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A War on Enlightenment

After more than a century of expansion of the concept that everybody deserves human rights, we now seem to be -- temporarily, at least -- slipping backwards.
 
 
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In the war that has just begun, soldiers and civilians will not be the only casualties. Although President Bush trumpets the bringing of democracy to Iraq, in a larger sense the deadly rain of missiles on Baghdad has dealt a major setback to what historians someday may call the Age of Human Rights

Perhaps that's too grand a term for a principle that major nations have applied erratically, hypocritically, or often not at all. But the idea of human rights as an international standard, as something which transcends national boundaries, has gathered much force over the last several decades. It has been one of the great, fragile triumphs of today's world.

A major human rights landmark was the 1961 founding of Amnesty International, an organization based on the principle that no one should be imprisoned -- whether by Poland or Argentina, China or El Salvador, Pakistan or Bulgaria -- only for his or her beliefs. This proved a powerful, subversive message that rattled many governments in a world divided by the Cold War -- the repressive regimes of the Soviet bloc on one side, and the United States with its dictator allies in Latin America and elsewhere on the other. In 1978, across the kitchen table in the Moscow apartment of the famed physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, a Russian writer told me that a friend of hers in prison had once received a postcard of support from an Amnesty member in Switzerland. "I felt as if the doors of the prison had opened," the man told her years later, "And I could see the sky."

Today a report by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Antislavery International or other similar groups carries moral weight because people know that it is based on a universal standard. And that standard has broadened: The concept of human rights now increasingly includes not just the legal rights of free speech, due process and the vote, but the social and economic rights to health care, a living wage, and more.

Another set of human rights landmarks has been the setting up of United Nations tribunals for those who committed war crimes in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the former Yugoslavia. So far, such trials have been for officials from small and powerless countries only; it will be a long time before Russia is called to account for its atrocities in Chechnya, or the United States for a century of military interventions in Central America. Nonetheless, a principle is on the table that applies to all nations great and small. Many a would-be dictator now knows that he could someday be put in the dock outside his own country. And even where there are no tribunals, another set of rights is implicitly now on the table: the right for survivors of brutal, repressive regimes to know the truth. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been a bold and daring experiment, imperfect but unprecedented in history, and is now being imitated in more than half a dozen other countries. Could something like it have even been imagined before our imperfect but unprecedented Age of Human Rights?

One of my favorite institutions of this era few Americans even know about: the European Court of Human Rights. Participating nations -- including many which are not yet members of the European Union -- must allow the court to overrule legal decisions made by their national courts. I recently heard a Danish former judge of the court describe how in an important test case the court had reinstated in her job a German schoolteacher fired only because of her membership in the Communist Party. The Dane was then asked by a new and bewildered fellow-judge from Eastern Europe, "Explain this to me. I don't understand it. In my country we're trying to fire Communist Party members!" Perhaps today that judge better understands how human rights extend even to those whose political opinions you loathe. Millions of Europeans certainly do.

A high point of the Age of Human Rights came on the evening of October 16, 1998, when Scotland Yard detectives walked into a private clinic in London's exclusive Marylebone district and placed retired General Augusto Pinochet of Chile under arrest. Pinochet had the blood of thousands of tortured, murdered and "disappeared" Chileans on his hands; a Spanish judge had issued a warrant for him; and under European Union agreements Scotland Yard had no choice but to obey it -- even though the arrest left the British government with a huge diplomatic headache. After dithering for more than a year, the British finally let Pinochet return to Chile, on spurious grounds of ill-health. Still, Pinochet was deeply and publicly humiliated; Chilean authorities were emboldened to move against him in ways they had not done before; and retired human rights abusers around the globe -- including Pinochet-supporter Henry Kissinger -- are more careful where they travel.

And now? Even before launching its senseless and unnecessary war on Iraq, the way the Bush Administration has waged the necessary war on Al-Qaeda has made a mockery of human rights. At home and abroad, prisoners are held in secret, in harsh, isolated conditions, without the rights of either civilian defendants or POWs. Suspects captured by Americans are turned over for interrogation to foreign security services, like those of Morocco, Jordan and Egypt, that routinely practice severe torture. U.S. intelligence and military officers boast of brutal measures as well, such as withholding pain medication from wounded captives. And intellectuals who should know better, like Alan Dershowitz, argue, appallingly, that torture as a means of interrogation can sometimes be justified.

In building the vast network of military bases that surround the Persian Gulf and its oil (or "our oil," as some in Washington say), we've gotten more deeply entangled with the repressive allies we already have, like Saudi Arabia and the Arab sheikdoms, and have acquired a raft of ungodly new ones. In gas-rich Turkmenistan, one of many countries now hosting U.S. troops, dictator Saparmurad Niyazov has thrown 20,000 of his enemies in prison. Ruling from a palace as fancy as any of Saddam Hussein's, Niyazov has renamed months of the year after his first and last names, his mother, and his self-given title, Father Of All Turkmen.

Despite lip service by President Bush and his team about bringing democracy to Iraq, attacking that country has nothing to do with human rights. Saddam Hussein is a murderous despot, but this is still a war of conquest. The only right involved here is the one baldly asserted by Bush and his fast-diminishing number of allies: the right of an imperial America to assert its control over other countries. If all well-armed nations followed this example, the world would be doomed to perpetual, all-engulfing war. And don't expect any human rights paradise when the conquest of Iraq is complete. A regime friendly to the U.S. and its oil companies is the goal; an untidy democracy that might empower independence-minded Kurds or Islamicist Shi'ites is the last thing U.S. occupation troops will let happen.

And yet, is the Age of Human Rights really dead? In the last few weeks legal authorities in Denmark and Britain have warned that if they take part in an invasion unsanctioned by the U.N., soldiers or officials from those countries could risk prosecution by the new International Criminal Court. Britain and Denmark are supporters of the ICC; it is one of the many international human rights institutions the United States has turned its back on. Inaugurated only this month, not yet hearing cases, the new court has already had an impact. The European Court of Human Rights is still in business. However much the United States may trample on the spirit of the Age of Human Rights, bodies like these will last -- and there will be more of them.

Furthermore, the ideals behind them remain contagious. I have spent the last three years writing about some human rights crusaders of an earlier time, the men and women who, in the England of the 1780s, began voicing the almost unheard-of idea that slavery was immoral. Like many activists today, they were mocked as naïve idealists. Self-styled realists informed them that ending slavery was a pipe dream, because doing so would wreck the empire's economy. They went through discouraging years when they made no headway. Their campaign was set back tremendously by war -- the two decades of combat that ended only at Waterloo. But they prevailed. Human societies on every continent had taken slavery for granted for millennia, but the largest empire on earth finally freed its slaves in the 1830s, half a century after the campaign began. Some ideas are so powerful, so true to their times, and take root so deeply that even dark and violent passages, like the one we are entering this week, cannot suppress them forever.

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Adam Hochschild lives in San Francisco and is the author of "King Leopold's Ghost, A story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa" as well as "Finding the Trapdoor" and other books.