at our own communal table, I urge you to consider broadening your agenda in order to become a voice for progressive Judaism.

Michael Posner:

I want to take a couple of sentences on the torture issue. Linda said, at the tail-end of her remarks, that President-Elect Obama clearly understands this issue. But it's easier to mess things up than to fix them, and we need to keep the pressure on, because the government is not a monolith and there are going to be all sorts of people who got used to acting illegally and morally. Once you get used to doing things that way, it's hard to change them.

We have a public debate, in which consistently polls show that a minority of people in this country are still susceptible to the politics of fear. There's a sense that if we're about to be harmed, it's fair to do whatever we have to do to stay safe. That politics of fear is reinforced in our nation every day. Soon we'll start the seventh season of 24, which projects the politics of fear into people's living rooms. This year, Jack Bauer's going to go before a Congressional committee for torturing people every single week, and he's going to be vindicated! It's incumbent on religious/ethical leaders of our country to push back against that.

It's critical that the religious community be involved, and that we link also with the national security community. Not only is the issue of torture an imperative moral and ethical issue; it's also an issue of national security.

Arguments are being put forward that we need to create a new system of justice, either to refine the military commissions that Bush administration put up or to create national security courts. We reject that view, and I think you ought to as well. This is a country that for 200 years has built a system of justice that works.

Another issue which is critical is the treatment of Iraqi refugees. We are about to try to extricate ourselves from that conflict, and there is an ethical imperative that we deal with the unintended consequences of our engagement. There are four and a half million Iraqis internally displaced, two million who have fled to neighboring countries mostly Syria and Jordan. There are 85,000 people the UN says are desperately in need of getting out of the region, many of them people who helped the United States. Until a year and a half ago, the US had taken a total of seventeen Iraqis. Sweden has taken 25,000. Now we have taken about 12,000; there should be at least 30,000 taken as refugees here. The military is very supportive of it, because they understand the consequences.

There also needs to be a much more robust program of support for neighboring countries which have been trying to resettle these people. We learned this lesson in Vietnam and we're about to relive it. There's a paper on it on our website. [He may mean the materials here at Lifeline for Iraqi Refugees.]

Two more things on the international front. One is the issue of Darfur; I understand some of you were at the Chinese Embassy this morning. It's an excruciating issue; the Jewish community has been at the forefront of raising this issue but we've seen the genocide unfolding without a solution in sight. One of the particular things I think you all ought to be calling for is an end to arms sales into Sudan and into Chad. There are 35 countries selling arms into Chad and Sudan, arms which wind up in Darfur. This is an area where the religious community can push the administration to do more.

And finally -- this is the most difficult one but I want to put it on the table -- we have basically abandoned the UN as a forum for discussion of human rights. There's a human rights council, where the US doesn't even have a seat! That's going to come back to bite us. I understand that there are delegations who single out Israel as the only human rights-violating state, and I reject that, as do you. But the United States needs to be a leader. In the middle of April there's going to be a conference on racism and xenophobia. The meeting will be in Geneva; it's incumbent for the United States to have a seat at that table. The Israelis have pulled out, the Canadians have pulled out, and many Jewish organizations have pushed Obama not to come to the meeting because there are documents calling Israel an apartheid state. But in my view, a progressive Jewish community ought to be pushing the United States to stand up and be counted; to reject that kind of language, and to exercise leadership.

Mary Ann Stein adds:

We haven't talked about Israel much in this session, and I want to add that we need to push our government to put an end to the Occupation and to put an end to the blatant abuses of human rights which take place there. This administration could put some teeth to that. It would be enormously helpful to Israel and could have a major impact on the situation in the Middle East, and would also be part of repairing our leadership around the world.

We move now to Q and A, which I'm not transcribing because I'm taking these moments to clean up this post. Thanks for reading!

Technorati tags: , , .