Magazine | June 11, 2012, Issue

Many Boots, Many Faces

Benny Wenda, a tribal chief and activist from West Papua
The problem of moral selectivity in human rights

Oslo, Norway — Virtually every cause under the sun gets a hearing at the Oslo Freedom Forum, sooner or later. The Freedom Forum is an annual human-rights conference, held here in the Norwegian capital. It is distinguished by its ecumenism. Its only slant, it seems, is toward freedom.

This year, we hear from a West Papuan tribal chief, outfitted in a spectacular headdress. He talks about the horrors visited upon him and his people by the Indonesian overlords. We hear from three former slaves, out of Cambodia, Haiti, and Nepal. They tell of their ordeals, and how they are trying to help others trapped in the same. We hear from a Zimbabwean about Mugabe. From South Americans about Chávez and his littler imitators.

There is even a drug legalizer from the United States, laying into our drug laws. He is immediately followed at the podium by a Syrian dissident, detailing the slaughter of his fellow citizens in the streets. Something for everybody.

When I was coming of age, human rights meant three things, basically: Pinochet in Chile; Marcos in the Philippines; and, above all, the apartheid government in South Africa. Not much was made of human-rights abuses behind the Iron Curtain. If you brought them up, you were lectured about the need to coexist with the Soviet Union. Don’t rock the boat, don’t provoke war. Understand the Soviets. There was hardly anything less cool than anti-Communism: It was almost a mental disorder, evidenced by McCarthyites, businessmen, and Babbitts in general.

Which is why I rub my eyes a little to see Tomas van Houtryve at the podium. He is very cool — an international photojournalist. He has put together a book called Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism. We all know, he says, that Communism collapsed many years ago. We all saw that wall come down. And yet, for many millions of people, Communism is all too uncollapsed.

We see photos from, and hear stories about, China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Nepal. They are not pretty pictures, or happy stories. The sheer brutality of man is flabbergasting — his sadistic imagination. “We should never forget the consequences of totalitarian power,” says Houtryve. He cites 85 million dead, along with “a legacy of famines, purges, and gulags.” He also notes the many “intellectuals, artists, and normal people who have cheered on the Communist Party: from Pablo Picasso and Charlie Chaplin to Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway.”

He ends with pictures of the Hmong, hunted and butchered by the Lao People’s Army. “It would never cross their minds to tell you that Communism is dead.”

The world can be fickle in its concern for human rights. Mysterious too. For the last ten years, there has been no hotter human-rights issue than genocide in Darfur. Yet, before that, there was another genocide in Sudan: in the south of that country. It went on for a full 20 years. Elie Wiesel called it a “slow-motion genocide.” And the world yawned, except for some evangelical-Christian groups in the U.S.

In the weeks and months before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, there was much criticism of the ruling Chinese Communists: but for what they were doing to Tibetans, not so much for what they were doing to their fellow Chinese. Tibet has long been a popular cause. In the last couple of years, the cause of Chinese democracy and human rights has picked up a little. This may have to do with the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a political prisoner. And with the drama of Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who escaped his confinement in April, fleeing to the American embassy.

#page#The one cause the world at large embraced was the anti-apartheid cause. Speakers at the Oslo Freedom Forum mention it a lot. You sometimes get the impression that activists sort of miss the anti-apartheid cause: a pure one, involving the oppression of a black majority by a white minority. Consider what happened to South Africa in the realm of sports alone.

From 1964 to 1992, South Africa was banned from the Olympics. Also, athletes from other countries paid a penalty if they competed in South Africa. The United Nations kept a list of athletes who traveled to that country, called the U.N. Register of Sports Contacts with South Africa. This was meant to shame and correct the straying athletes.

We might debate whether individual citizens, such as athletes, should be punished for the policies of the governments that rule them. We might also debate whether any country should be off-limits to athletes or others. But what about the fact that, from 1964 to 1992, athletes governed by other beastly regimes were allowed to compete in the Olympics? These include athletes from Hoxha’s Albania and Kim Il Sung’s North Korea. In 1980, you remember, the Games were held in the Soviet Union.

