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Koh: America must repair its reputation

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Koh: America must repair its reputation

‘Our obsessive focus on the War on Terror has taken an extraordinary toll upon our global human rights policy’

Senior Editor

So spellbinding was Yale Law Dean Harold Hongju Koh’s speech, lawyers and judges were still talking about it and asking for transcripts to share with others for days after The Florida Bar Annual Convention had ended.

Passionate yet nonpartisan, academic yet grounded in reality, global yet profoundly personal, harrowing yet hopeful, Koh delivered the keynote address June 19 to an audience of about 500 at the Judicial Luncheon in Boca Raton, titled, “Human Rights in the Post-post Cold War World.”

Convincingly documenting the United States’ “steady decline of our global human rights reputation” since 9/11, the affable expert on international law and human rights didn’t end on a down note. Lifting the audience with solutions he insists are too important to leave to politicians, Koh borrowed a line from poet Langston Hughes to sound the challenge to each of us to “make America America again.” Stressing that his is not a partisan message, Koh said that during his career, he has worked in government jobs for both Republican and Democratic administrations, and has sued both for human rights violations.

Dean Harold Koh and Bar President Frank Angones “Our obsessive focus on the War on Terror has taken an extraordinary toll upon our global human rights policy. Seven years of defining our human rights policy through the lens of the War on Terror have clouded our human rights reputation, given cover to abuses committed by our allies in that war, and blunted our ability to criticize and deter gross violators elsewhere in the world,” Koh said.

After 9/11, Koh said, America was “properly viewed with universal sympathy as victims of a brutal attack. But we have responded with a series of unnecessary, self-inflicted wounds, which have gravely diminished America’s standing as the world’s human rights leader. “You know the list as well as I do:

“The horror of Abu Ghraib; our disastrous policy on Guantanamo; our tolerance of torture and cruel treatment for detainees; our counterproductive decision to create military commissions; warrantless government wiretapping; our attack on the United Nations and its human rights bodies, including the International Criminal Court; and the denial of habeas corpus for suspected terrorist detainees that, thankfully, was struck down just last week by a narrow majority of the United States Supreme Court.

“Whatever you may think of these policies, there can be little doubt that the impact on our human rights reputation has been devastating.”

While assistant secretary for human rights in 1999, Koh told a U.N. body that the U.S. was “unalterably committed to a world without torture.”

“That was not a casual statement. I had cleared that statement with every relevant agency of the U.S. government,” Koh recounted. “But in just a few short years, we seem to have gone from what was a zero-tolerance policy toward torture to what now seems to be a zero-accountability policy.”

Koh asked: “When our human rights system loses its balance wheel, why should we be surprised when the world seems to go out of whack? And so, in the last few months, we have witnessed the constitutionalization of emergency rule in Egypt, the loss of democracy in Pakistan, stolen elections in Zimbabwe and Burma, and U.S. government officials who refuse to say that waterboarding is torture, even when it is committed by foreign countries against our own troops.”

Koh supplied the hopeful solution of “four simple steps”:

“First and most simply, we must return to telling the truth. We must start by saying simple things. Waterboarding is torture. The leaders of Pakistan, Burma, Zimbabwe are crushing democracy and the rule of law.

“Second, we need to stop pushing for double standards in human rights. If we believe that human rights are universal, we must respect them, even for suspected terrorists. If human rights are universal, we should not have law free zones, like Guantanamo. We should not have law free courts, like military commissions. We should not have law free practices, like extraordinary rendition; and we should not have law free persons whom we call enemy combatants.. . .

“Third, we need to put our own house in order and stop pursuing human rights disasters of our own: whether Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, or other black sites where ghost detainees are being held. Not only must we dismantle old bad policies that have been adopted since September 11, we should stop new bad policies that some are now offering to replace them. In the days since the Supreme Court’s decision in Boumediene v. Bush, for example, some are now calling for Congress to respond to the habeas corpus decision with a Terror Court that would allow suspects to be held in potentially indefinite detention. But when did our standard for due process of law become ‘at least it’s better than Guantanamo?’

“Fourth and finally, we need to support, not attack, the institutions and tools of international law. I know that international law and the U.N. are imperfect; but, frankly, they are all we’ve got. We need to support the International Criminal Court, and to endorse universal standards by ratifying such human rights treaties as the Convention on Disability Rights, the Convention Against Forced Disappearances, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Right now, amazingly, we are one of only two countries in the world that is not a party to the children’s rights treaty. The other is Somalia, whose excuse is that they have no organized government. We have no excuse.”

The last eight years will be less important than the next eight years, Koh said, because they will “determine whether the pendulum of American policy will swing back from where it has been pushed, or whether it will stay stuck in the direction in which it has been pushed for the last eight years.”

Whoever is elected president, Koh predicted, will have reasons why the course won’t be changed immediately.

“That is why it is up to ordinary people, like us, to take ownership of this matter of principle. And, in recent months, they have. It was the career Justice Department officials, for example, who resisted the government wiretapping program. It was the career military and government lawyers like Alberto Mora of this Bar association who spoke up against torture. It was a horrified soldier who gave the digital photos to the media that exposed Abu Ghraib. And it was that wild group of radicals, the librarians of America, who protested the extension of the Patriot Act to library records.”

To those who question what one ordinary person can do to change the course of human rights history, Koh gave the answer by naming Rosa Parks, who refused to move to the back of the bus; Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball; and Paul Rusesabagina, a quiet hotel-keeper at Hotel Rwanda, who “armed with a fax machine, a few bottles of scotch, and his wits, saved hundreds of his countrymen from genocide.”

Koh also named Frank Angones, who came from Cuba as a scared young boy to become the Bar’s first Cuban-born president, the man who taught him “to insist that this country must live up to its values and never believe it when they say, ‘It can’t be done.’”

Koh spoke of his own parents who came to this country 60 years ago, whose father’s dream was to serve democracy in his home country of South Korea. But his government was overthrown and he became a political exile in America with six children and no job.

“So what I am saying is that in this remarkable country, anything is possible, so long as we stick to the fundamental values that brought us here. Ours is a country built on human rights. What our laws and traditions tell us is that our human rights reputation defines who we are as a nation and as a people. If this country no longer stands for human rights, then we really don’t know who we are anymore.”

Koh inspired each member of the audience to take to heart: “We need to restore our country’s human rights reputation, one step at a time, and let it begin with me.”

The complete transcript of Koh’s speech can be found here .

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