On October 2nd, the UofM had the pleasure of hosting Ken Roth, a former attorney and current executive director of the renowned Human Rights Watch. He delivered a speech with a subsequent discussion revolving around the human rights situation at home in the US and their far-reaching implications overseas. In it, he argued that US leadership role in human rights necessitated a higher standard of ethical conduct due to our powerful country's ability to "warp" the standards to which other countries are held--particularly in regards to the USA's controversial use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones.
Listen to an audio recording of the lecture.
Human Rights Watch is an influential non-governmental organization that uses what are popularly known as "name-and-shame" tactics in order to advocate for positive social change in Washington, DC. It has been involved in a number of significant human rights campaigns since its founding in 1978, including the wildly-successful International Campaign to Ban Landmines (1992).
Mr. Roth listed three primary areas of concern for his organization regarding US policy and practice: the USA's tendency to over-incarcerate, resulting in the highest per-capita prison population in the world; human rights issues with migration and mistreatment of migrant workers; and government handling of counterterrorism tactics. All three of these issues, Mr. Roth argues, are not addressed adequately by US courts, the latter due to a suspicious deference and subservience of the judicial system to the Obama administration. This, he says, necessitates action on the part of civil society.
UAVs, popularly known as drowns, were the primary focus of Mr. Roth's address and the subsequent discussion. Their use in overseas counterterrorism operations--a source of major controversy which engenders much anti-USA sentiment in affected countries--ultimately constitutes extra-judicial killings, an act which ostensibly goes against United States laws but is justified using the cover-all term "War On Terror." Mr. Roth examined the double standards applied to the US government's dealing with terror suspects and its willingness to kill them without trial, comparing this to the more regulated treatment of transnational drug cartels--which have a higher death toll in absolute numbers. The "War On Terror," he argued, is essential in order to continuously apply looser wartime standards of violence to situations that do not justifiably constitute war.
Wartime rules of conduct allow for the killing of enemy combatants without the need for due process; but in peacetime or policing situations, where authorities target criminal organizations, deadly force can only be used as a last resort and in order to protect life. As a policing tool, Mr. Roth emphasized that it is still possible for drones to be safely and effectively used without violating human rights. He spoke highly of their potential for surgical accuracy--if used correctly. The fact that they are viewed as an indiscriminate weapon (like internationally-forbidden chemical weapons and landmines) is in fact a result of their mishandling by actors within the CIA, who could either be less skilled than the army, or have developed a culture of unrestrained violence. Either way, Mr. Roth says he and his organization have consistently advocated a takeover of the USA's drone program by the Pentagon in order to more properly regulate its actions.
Mr. Roth also warned against the many dangerous precedents that have been set by the USA's use of drones. The most immediate problem is that although the USA holds a virtual monopoly on sophisticated military drones at this time (possibly shared with its ally Israel), the technology--as is always the case--is currently in the process of becoming cheaper and far more widely available. Soon, states such as the Russian Federation or the People's Republic of China will have functioning drone programs, and their commitment to the protection of human rights is demonstrably far lower than that of the United States.
In addition, the disregard for due process demonstrated by counterterrorist drone strikes has set a precedent for government overreach that allows for the US National Security Administration's unjustified and egregiously unethical abuse of privacy both domestically and abroad, an issue that has provoked much outrage around the world. This issue was touched upon again during the discussion, with several audience members concerned about their lack of privacy rights and Mr. Roth explaining the twisted logic used to justify the collection of metadata (it's not a breach of US law for the NSA to collect information; it's only a breach of law once they read the information).
This, among other examples of overreach, seemed to provoke some concern about government responsibility within the audience. Mr. Roth had mentioned several times previously that President Obama, though at times offering lip-service to the idea of scaling back US military outreach, had more often than not failed to deliver on issues such as ending the "War On Terror" or fulfilling his promise of closing the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
This apparent administrative inaction in the face of popular demands from the American people has led many to be concerned with the future of our country and its government. I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to ask Mr. Roth a question: what outcomes could be expected if the US government continues to set precedents that allow it to encroach more and more on the rights of civilians, both domestically and abroad? In response, Mr. Roth emphasized that our government--though powerful--is ultimately responsible to the wishes of the people, and that we must keep in mind the significant successes that have been made through concerted civil action. This ended the conversation on an optimistic note; for although human rights abuses certainly exist within our administration, it is important to see these problems as room for improvement. Although our voice may at times seem insignificant, there is no legal obstacle that cannot be overcome through determined advocacy for positive social change, by means of the popular political participation that is the foundation of our democracy.
Written by Erik Randall