Protection of Human Rights Should Be Highest Priority
Published on Wednesday, December 10, 2003 by The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin)
Protection of Human Rights Should Be Highest Priority
by Angie Hougas

Today is International Human Rights Day. This is a day we can reflect back on the long and rugged journey from where we came, to where we are, and to where we are heading. Today we ask: How fine is the line between protecting our rights and freedoms and security?

If our country wants to export democracy, it must be done with moral leadership and in accordance with international law. But the highest priority should be the protection of human rights - both abroad and right here at home. If we are to set a standard and demand transparency and accountability by others, we must be willing to do nothing less than the same ourselves. We would do well to remember that what we do unto others can be done unto us.

So let's reflect on how we're doing.

One violation of basic human rights is to arrest innocent people in order to extract or coerce information from them regarding a family member. When people across America hear about this action taken in countries with despot rulers, they are outraged and enraged, and rightly so.

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri is the former vice chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council. His wife and daughter were recently taken into custody by U.S.-led coalition officials, who are not giving out any details as to why or what the legal basis was for their arrests. There are also reports that U.S. forces are arresting relatives of fugitives to interrogate them on the whereabouts of family members.

I am wondering if we will be equally as outraged and enraged now that this is becoming an approved and common tactic used by our own country. Will there be the same widespread condemnation as when other countries do this, or will there be silence and excuses as justification for the action?

One of our prized and valued rights is our First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and of the press and to assemble peaceably. This is also reflected in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

President Bush tells us we are bringing freedom to the Iraqi people. At the same time, U.S. military officials in Iraq are closing down TV stations. This not only has happened in Mosul, where the military commander stated he knew it was an act of blatant censorship, but also very recently in Baghdad.

While legislators debated french vs. freedom fries and repeatedly debate an amendment to ban desecration of the U.S. flag, they have desecrated the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by approving the USA Patriot Act.

We can no longer be complacent regarding our human rights, our Bill of Rights and our freedoms. With passage of the Patriot Act, the cornerstones of our judicial system - innocent until proven guilty and guilt beyond a reasonable doubt - have been flip-flopped. Now you can be presumed guilty until you prove yourself innocent. When we look at other judicial systems around the world, we are outraged at this concept of presumed guilt upon arrest and before trial.

What we never thought could happen is now legal right here in our own country. A person can be held incommunicado. A person can be held indefinitely without charge. A person no longer has the right to contact family or a lawyer. How can a person hope to prove his innocence under these conditions?

There are reasons for our laws, for our rules, for rules of war, and for international laws. These reasons include the protection of innocent civilians in times of conflict and protection of human rights.

It takes courage to put human dignity and human worth first, but we are up to the challenge. Human rights need not be the sacrificial lamb. Human rights do not have to be a casualty of war.

Angie Hougas lives in McFarland and is the state coordinator for Wisconsin Amnesty International. This column is condensed from "History's Warning Signs, Our Reactions, Tomorrow's Reality" at

Copyright 2003 The Capital Times