Pick Your Battles

•February 1, 2017 • Leave a Comment

President Trump has nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He is conservative — in fact, more conservative, by some accounts, than the justice he is replacing, the late Antonin Scalia. Senate Democrats should allow the nomination to get to the floor of the Senate as soon as possible. On the floor, they can vote how they will. But to attempt to block it would be a fool’s errand. Furthermore, there is a huge opportunity in this confirmation event to demonstrate that they really are the party with solid values and commitment to the rule of law, and to the U.S. Constitution. Here’s why.

(Incidentally, I’ve avoided reading any opinion pieces on this question, which were published everywhere today. This is just my view on this).

  1. I’m channelling Machiavelli: Democrats can’t win here. It’s that simple. Gorsuch is a highly accomplished jurist, with solid legal and political credentials — educational and on the bench. No matter what you think of his judicial philosophy, he’s not a crackpot jurist. He’s a conservative jurist. I’ve seen no evidence of judicial misconduct, malfeasance, or conflicts of interest. Democrats don’t agree with his rulings — but that’s not a good enough reason to attempt to block the nomination.
  2. If the Democrats attempt to win something they cannot (by being obstructionist), in doing so they will prompt majority leader Mitch McConnell to invoke the “nuclear option” — changing the last vestige of the idea of a supermajority needed for the confirmation of judges to the Federal bench. Trump is begging McConnell to do this. Don’t give him the pleasure of expanding the reach of this particular executive’s authority over the Congress. It’s one thing that both Houses and the White House are in Republican hands. Let’s not collapse two branches into one.
  3. If they obstruct, without any hope of derailing the nomination, the Democrats will destroy the moral high ground they established and emphasized with respect to the nomination of Merrick Garland. Adherents of the rule of law, no matter to which party they belonged, were deeply incensed by how McConnell et al. shafted the Constitution with that move. They gambled, and they won. But all they won was a political battle. Democrats should not magnify that injustice with another. During the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama urged us to “take the high road” when the Republicans take the low road, because it demonstrates that we have a sense of integrity, and don’t simply drop our principles for political expediency. Don’t give that up.
  4. Because there will be a time when it matters. In 1939, after Nazi Germany had annexed parts of Czechoslovakia, Franklin Roosevelt sent a telegram to Adolf Hitler asking him to guarantee the territorial integrity of more than a dozen other countries in Eastern and Central Europe. Hitler read it aloud to the German Reichstag, to uproarious laughter. Roosevelt knew that his telegram would not stop Hitler. But he also knew that it would set a moral high ground, since Hitler had stated that he would seek no more territorial revisions in Europe. When Roosevelt asked for a guarantee, Hitler laughed. And then he lost. The legal principle of territorial integrity is now deeply embedded in international law.
  5. Senate Democrats (and those of us who disagree with (abhor?) this administration and its goals can and should use this opportunity to make an important, but long-lasting point: that while we may find Gorsuch’s prior rulings to be problematic (because we disagree with them), we are not willing to allow that disagreement to turn the judiciary into another political branch of government. The independence of the judiciary must be upheld as a coequal branch of government, period. The rule of law is more important than “getting our way” ideologically.
  6. If you don’t buy any of what I’ve already said, go back to point #1 above. That should be enough.



The Politics of French Complicity in the Rwandan Genocide

•January 11, 2010 • 3 Comments

When my students and I put together the funding proposal for this trip, my role was to be as a research advisor but I also had my own research agenda in mind: the political and legal implications of a report released in 2008 by the Rwandan government that revealed significant complicity of France in the genocide: before, during and after. The Commission was headed by Rwanda’s Minister of Justice, Jean de Dieu Muyco, and was the culmination of an 18-month process of gathering documentary evidence and conducting eyewitness interviews. The Mucyo Report specifically named thirty-three officials serving in the government of François Mitterrand, including the late President himself and a former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, as directly responsible.

There was already quite a bit known about France’s role in helping many of the genocidaires escape to Zäire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) during Opération Turquoise, which was ostensibly branded as a humanitarian intervention. Others writers and researchers of the genocide, such as Linda Malvern, have written about the extremely close ties between the government of Juvénal Habyarimana and France—bonds that became significantly stronger after the 1990 invasion of Rwanda by the RPF. After an urgent appeal from Habyarimana, France helped to train a then-shoddy Rwandan army which grew rapidly in size from 5,000 to 28,000 soldiers.

