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How Human Rights Laws Help Keep Us Safe

Migrants walk past a railway track after crossing into Macedonia, near the border with Greece, on August 27. Migrants are trekking from the southern Macedonian border near Gevgelija to the northern border with Serbia on their way to Western Europe. (Photo: Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters)

Maybe we can blame it on an evolutionary response to danger, but at times of crisis human beings tend to default to the extreme. “All Muslims could be terrorists.” “Keep all refugees out.” “Nowhere is safe.” The more frightened we become, the more we are tempted to adopt simple solutions to complex, even intractable, problems. The recent events in Beirut, Paris, Mali, Colorado Springs and San Bernardino have put all of us on edge.

Human rights exist in part to help steady our nerves. They are designed to put rules in place that protect us all, that keep us both safe and free.

The ethicist Peter Singer offers a metaphor that may be helpful here. Imagine, he says, that you saw a small child at risk of drowning in a knee deep pool. Would you feel an obligation to rescue the child even at the cost of getting your clothes wet and maybe even ruining them?

It is unthinkable that one would not go to that inconvenience to save a life and this, Singer suggests, reflects the obligation of the privileged to the world’s poor. The sacrifice the privileged need to make is modest compared to the benefits their generosity would render to the disadvantaged.

Adapting that metaphor to the issue at hand, that child represents the world’s refugees, fleeing persecution from everything from ISIS terrorism to Central American street gangs. We have a moral obligation to do what we can to help them. But let’s add two more factors to the equation.

Let’s assume that that child ended up in the pool by dint of some action of our own. There is good reason to believe that ISIS exists today in good measure as a consequence of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And let’s assume further that we are not only morally obligated to offer rescue but legally as well.

Under Article II of the 1967 Protocol to the Refugee Convention — a Protocol to which the U.S. is a party — the U.S. is legally bound to cooperate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the resettlement of those fleeing persecution in their home countries. These conditions make the need for our response to the child’s plight even more compelling.

But what if there is reason to believe that that baby has been infected with the Ebola virus or is carrying a bomb in its diapers? Surely that changes our obligation.

What it certainly may change is the way we go about fulfilling our obligation. We may wait until we have the proper protective insulation against infection, for example, or until the bomb squad arrives, before we undertake a rescue. But we cannot just turn our back on the baby’s plight and we cannot assume that all babies represent a danger to us.

Human rights do not require us to be foolhardy or to give up our lives. Special screening for those returning from countries in which Ebola was widespread, for example, may be completely appropriate. Extra scrutiny for those who have been in ISIS-dominated areas is not unreasonable. Responsible law enforcement serves everybody’s interests. Human rights advocates need to honor the fear that many legitimately feel about unpredictable violence.

But human rights standards do require us to respond to that violence in ways that are smart and fair. Indeed, doing so complements good law enforcement in the pursuit of keeping us safe.

According to the Center for American Progress, those seeking refugee status or political asylum in this country go through a twenty-one step process before their application is finally approved, including biometric checks and screening by multiple agencies. They are the least likely people to be terrorists — far less likely, as we have seen, than some of those on student or tourist visas or, indeed, than some American citizens themselves. To conflate refugees with terrorists is just not smart.

Nor is it savvy. American interests are served when the country is seen to be living up its best traditions, sharing the burdens of war and displacement with others countries and welcoming those people who are themselves victims of ISIS brutality, as Syrian refugees surely are. There is no better symbol of such an embrace than the Statue of Liberty.

American interests are best served, in other words, when we are perceived to be acting fairly, resisting stereotypes and treating vulnerable human beings as individuals. We have been down the path of religious and ethnic scapegoating many times in our history (slavery and the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II are but two examples) and it has always ended up being a source of shame.

Human Rights Day 2015 is the perfect time to recommit ourselves to the highest of American ideals which, gratifyingly enough, is also the best way to protect ourselves from threat and deal squarely with our fears.

William Schulz

William F. Schulz, a former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, is President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.    

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