SAN FRANCISCO -- Soldiers and civilians will not be the only casualties of war in Iraq. Although President Bush portrays the conflict as a crusade for democracy, the deadly rain of American missiles has dealt a major setback to what historians may someday call the "Age of Human Rights."
Perhaps that's too grand a term for a principle that major nations have usually applied erratically or hypocritically -- if at all. But the idea of human rights as an international standard that transcends political boundaries has gathered much force over the last several decades. It was one of the great, fragile triumphs of the 20th century.
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, with the repressive regimes of the Soviet bloc on one side and the United States and its dictator allies in Latin America and elsewhere on the other. In 1978, at the Moscow kitchen table of the great 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 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 accused of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. So far, such trials have been only for officials from small and powerless countries; 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 and the Caribbean. Nonetheless, a principle that applies to all nations, great and small, is on the table. 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 also 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 it is now being imitated in more than half a dozen other countries. Could something like it have even been imagined before our similarly imperfect but unprecedented Age of Human Rights?
Few Americans even know about one of my favorite institutions of this era: the European Court of Human Rights. Participating nations -- and they include many that are not yet members of the European Union -- must allow the court to overrule legal decisions made by national courts. I recently heard a Danish former judge of the court describe how, in an important test case, the court had ordered that a German schoolteacher, fired because of her membership in the Communist Party, be given her job back. 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 Oct. 16, 1998, when Scotland Yard detectives walked into a private clinic in London's exclusive Marylebone district and placed retired Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile under arrest. Pinochet was accused of having the blood of thousands of tortured, murdered and "disappeared" Chileans on his hands. A Spanish judge had issued a warrant for his arrest, and under EU 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, Britain 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 other 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 Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, argue, appallingly, that torture as a means of interrogation can sometimes be justified.
In building the vast network of military bases that surrounds the Persian Gulf and its oil, the U.S. has become more deeply entangled with the repressive allies we already have, like Saudi Arabia and the Arab sheikdoms, and has acquired a raft of unsavory new ones. In gas-rich Turkmenistan, one of the many countries offering support to U.S. troops, dictator Saparmurad A. Niyazov has thrown 20,000 of his enemies in prison. Ruling from a palace as grand as any of Saddam Hussein's, Niyazov has renamed months of the year for his first and last names, his mother's name and his self-given title, "Father of All Turkmen."
Despite lip service by Bush and his team about bringing democracy to Iraq, attacking that country has nothing to do with human rights. Hussein was a murderous despot, but this is still a war of conquest. The only right involved here is the one baldly asserted by Bush: the right of the United States to assert its control over countries it deems, however improbably, "potential threats." 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. is the goal; untidy democracy that might empower independence-minded Kurds or Islamist Shiites is the last thing U.S. occupation troops will let happen.
And yet, is the Age of Human Rights really dead? Before the war began, legal authorities in Denmark and Britain 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 that court; it is one of the many international human rights institutions the U.S. has turned its back on.
Inaugurated only last month and not yet hearing cases, the new court already has had an effect. The European Court of Human Rights, too, is still in business. However much the U.S. may trample on the spirit of the Age of Human Rights, bodies like these will last -- and there will be more of them. Further, the ideals behind them remain contagious. I have spent the last three years writing about some earlier human rights crusaders, 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 naive idealists. Self-styled realists informed them that ending slavery was a pipe dream because doing so would wreck the British 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.
For thousands of years, human societies around the world on every continent had taken slavery for granted, 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 have entered with this war -- cannot suppress them forever.
Adam Hochschild is the author of "King Leopold's Ghost," "Finding the Trapdoor" and other books.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times