I was more than a bit disappointed with the panel on human rights offered by the university’s “Pacem in Terris” series last week, as I have been with the general trend of university-sponsored events. It makes me wonder why I wait in line for tickets or shoot off e-mails in order to reserve a spot to these things anymore. There is a developing trend of lackluster speeches attended only by freshmen and zealous students hell-bent on seizing the spotlight to attack political views.

Due to time constraints, Professor Anthony Arend (SFS ’80) asked the only two questions, but neither of them were answered effectively. Ideally, future events will give rise to more constructive student participation and less soapbox politicizing.

Headlining the event was Cherie Booth, whose credibility (and introduction as a speaker) was heavily weighted toward her being the wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Supposedly a human rights expert, her speech argued that human rights were best served by democracy and a commitment to international law.

Sounds good, does it not? However, she failed to argue what specific human rights should be guaranteed, sparking a mini debate over the difference between negative rights – rights from interference, labeled as civil/political rights, and positive rights – obligations of assistance, labeled as social/economic. Indeed, Ms. Booth and her colleague Conor Gearty’s speeches took the path of criticism rather than cooperative development.

Before I fall into the trap mentioned, let me clarify my attempt to make these statements with a lack of partisanship – my stance is that it is far too trendy to criticize actions taken (whether it is inaction, not going far enough or going too far) rather than throw in your chips for overall benefit. Ms. Booth’s argument took the shape of “the International Criminal Court is the only vessel for human rights, and America needs to join it.” She touted the historical reference of Nazism as a warning that democracy needed the precepts of international law and human rights to be a “true” democracy. I was puzzled when her definition of democracy was incredibly broad and merely included what I would consider the definition of democracy as a form of government. I was a bit wary when she gathered broad, loosely-tied concepts to present a very shiny package.

The first speaker for the other side, Michael Novak, former ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, regurgitated the theory put down on paper by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: the idea that the institutions within a democracy, rather than the virtue of democracy alone lead to the ideas of freedom associated with the term. Well-spoken overall, but he didn’t effectively tie human rights into the picture.

In Ms. Booth’s corner, Mr. Gerrity made the case for thinly veiled Marxism. The broadly acceptable idea that “everyone has a personal dignity” was the argument for more specific socialist controls of the state. Among his initial persuasions was that human rights is not just a western idea, but universal. He neglected to mention that while human rights are universal, those selected for inclusion within our discussion were picked with a Western bias.

SFS Professor and former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick spoke last. Her argument was the best of the four, overshadowed by her stammering, which fostered unrest amongst the audience. It was disappointing that her delivery wasn’t better, as she directly challenged Ms. Booth and Mr. Gerrity’s advocation of any and all human rights with the simple rhetoric that the purpose of government was to enact the will of the governed – if laws don’t reflect the opinion of the people, the government becomes a tyranny. Bullying nations into liberal interpretations of human rights under the guise of international law constitutes a dictatorship, not the “democracy” it purports to promote.

Sadly the speeches denigrated from “American” versus social democracy to America versus the world. The bothersome aspect of these arguments was that to save face (and pander to the masses), all topics were under the blankets of “promoting human rights” – a tenet no one would disagree with. Any productive speech or debate quickly turned into talking past each other.

To summarize the speakers, Ms. Booth lobbied her heart out for the United States to join the International Criminal Court; her colleague Mr. Garrity argues for Marxism; Ambassador Novak is “yay for Democracy;” and Ambassador Kirkpatrick believes that it is “just too bad” that human rights violations occur today.

Perhaps it is easier to criticize than put yourself in the position to be critiqued, but as no spots would be offered to students to debate professionals, I wasn’t given that chance. I make no claims to my own speaking ability, but if an “expert” was made to look foolish by an undergraduate, they might not be too keen on returning. This undergraduate would like to see better debate on campus. To make myself clear, this doesn’t mean more. Quantity is no substitute for quality, and it is the quality that has disenfranchised many students of Georgetown.

Chaz Perin is a junior in the College.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.