When speakers here in Oslo list the great dissidents and human-rights symbols — when they call the roll — they always begin with Nelson Mandela. Often, Sakharov, Sharansky, and Aung San Suu Kyi are on the list, though the Burmese heroine’s name is hard to pronounce. (Desmond Tutu once joked that he got the Nobel Peace Prize “because I have an easy surname. What if it were Waokaokao?”) But Mandela is always on the list, and heads it.

Repeatedly, he is referred to as a “prisoner of conscience.” But he was not. “Prisoner of conscience” is a term coined by Amnesty International to refer to someone who has been jailed for his opinions. Mandela was jailed for his engagement in an armed struggle. Therefore, Amnesty could not classify him as a prisoner of conscience (though the organization supported him nonetheless).

Mandela is a great man, whose presidency was key: It launched a democracy after decades of nasty undemocratic rule. But his admirers tend to look away from aspects of his record. When it came to human rights, his advocacy was less than universal. “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?”

Throughout his imprisonment, he was supported by some of the worst dictators and regimes: Castro, Qaddafi, the Soviets. They did not support him because they were kindhearted democrats, but because they were warring with the West, broadly speaking. It was only natural for Mandela to be appreciative of support, wherever it came from and whatever the motivation. But it also should have been natural for him to recognize, especially after his release, that dictators who were kind to him were monstrous to people under their control.

Mandela evinced no such recognition. He praised Qaddafi’s “commitment to the fight for peace and human rights in the world.” About Castro’s Cuba, he said, “There’s one thing where that country stands out head and shoulders above the rest. That is in its love for human rights and liberty.” The Cuban people surely love those things; their rulers for 50-plus years, no. Mandela was the most revered statesman in the world, and one word from him would have done a world of good for political prisoners in Libya, Cuba, and elsewhere. But Mandela kept mum. Worse than keeping mum, he lent his moral authority to the jailers and persecutors.

#page#One Libyan prisoner, he did visit: That was Abdelbaset Megrahi, the state agent convicted in the Lockerbie bombing (which killed 270 people). In 2002, Mandela went to Glasgow to see Megrahi in his prison cell. He pleaded for better conditions for this prisoner. “He says he is being treated well by the officials, but when he takes exercise he has been harassed by a number of prisoners. He cannot identify them because they shout at him from their cells through the windows and sometimes it is difficult even for the officials to know from which quarter the shouting occurs.”

During this same period, Qaddafi and Libya were imprisoning five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor, whom they had falsely accused of infecting children with AIDS. The prisoners were not shouted at through windows as they took exercise. They were tortured beyond human description, with rape, dogs, electricity, and more. One of the nurses, in her desperation, tried to kill herself by chewing the veins in her wrist. She had no other recourse.

Moral selectivity is a fault of most human beings, probably. Rare is the person who has equal concern for all. Almost no one keeps an eye on every falling sparrow. William F. Buckley Jr. once wrote that everyone has within him a tank of indignation. It is only so big. What do you spend your fuel on? You can’t go around being indignant about everything all the time.

Politics can get in the way of equal concern. If you like the Castros’ anti-Americanism and socialism, you will want to look away from what goes on in Combinado del Este Prison. If you don’t like confrontation with Iran, you may avert your eyes from Evin Prison. If you hated the 2003 invasion of Iraq, you may not want to hear about Saddam Hussein’s atrocities (the “children’s prisons,” the “rape rooms,” the cutting out of tongues for dissent, the chemical gassings).

Probably the group of people that the world is most interested in is the Palestinians. Sometimes it seems that the entire United Nations is organized around them. But the world is interested only if Israel can be interpreted as abusing them. The world has next to no interest in the abuses of Palestinians by Palestinian bosses, in the West Bank and Gaza. It is a glaring blind spot.

Orwell wrote of “a boot stamping on a human face.” Does it matter what color the boot is — black or red, fascist or Communist or something else? Does it matter what color the face is? It certainly does not. And those who know this, and prove their knowledge of it, are some of the most valuable people we have.

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