On the Issues: Free to Protect Liberty

It’s sad that I have to write this article. It’s sad that anyone has to write about this, fight against this or live this out as their life; but the alternative is that the world remains blissfully ignorant or carelessly apathetic.
I’m writing about the crimes against humanity waged by some of the absolute regimes across the world. This is an article that shouldn’t need to be written. Say what you like about relative morality, but deep down, there are things that you just know are wrong, things that you can feel in your gut. This is one of those things.

There are two reasons I feel compelled to write this article: first, I want to raise awareness of the extent of the horrors being committed and second, I want to provide a logical impetus for action, especially action by whatever candidate is eventually inaugurated as president next January.

I’d like to focus on the dictatorship in North Korea as a case study of a country where basic human rights mean nothing. Since the state was formed in 1948, the hereditary dictatorship has sequestered its inhabitants from the outside world of any subversive influences by prohibiting freedom of speech, press, religion and emigration. The regime has strictly controlled the distribution of food and, as a result, a third of the 22.7 million people are malnourished, including one in four young children. Over one million people died in the famine of the 1990s and the government has trouble keeping NGO’s involved because they refuse to be transparent.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The dictator, Kim Jong-un, is the center of a national cult of personality, where he is worshipped for his various crafted perfections. The lack of access to information causes the population to be completely ignorant of the world outside their borders, which allows them to believe the government’s lies, ranging from the inherent superiority of North Korea’s people and their living conditions to a fabricated victory over Brazil in their 2010 World Cup match.

North Koreans who express any sort of dissent are kidnapped, along with their extended families to the third generation, and taken to concentration camps where they are used as slave labor, raped, tortured or executed. Around 200,000 “dissidents” currently languish in these camps, where as many as 400,000 may already have died. Those who attempt to escape from the country risk their lives; snipers guard the border, and China’s official policy is to capture and return any refugees who are discovered within its borders, at which point they are tortured and executed. Of course, China doesn’t always return the escapees, instead opting to force them into child labor or sex slavery.

The North Korean regime is one of the greatest current violators of human rights; of the 11 categories of crimes against humanity defined by the International Criminal Court, 10 are displayed by the dictatorship — but it’s not the only state that shows a total disregard for the basic rights that we hold dear. Iran’s president cries out for the destruction of the entire state of Israel. The government-supported genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan has claimed over 400,000 lives and displaced nearly two-and-a-half million people.

Knowledge of these catastrophes is a good start, but it is far more important to do something with it. If we take seriously the foundation of our country upon the security of unalienable rights, then it must matter to us that places exist where those rights are curtailed, abridged or disregarded. If we believe that there are rights that are basic to humans, then an infringement upon those rights anywhere constitutes not only a crime against those directly affected, but it also weakens the grounds of our nation’s government and the security of our own rights.

So, what should we do and what should we expect from our government? First of all, it’s important that the United States is active in the fight against human rights abuses. The president should not condone, in any way, crimes against humanity or the regimes that sponsor them. Congress, for its part, must be willing to follow the President’s lead in taking action against human rights violations and should be willing to commit the necessary resources. Together, the legislative and executive branches of the American federal government should make themselves prominent as the voices of freedom.

Apart from a vague commitment to freedom, there are some very specific and substantive measures that the government can take at the current juncture. First, the United States should put serious pressure on the United Nations to create human rights requirements for member states, even going as far as revoking the membership of any nation not in compliance and instituting broad sanctions upon them. We should also take more targeted action at the various countries committing these abuses. With North Korea, for example, we should take advantage of the transitional period following Kim Jong-il’s death to put as much political pressure on the regime as possible, especially by communicating with China. Sanctions could be enforced against Iran and Sudan, and America should loosen its restrictions on refugee immigration.

One more question remains to be considered on the governmental level: is it legitimate for the American government to authorize the use of force to intervene in cases of serious human rights violations? It is evident that people have the right to rise up against its oppressors and create a new government that will secure their rights. If, however, people are unable to do so, does the United States have a right or even a responsibility to intervene? To say that we do is to authorize our nation as the human rights police of the world — an arrogant and somewhat irresponsible move that opens the floodgates for all sorts of foreign intervention. That’s not a road we want to go down; it leads to more wars such as the recent conflict in Iraq, where we were mired for years with no real goals or reasons. But to preclude such power categorically requires us to sit by and watch nations like North Korea and Sudan kill and oppress their own citizens with no real recourse. I cannot provide a clear answer to this question, but I offer this: even if the power of force is available to us, it should only be used in extreme situations, where all other remedies have failed and with public transparency and the express authorization of Congress.

As individuals, we don’t typically have the power to directly communicate with dictators or fly food into famine-stricken areas, but we can put our money where our rights are and support groups that aid refugees or provide food to oppressed peoples. In addition, we can contact legislators about the rights issues that are important to us, as well as voting for those candidates who will take seriously the moral impetus to preserve basic human rights. We also have the ability to educate ourselves and our peers about human rights issues.

To get involved on the Amherst campus, contact Jennifer Rhee ’14 or Nikki Takemori ’14, the co-presidents of THiNK (Towards Humanitarianism in North Korea). It’s a group that focuses on educating students about the violations of the North Korean government, and it raises money to help refugees in China escape to safe countries; you can visit THiNK’s parent organization’s site at www.linkglobal.org. Whatever you do, get involved; use the freedoms you have to save the freedoms of others.