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World changers


By Kerry Kennedy Cuomo
Photos by Eddie Adams
Edited by Nan Richardson
Crown Publishers, $50

NCR Staff

As coffee table books go, this is a tough one, its subject matter disturbing. Author Kerry Kennedy Cuomo features 51 champions of human rights, some famous, others not well known. Cuomo, 40, has been involved in human rights work since she interned with Amnesty International as an undergraduate at Brown University.

The photos, by Eddie Adams, are startling and engaging. Adams, familiar with the outer limits of human cruelty through his work in war zones, here captures the outer limits of human resolve and resiliency. Adams won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his photograph of a Saigon police chief shooting a North Vietnamese prisoner at point blank range.

Kennedy Cuomo, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, is married to Andrew Cuomo, U.S. Housing Secretary and son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. It is perhaps not accidental that her concern for human rights should emerge from such a pedigree of eloquence on behalf of the downtrodden and the have-nots.

One might suggest that in her work -- including this book and its associated projects -- she carries a rather tattered banner bearing the language of common good, a concept that in the last 20 years has been fairly trampled by the rampant individualism of consumerist politics.

A graduate of Boston College Law School and mother of three, she worked for more than two years on Speak Truth to Power, a phrase reportedly taken from a Quaker pamphlet of the civil rights era. She interviewed her subjects in nearly 40 countries.

Many in these pages are not well-known, people who do not have access to the media and to bully pulpits. They are people who have altered history not from the front lines of a conquering army or from the deck of a battleship or by pressing the buttons of a hi-tech fighter plane, but from circumstances extraordinary only because of how ordinary they are.

There is no academy for the kind of instinct that makes a fundamental decision to put oneself in the way of dictators and brutal militaries for the greater good, no think tanks that can produce a five-year plan for selfless courage.

So Natasa Kandic, who certainly did not suspect that she might be the subject of a book on human rights activists, made a basic decision nearly 10 years ago. “Before the war years, I was involved in political actions in the former Yugoslavia without any knowledge about existing international powers for the protection of human rights. And when the war started in 1991, many of my friends decided to leave the country. I understood their choice, but I felt I had to stay and fight the policies of war itself.”

She traveled widely throughout Yugoslavia, at first in the region of Croatia and later, when the war began in Bosnia, she investigated the situation of minorities and Muslims in Serbia.

In 1992, she established the Humanitarian Law Center, a highly regarded organization known for its meticulous documentation of human rights abuses during wartime.

Speak Truth to Power is loaded with heroics, the bold activity that grows out of single-minded conviction, or the decision, as in the case of Sr. Ortiz, to move on in redemptive ways in the aftermath of the most horrendous torture and abuse.

But, just as often, the book demonstrates, making the case for human rights involves the tedious work of collecting data, stories, testimonies and establishing credibility.

Ka Hsaw Wa is not a familiar name to much of the world beyond Burma, and even there, in extremely dangerous circumstances, he does his work clandestinely.

He is the founder of EarthRights International, a nongovernmental organization that sued Unocal, a U.S.-based oil company, for human rights abuses committed by Burmese government agents hired by the company “to provide security, transportation and infrastructure support for an oil pipeline.” The suit alleges that the agents “committed extortion, torture, rape, forced labor and extrajudicial killings against the local indigenous population.”

Ka Hsaw Wa, a pseudonym that means “White Elephant,” spent years walking through Burmese forests interviewing witnesses and recording the testimony of victims of human rights abuse. His data has been used by organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

He has been arrested and tortured by the brutal Burma military regime, yet his work continues, always at great personal risk.

In the introduction, Cuomo writes that “faith in a higher power” is a theme that runs through most of the life stories depicted in the book. “Most referenced a structured religion, a number had ambitions at some point to join a religious order, and at least six actually did.” Those include the Dalai Lama, Episcopal Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Coptic Bishop Wissa of Egypt, and Catholic nuns Digna Ochoa, a leading human rights lawyer in Mexico, Diana Ortiz, who was kidnapped and tortured in Guatemala, and Helen Prejean, who wrote the best-selling book Dead Man Walking and has led a relentless campaign against the death penalty in the United States.

Whatever the motives -- anger, compassion, faith -- the costs for those who elect to buck the tide are always personal and the gains elusive and uncertain.

“A lot of my former classmates now have their Ph.D.s in the United States,” Ka Hsaw Wa said in the interview for the book. “They are educated and come here with money. I think to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I don’t gain anything for myself and I can’t seem to do anything to lessen the suffering of the villagers. I see the situation worsening and I blame myself for not being able to do enough. At the same time, I can’t quit. If I turn my back and walk away, there would be no one to address the issue.”

A photo exhibit of the portraits taken for the book will be traveling the country through 2003. Further information on the book and related projects, including suggestions for becoming involved in human rights work, can be found at www.speaktruthtopower.org

Tom Roberts’ e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000