Lanterns of hope lit in the darkness

Breaking Silence - The History of Human Rights

February 11, 2005

Human rights could be called the leitmotiv of our day, the theme of constant debate and many books. These two latest offerings address the subject from diametrically opposed angles, one specific, the other comprehensive.

In Breaking the Silence , Richard White relates the case of the torture and murder of a young man, Joelito Filartiga, in Alfredo Stroessner's Paraguay in 1976 and the long legal struggle that culminated in a victory for justice. This was brought about through the application of an ancient US Statute, the Alien Tort Claims Act, originally passed by the very first Congress in 1789.

The Filartiga case is moving, and the courageous and unremitting efforts of Joelito's father, family and those of the author deserve our admiration. It illustrates how the achievement of justice in one case can trigger multiplier effects that benefit other victims. It is a riveting tale, quite apart from its legal significance, and White tries to make it as readable as possible for the general public. He has concocted what he calls an "unusual documentary presentation... a work of dramatic non-fiction". (The research is phenomenal - by his own count, 12,000 pages of documentation.) Much of the book is based on his recollections as a friend of the Filartiga family and on tape-recordings.

Where secondary sources are used he has reconstructed dialogue. The result is an eminently conversational work, every page a maze of quotation marks.

But this innovative methodology and "fly-on-the-wall" technique does not achieve its object. The recreated dialogue drags out the story and is often stilted, while White's predilection for long monologues of direct speech, each split into several paragraphs, sometimes makes it hard to know who is speaking. Descriptions of imagined body language of protagonists in scenes where the author was not present become irksome, rather than enhancing realism, and there are some wince-making aberrations of style. Describing his first encounter with Dr Filartiga, the victim's father, he writes: "His glistening coffee irises locked comfortably onto my eyes." Later, we are told that US Senator Frank Church's eyes were "fearsome orbs of hostility" and then "hardened into accusing slits of suspicion" and "emitted the searing accusation of the inquisition".

None of this should detract from the importance of the story, not only as a legal landmark but also as illustrative of the gruesome state-sanctioned crimes prevalent in many Latin American countries in the 1970s and of the impossibility of obtaining justice at home. The case also demonstrates the duality of policy, even in countries where respect for human rights is a core belief. Ben Stephansky, whom I knew in Bolivia as a liberal-minded US ambassador in the early 1960s, is reported here as saying: "Propping up tyrants is a cornerstone of US foreign policy." Even Jimmy Carter, who assumed his presidency that declaring "our commitment to human rights must be absolute", was obliged to meet Stroessner and other Latin American dictators officially, while his Administration gave $98.1 million (£52 million) to Paraguay in 1978 and approved millions in loans from international financial institutions (such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank).

The most encouraging aspect of the saga is the way persistent and courageous action by the Filartiga family and the author, supported by the media, Amnesty International and prominent US citizens, eventually won out.

Micheline Ishay's book traces the history of human rights from the Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi and Herodotus to our own times (and the dilemmas posed by our increasingly globalised world).

Her book amply meets the challenge of its ambitious title (note the use of the definite article - "The" not "A"). It is a solid read, a must for any serious student of human rights, but the author's engaging and felicitous prose style makes it accessible for the general reader to dip into its pages and emerge with new insights and knowledge. The breadth of Ishay's scholarship and the scope of her research are impressive, as is the structure of this complex narrative. Her six chapters analyse critical events and the main human-rights themes in each period, and end with the critical question: "Human rights for whom?"

They encompass the early contributions to human rights; then, successively, the impact of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Age and socialism, the world wars and globalisation; and, finally the challenges for human rights in the 21st century. While the framework is historical, the themes are not dealt with sequentially but interwoven throughout. In describing the concerns of 2,000 years ago, the author points out their relevance to those of today and vice versa.

Another unique feature is that her own voice comes through, not obtrusively but sufficiently to infect the reader with her enthusiasm and stimulate an intellectual response.

A brief review can proffer only a few morsels from the rich banquet of ideas in this book. These include the evolution of thinking on the rights of minorities, women, homosexuals and children, and discussion of the "just war" theory traced back to the 14th century. She considers the duality and opportunism of states whose legitimacy is based on human rights, especially during the Cold War when both superpowers supported whichever self-determination movement they thought they could influence, the US backing unscrupulous autocrats such as Jonas Savimbi in Angola (who murdered untold numbers of people and threatened me with death) and arming Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan, while the Soviet Union sought support from regimes that imprisoned or killed domestic communists or socialists; discussion of the "just war" theory traced back to the 14th century.

There is a salutary reminder that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was agreed only after great struggle, a significant achievement by a commission composed of different nations, ideologies and philosophies, and that international conventions are often honoured more in the breach than in the observance and need effective monitoring. Ishay's central message is that global justice lies at the heart of any strategy for long-term security.

She warns that the opportunities that globalisation offers for improving human rights world-wide are threatened by two disturbing and interlinked trends: the growing gap between rich and poor countries and the backlashes caused by events such as 9/11 and the War on Terror. Her views on likely developments in the 21st century verge on the pessimistic, though she ends on an upbeat note, speaking of the "angel of progress" and the "lantern of hope".

Whether one agrees or not, this book is a tour de force.

Dame Margaret Anstee was formerly undersecretary-general, United Nations.

Breaking Silence: The Case that Changed the Face of Human Rights

Author - Richard Alan White
Publisher - Georgetown University
Pages - 300
Price - £19.50
ISBN - 1 58901 032 9

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