George M. Anderson

Defending human rights pays off not only in terms of justice, but also in ways that can include greater economic growth, a more protected environment, better public health and a generally less violent world. Such is the basic theme of this important book. Written by someone who knows the human rights landscape wellWilliam F. Schulz is executive director of Amnesty International USAIn Our Own Best Interest argues from a variety of perspectives that human rights, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are keys to everyone’s welfare. In contrast, the trampling of them has led to much of the poverty, discrimination and war-related misery that afflict today’s world.

Some Americans may wonder what human rights have to do with, say, a person living in east Tennessee. Early on, the author tells us that he was asked this very question by a talk show host on Knoxville’s National Public Radio station. Surprised, but realizing the importance of the question, he replied: If the person holds a job that might be lost because U.S. companies are attracted by lower wages in countries that abuse labor rights, it has a lot to do with him or her. Throughout the book, he expands on connections of this kind to show that what happens in regard to human rights elsewhere does indeed affect the lives of all of us, in ways that raise practical as well as moral considerations.

The example of job losses here and their connection with labor abuses in developing countries reappears later in the book. Schulz observes that, according to the Economic Policy Institute, between 1994 and 1998, Nafta led to the disappearance of close to half a million American jobs. He adds that many big Western companies will soon have more employees in poor countries than in rich ones. As the anti-sweatshop movement here has helped us to realize, big companies like Wal-Mart have enriched themselves by condoning unfair labor practices abroad where workers who are paid a below-living wage are additionally subjected to abusive treatment. As a result, they as well as workers in the United States suffer the consequences.

Environmental concerns in the context of human rights are presented in a chapter called Fire and Ice: Human Rights and the World Around Us. One example that highlights the crucial but painful role of those who dare to expose abuses concerns the heavy logging in Mexico that has led to the disappearance of half the country’s forests in only 40 years. Because of the related damage to agriculture caused by logging interests, two campesinosRodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera Garcíaformed the Organization of Ecologists of the Sierra de Petatlán to protest peacefully against the Idaho-based Boise Cascade Company’s role in the destruction of wooded areas in southern Mexico. After the company pulled out, infuriated landowners who had been profiting from the wholesale logging had the two men falsely accused of growing marijuana. Arrested in 1999, they were incarcerated and severely tortured. Even their lawyer was attacked and beaten. At the time the book was published, Montiel Flores and Cabrera García remained in prison. While their ordeal illustrates the courage of many human rights activists, it also underlines the dangers they may face in confronting unjust structures.

The story of the two Mexican men is just one of a number of mini-biographies sprinkled throughout In Our Own Best Interest. They serve as concrete anchors that put flesh on the bones of the author’s arguments. And because the stories of activists are chosen from around the world, their wide geographical range helps to convey a sense of how wide the swath of human rights violations actually is, from West to East. In the early 1990’s, for instance, a young woman in Indonesia, Dita Sari, began to take part in student protests in an effort to promote educational reform. Soon, though, she turned her attention to workers’ rights. After leading a 1996 job action involving 20,000 workers, she was arrested and given a five-year prison sentence. Amnesty International activists to whom she wrote from prison helped win her release in 1999. Besides her efforts on behalf of workers, Schulz points out that Ms. Sari provided a transforming model in a society in which women had been notoriously oppressed and largely forbidden to take on a political role. The oppression of women is another of the book’s underlying themes.

Although most of the human rights abuses discussed in the book occur in non-democratic countries, a whole chapter is devoted to violations in the United States. Thus Schulz speaks of the use by police and prison officials of electro-shock devices like stun guns. (The use of a stun gun against an inmate at Wallens Ridge state prison in Virginia in July 2000 led to his death.) Because they leave no visible marks, they have become the most popular form of torture in the world. A number of American companies manufacture and export them, knowing very well the uses to which they will be put in other countries. Schulz cites a mid-1990’s example involving the U.S. Department of Commerce that authorized the sale to Saudi Arabia of what was described on the export license record as [stun] shields used for torture.’ Other examples of human rights violations in the United States include police brutality, racial profiling and the jailing of bona fide asylum seekers.

Intense media attention has helped to expose some of the abuses within our borders, but even in countries without a free press abuses have increasingly come to light as one of the side effects of globalization. It is virtually impossible today for human rights crimes to be committed in even the remote corners of the globe, Schulz writes, without the rest of the world knowing about them almost instantaneously. Whatever one’s opinions about globalization and its impact on poor people, this at least is one clear benefit. China alone now has approximately nine million Internet users, up from two million in 1999.

In the book’s final chapter, the author argues for what he calls a new realismone that views human rights as matters of morality, legality and utility, rather than sloughed off as a subsidiary interest unrelated to the truly serious questions’ of the day. The word utility, which he italicizes, reinforces Schulz’s basic argument that because we live in an interconnected world, observance of basic human rightsincluding a free press, an independent judiciary and unstifled political oppositionis indeed in everyone’s best interest.

Can those of us who live in the equivalent of the book’s east Tennessee become involved in the promotion of human rights? The appendix, that oft-ignored part of many a book, gives us the answer. Appropriately titled How to Get Involved, it provides the names and addresses of three dozen human rights organizations. The list offers opportunities for each of us to take part in the effort to work for human rights without leaving our homes. Individual efforts can be as simple as letter-writing. Schulz says that over 40,000 political prisoners (like Dita Sari) have been freed in part, at least, because of letters written to foreign governments by members of Amnesty International. More letters addressed to the Mexican government might help to bring about the release of Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera García.

George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of With Christ in Prison.