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  May 8, 2001

Promoting Human Rights Key to Solving Global Problems, Says Koh

The United States must promote human rights both as a desirable end in itself and as a means to a safer, healthier, more prosperous process of globalization, according to a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor during the Clinton administration.

Harold Hongju Koh, now the Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law at Yale University, says the globalization of human freedom can help solve global problems, such as AIDS and political instability.

Koh, who spent the past two and a half years in Washington, was addressing an audience in Konover Auditorium on May 1 during the 11th annual Gerson foreign policy lecture, "Promoting Democracy and Human Rights: From Ivory Tower to Foggy Bottom." The lecture series, named in honor of Louis Gerson, an emeritus professor of political science, brings to the University speakers who are both scholars and practitioners of foreign policy.

A human rights lawyer whose career has embraced serving as legal counsel to plaintiffs in human rights cases, including refugees from Haiti and Cuba, Koh also has a personal family interest in human rights issues. His father previously served in the South Korean government and had to flee his homeland after a military coup in the 1940s. He came to the United States and became a political science professor at Central Connecticut State University. Koh drew parallels between his father's career and that of Gerson, who fled Poland to escape the Holocaust before joining the UConn faculty.

As a lawyer, Koh has sued the U.S. government for its policy on Haitian refugees. But, after his stint in Washington, he said government service "is a lot harder than it looks."

There are numerous competing agendas, he said, and resources are scarce: on his arrival in a bureau of about 150 people in 1998, for example, there were only two computers connected to the Internet. Decision-making must be not only coordinated with other federal agencies and with the White House but combined with working with foreign countries.

His job, he said, revolved around crisis management: "Everyone in the United States thinks the U.S. government has the capacity to respond to every crisis everywhere in the world."

Koh said he went to Washington resolved to "make a difference." Yet he was constantly being called upon at a moment's notice to fly to some far-off part of the world, making it hard to stick to his agenda.

In this context, "it is difficult to distinguish between this hour's crisis and the watershed moments in our foreign policy," he said. "The urgent often drives out the important."

To maintain your priorities, you must have principles and state them publicly, he said. You must also make it clear that if you are asked to violate them, you will resign, he added, because those principles are much more important than any government job. "When you do it that way, you suddenly gain power," he said.

He likened taking a job in the U.S. government to walking onto a tennis court and having balls coming at you. You start to return them, he said, but then you begin to ask, "why am I not throwing the balls myself?"

"Many people are just lifting tennis balls over the net," he said. "But if you have principles, you frame the context of discussion."

Some of the principles to which Koh says he subscribes are telling the truth - an approach he described as "simple but radical" - and consistency in dealing with past, present and potential human rights violations.

When human rights violations have occurred, he advised, seek accountability mixed with reconciliation. This also involves moving to a new kind of political order. He pointed to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an example.

For human rights violations being perpetrated in the present, he advocated using diplomacy, backed by shame and economic and military sanctions, to encourage other countries to adopt the norms of the international community.

For the future, he said, fostering democracy will help prevent human rights violations. "The major cause of human rights violations is the absence of democracy," he said. In non-democratic countries such as Libya and North Korea, "there are illegitimate government structures in which human rights violations are a necessary part of what they do.

"In the 21st century," he added, "people have a right to democratic government ... democracy itself is a human right."

Recently, Koh met Colin Powell, secretary of state in the Bush administration, and was given one minute to summarize his work. He displayed two maps: one from 1974, on which there were only 30 countries that were democratic, and one from the present, showing 120 democratic countries. Those that are not democratic, he told Powell, present the most problems; those that are are the best sources for cooperative effort.

Collaboration among the world's democracies, he added, is the best way to address global problems such as AIDS and political instability.

"We live in a global world and we have to understand how we fit into a global world," he said.

Koh noted that people look to the United States not so much because it is a military superpower as for the principles it has espoused for generations.

He said the Bush administration has expressed much the same views as the Clinton administration in its rhetoric but, in his opinion, there are some "troubling signs."

Bush is making a mistake not to engage with North Korea, for example, and in letting others deal with problems such as global warming and the global AIDS crisis, said Koh: "You cannot quantify the cost of missed opportunities."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu

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