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Milestones in the human rights struggle

By Robert Drinan, S.J.
Yale University Press, 240 pages, $24.95


Each year in late June a small group gathers from around the world for a 24-hour vigil in Lafayette Park outside the White House. The Wall of Shame monument that they -- survivors of torture -- lovingly build forces those of us who accompany them to pay attention, to remember the ones they knew who did not survive. Torture, they tell us, is still practiced by over 130 countries around the world, including the United States.

Monuments like this one, tragically, abound. One in Rabinal, a small rural community in Guatemala, lists the 76 women and 101 children massacred there in 1982 -- only a few of the civilian victims of the blood-thirsty regimes that ruled that country in the 1970s and 1980s. All over Guatemala, “monuments to truth” are being built as small communities exhume the bodies of their loved ones so brutally killed and with them proclaim a powerful story promising to break through the impunity that has reigned there.

In Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala; Soweto, South Africa; El Mozote, El Salvador; and Hiroshima, Japan, the memories are chiseled in stone or forged into metal. They stand as monuments to hope -- to a firm belief that the cruelty of the powerful will be overcome by the will of the world’s citizens whose articulate demand that human rights be respected is ringing around a too-often-broken world.

This intense effort to affect a global respect for human rights, described as the “mobilization of shame” by Robert Drinan in his excellent new book by that name, is the fruit of remarkable dedication and unwavering hope. That Drinan has vast experience in the field is immediately evident as he skillfully gives shape in this book to the human rights struggles of three generations and underscores with clarity the accomplishments of the past and the challenges of the future.

Drinan’s academic discipline blends well here with his concern for the impoverished and abused. The law professor and Jesuit informs and inspires. He begins and ends the book with a reference to the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, including the full text of its concluding statement as an appendix. “The Vienna Declaration,” writes Drinan, “made it clear that human rights -- civil, cultural, economic, and political -- are interrelated, interdependent, and indivisible,” rejecting as unsustainable China’s claim that “human rights are a western construct and that cultural relativity should excuse Asian nations from some of the mandates of the human rights law built up by the United Nations and its ancillary bodies.”

Drinan then continues with an elucidation of the principal 20th century milestones in human rights law. He engages the reader in a sweeping survey that defines human rights broadly, including economic and social rights, and touching some of the most politically and culturally sensitive areas in the human rights debate. He writes about the rights of women and children, the evolution of international human rights law with particular attention to the case of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the right to food, the death penalty, female genital mutilation, the international criminal court, freedom of religion, torture laws, the rights of prisoners, and dozens of other important contemporary issues in the field.

He looks with some care at the U.S. record on human rights, perhaps with a more generous eye than I would have. He mentions the decades from John Foster Dulles to Henry Kissinger, when human rights were regarded as a hindrance to the pursuit of great power politics. He notes the United States’ more recent complicity with human rights violators, but also points to efforts by Congress and a growing human rights movement to sever those ties.

He sees the annual Human Rights reports issued by the State Department as important, but recognizes the “hubris, imperialism, illusions of grandeur and just plain pride” that often characterize U.S. international relations.

He identifies as a milestone the 1994 Shattuck Report, a self-assessment of the state of civil rights and civil liberties in the United States, but notes that sharp criticism of it by human rights groups and the U.N. Human Rights Commission is likely to deter U.S. ratification of other human rights covenants.

Nations, like individuals, writes Drinan “experience ‘shame’ when their conduct is perceived to be degrading, unworthy, humiliating -- in essence, shameful.” Shame is the increasingly effective tool used by the human rights movement to promote change, citing the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions in countries around the world as a powerful example.

With The Mobilization of Shame, Drinan has added to the long list of important contributions he has made to the campaign for human rights. Those of us who have admired his courage and commitment to human rights can benefit in new ways from his vast experience and clarity of vision.

Marie Dennis directs the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C.

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001