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Getting Human Rights into Political Dialogue

CAPAF holds an event discussing human rights and how to bring them into elections and the public consciousness.

“Some decisions are a matter of life and death, and that’s how it is with human rights,” said William F. Schulz at an event at the Center for American Progress Action Fund on Wednesday.

Despite this urgency, a mere 4.7 percent of the approximately 2,253 questions asked in presidential debates through December 2007 addressed human rights, and only one concerned the International Criminal Court—the permanent tribunal that prosecutes perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Current U.S. stances on torture, treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and the International Criminal Court treaty compromise both international human rights standards and U.S. national interests. So why are human rights such an insignificant part of the presidential campaigns, and how can they be better integrated into American political dialogue?

This question was addressed by a panel moderated by William F. Schulz, Senior Fellow at CAPAF and former executive director of Amnesty International USA. The panel included Karen DeYoung, associate editor of The Washington Post; Gary Haugen, president of the International Justice Mission; Gayle Smith, co-founder of the ENOUGH!; and Coby Rudolph of the Save Darfur Coalition.

The international community has a low opinion of the United States because it violates specific international standards against cruel treatment, said DeYoung. Nevertheless, Schulz said that most candidates have no discernible position on the ICC or military action to prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing. Haugen pointed out that this may be because taking a stance could lead to the memorialization of a commitment that they would be unable to act upon as president particularly in the case of the ICC. But the United States will suffer the costs of its human rights abuses strategically, as well as morally; we must therefore press the 2008 presidential candidates to clarify their position on these issues, stressed DeYoung.

The panelists agreed that human rights will become more incorporated into the political dialogue when Americans see compelling reasons to get involved. Schulz recommended emphasizing human rights as an issue of American national interest; for example, labor rights abuses in developing countries cause a loss of American jobs. Smith said that a shift in the values of the electorate, from personal choice to global citizenship, could bring human rights into a more prominent position in political campaigns.

Unfortunately, supporting human rights isn’t necessarily “good politics,” Smith said. Even though the public seems less indifferent than in years past, candidates are unlikely to commit to a human rights agenda because it seems like an intractable problem. Fighting human rights must be seen as a long-term process rather than a tangible accomplishment.

Grassroots organizing helps build a movement to pressure political campaigns. Haugen said that grassroots organizing could show the public that human rights matter and that something can be done about it. Rudolph observed such development in the recent primaries, pointing to 700 voters in Iowa and 500 in New Hampshire who signed ads to support Darfur, which were displayed in the weeks prior to the primaries.

According to panelists, religion – including Christian entertainers – is playing an increasing role in bringing the human rights discussion into the spotlight. Internet advocacy also helps develop and maintain long-term interest in issues such as Darfur. Using tactics from rock concerts to e-mail lists, these grassroots movements can prioritize human rights in the public consciousness.

Though human rights dialogue is largely absent from the 2008 presidential debates, grassroots and online organizing can raise support in the public and put pressure on presidential candidates to stand up against genocide and the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Whether due to compelling national interests, values priorities of the electorate, or a belief that progress is possible, human rights ought to be a major component of U.S. electoral politics.