Advocate, former Bush administration lawyer debate human rights

Friday, February 20, 2009

Human rights are essential to a fair and just society – though war can complicate things, Larry Cox, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, and University of California, Berkeley Professor of Law John Yoo agreed in a debate at Salomon 101 Thursday afternoon.

But the two agreed about little else, with Cox – who has spent his career defending human rights – describing such rights as “self-evident” while Yoo, a former lawyer for George W. Bush’s administration, countered that such rights were sometimes, if not self-evident, self-defeating.

At the nearly full Janus Forum lecture, “One World, Many People: Are There Universal Human Rights?” the two speakers took the divergent positions their backgrounds suggested they would.

Cox used his initial 25 minutes on the floor to describe the impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted in 1948. If governments generally do not like limits on their power, Cox asked, then why did they agree to such a pact?

One reason, he said, was that human rights are hailed as the foundation of peace. But governments do not always follow through with such agreements because they do not believe they can be held to the accord, he said. This is why, Cox said, it is up to people to use “the power of moral pressure” to claim these rights.

“The past decade has been one of the most damaging” to human rights, Cox said. Citing detentions, disappearances and the use of torture, Cox said, “human rights violations are carried out in the name of security” everywhere.

Yoo, a contributor to the Patriot Act who is known for his advocacy of the legality of torture during wartime, said he did not think he and Cox disagreed about how an ideal world would look. But he said that rights apply differently when a country’s security is threatened. It is generally accepted, for example, that killing does not count as murder during war, he said, adding that detainment keeps soldiers from returning to the battlefield.

Trade-offs between security and human rights are inherent in government policy, Yoo said, and we need to be “upfront” about the trade-offs we make based on a cost-benefit analysis. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, “the government had to respond,” he said.

Cox countered that while Yoo and similarly minded people “think they’re serving some higher purpose,” certain rights must never be compromised, even when dealing with an enemy. “Once you adopt their values, you lose the fight,” he said.

After both guests spoke briefly, the floor was opened to questions – most of which were for Yoo, who was asked to explain his viewpoint on several reported incidents of torture.

Despite at least one audience member’s contribution, which ended up being more of an attack than a question, eliciting murmurs from the audience, Yoo told The Herald after the event that he “actually thought it was very civil.”

Students “ought to hear from both sides,” he said.

Cox said he was glad to see that students in the audience did not seem to be “buying into” Yoo’s argument.

“These are arguments we’ve been fighting against for the past eight years,” he said.

Before the event, individuals and representatives from various organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee and the International Socialist Organization held posters in front of Salomon in protest of Yoo’s involvement in the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees.

“I’m not thrilled he’s given a pedestal from which to spew hate,” said Simon Liebling ’12, a Herald Opinions Columnist.

Students and community members had mixed reactions to the lecture.

Shanoor Seervai ’11 said she was “pleasantly surprised by the level of questions students asked.”

Ben Howard ’11 praised Cox and echoed what he felt was the speaker’s crucial point: “When you abandon your morals, then you lose the fight.”

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