It Is Time to Tell the Truth About Human Rights

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human rightsRecently several human rights groups have documented that the U.S. State Department has upgraded the status of some countries, notably Malaysia and Cuba, regarding human trafficking in order to improve diplomatic relations with those countries. Human trafficking, which is modern-day slavery, is the illegal buying and selling of people, typically for forced labor or forced prostitution. According to news reports, some diplomats privately say that human rights workers are naive “purists” and should recognize that diplomatic interests properly outweigh human rights interests.

As a human rights worker, I know it is vitally important to tell the truth about human rights and not to falsify official reports about human rights in order to achieve diplomatic goals. Human rights workers are rarely “purists.” They fight a lonely battle, often knowing there is little they can do in the offending country and knowing that “good” countries such as the U.S. often will choose to elevate diplomatic goals over human rights goals. That is a fact of life. But when we make such choices, we must do so knowingly, with our eyes open, and not falsify reports or documents in order to sanitize our decisions.

Our official reports must have credibility. The whole point of preparing Trafficking In Persons (TIP) reports — or, for that matter, any human rights reports — is to provide a solid basis for analyzing the problem and identifying the countries involved — the countries who either turn a blind eye to trafficking or, worse, just refuse to do anything about it. Once the U.S. is known to “cook the books” on the TIP reports, it loses its moral authority.

Moral authority is, after all, the primary focus in the world of human rights. President Obama, as well as prior presidents, have promised that the U.S. will lead the fight against human rights violations. Yes, yes, we all know the U.S. is not going to declare war on a country because of its terrible human rights record. The real power in human rights is the power to embarrass, to shame. Once TIP reports became known as being accurate, and once it became known that human rights would be a part of the U.S.’s diplomatic calculations, countries tried to avoid being shamed. Two examples are that Switzerland closed legal loopholes allowing child prostitution and that the Dominican Republic began more aggressive prosecution of child trafficking, resulting in greatly increased numbers of convictions.

But the reverse is true as well. Once TIP reports are known as being “fudged,” they will lose their credibility, and thus their power to shame. Offender countries can simply deny the problem, saying the U.S. TIP reports are known not to be credible.

The so-called “realists,” who say the U.S. should attempt to achieve only its own interests and not try to fight human rights abuses in other countries, are flatly wrong. Trafficking in other countries involves U.S. interests. Child prostitutes and forced laborers are often smuggled into the U.S. Then, we not only have the duty to be concerned, we have the law enforcement imperative to prosecute the violators and the social imperative to help the victims.

In addition, most of us in the U.S. have no idea how officials in other countries view with alarm the prospect of reports being written to U.S. authorities. When I was a human rights worker in Peru, I asked our Peruvian attorney at my small human rights agency what I could really do. Yes, I was a lawyer in the U.S. but of course I could not practice law in Peru. He told me not only were there many things I could do but also that my status often could be more important than being a Peruvian attorney.  He said:

If you are in a meeting with us and the military, the very fact that you are a North American human rights worker might have a restraining effect on the military. Even if you don’t ‘do’ anything.

Also, he said, the military and other authorities would be very concerned about any reports I might write. This prediction was later borne out when he himself was improperly charged by the Peruvian government with “aiding and abetting terrorism” for his lawful work as a human rights attorney. I led an international protest effort by human rights groups around the world and the government dropped the charges. Human rights leaders later said this stopped the Peruvian government in its tracks from going after human rights workers.

In the case of Cuba, the goals of the U.S. are ending the embargo, opening the US embassy in Havana, re-establishing diplomatic relationships, and gradually improving trade relationships. I happen to support those goals. But they should not be achieved by “upgrading” Cuba’s notoriously horrific human rights record. We may say we will improve relations, but we must emphasize we are doing so despite Cuba’s human rights record — and not say we may do so because its human rights record has “improved.”

In the case of Malaysia, where dozens of mass graves of migrants have been discovered just this year and where forced labor is common, the U.S. wants to facilitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Malaysia and eleven other countries in Southeast Asia. In this case, I am not sure I support the TPP. Even if we decide to improve relations with Malaysia for the TPP, we should not do so at the expense of accurately reporting — and denouncing — its human rights record. We must tell the truth about human rights.

By John Wagner
(Edited by Cherese Jackson)


Troubled Mission: Fighting For Love, Spirituality and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru

John Wagner, a retired lawyer and now full-time author, was a human rights worker in Peru in the early 1990s. His memoir of that experience, Troubled Mission: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, will be published January 2016. The quotation and Peruvian incident above are from Troubled Mission.

Photo Credits:

Top Image Courtesy of John Wagner
Featured Image Courtesy of Imagens Evangélicas – Flickr License