From 1990-1992, the Habyarimana regime purchased $6 million worth of military equipment from France. During the genocide, $13 million passed through the Banque Nationale de Paris to rearm the militias and the army. Human Rights Watch reported that five shipments of French arms came into Rwanda through Goma, Zäire, in May and June 1994. France had a significant number of advisors embedded within Rwandan military units. Even after French soldiers withdrew from Rwanda in 1993 as a result of the Arusha Accords, 40-70 French personnel remained in Rwanda to continue to “advise” the Rwandan military.

Adding to and deepening the case of French complicity was the Mucyo Commission’s evidence accusing those French military personnel, among other things, of actually carrying out killings, raping women, and providing logistical support to the militias, especially the Interahamwe, who organized the killings of Tutsis during the genocide.

The Commission’s details are astounding. While the Commission admitted that a great deal of this “direct complicity” evidence was based on fading memories and fuzzy recollections of eyewitnesses, much of it was dismissed, but there was enough of a pattern of recollection from certain parts of the country (especially from Kigali and the Zone Turquoise) to compel the Commission to make the charge of direct complicity.


Around the same time that the Mucyo Commission’s report was made public, I was studying the findings of the case that Bosnia had brought against Serbia in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Serbia of complicity in the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica in July of 1995. The ICJ ruled that while Serbia was guilty of a “failure to prevent and punish” under the terms of the 1948 Genocide Convention, Serbia was not found guilty of complicity in the genocide itself, because there was not enough evidence of what they called “effective control” of Serbian officials over the activities of Bosnian militias that carried out the massacres.

The rule of precedent—stare decisis—is not a viable doctrine under international law. Cases are heard and decided on their merits alone. Nevertheless, using the standards that the ICJ applied in Bosnia v. Serbia, in which it applied an extremely narrow interpretation of “effective control,” the Muyco Commission’s report certainly contained much stronger evidence of “effective control” than Bosnia had against Serbia. This is especially true when one considers the mountains of evidence that clearly reveal how France helped to finance, train, and arm the Rwandan military and the Interahamwe. Thus, my initial research plan here was to interview Rwandan officials, including those on the Commission, about whether they planned to use these findings to mount a case against France for complicity under the 1948 Genocide Convention.

My thinking about this seemed pretty straight-forward: the fact-finding for the report was fairly extensive. The findings were compelling. The charges were clear. The report even went so far as to call for the indictment and trial of the thirty-some French officials and military officers named in the report. Clearly the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) process was out of the question, since the ICTR process was already beginning to wind down, and its mandate did not include non-Rwandan nationals. It seemed to me that the purpose of the Commission’s report and findings were to provide evidence for a case similar to Bosnia v. Serbia. Why else do it?

The truth is, there were already some signs suggesting that the there were purely political motivations, rather than legal ones, underscoring the Commission’s establishment. It may have been in direct response to a French judge’s ruling in 2006, calling for the arrest of Paul Kagame for shooting down Habyarimana’s plane on April 6, 2004 (the downing of the plane was the spark that ignited the genocide), after which Rwanda severed diplomatic ties with France.

Then, last month, there was a new twist. Rwanda and France agreed to restore diplomatic ties. Apparently talks toward this end have been underway since the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France. This was a big surprise to me. The anti-French sentiment here in Rwanda is palpable. There was the tit-for-tat over the Habyarimana question and the complicity question. Rwanda has clearly shifted its regional alignment away from francophone Central Africa and towards anglophone East Africa. The Rwandan government recently decided to eliminate French and adopt English in the public school curriculum. Then there is Rwanda’s successful bid to join the British Commonwealth—one of only two countries in the Commonwealth that are not former British colonies (incidentally, the announcement of Rwanda’s admission to the Commonwealth was made the same day as the French-Rwandan diplomatic rapprochement).

While the details of what Kigali and Paris agreed to in their negotiations for the resumption of diplomatic ties are unclear, one thing is probably most certain: that Rwanda agreed not to pursue the complicity question any further. One thing Kigali got in return, clearly, was a promise from France to be more aggressive in pursuing cases against Rwandan officials and others associated with the Habyarimana regime who have been living comfortably in France after fleeing there in 1994—especially Habyarimana’s widow, Agathe, who was “evacuated” out of Rwanda courtesy of the French army.


I mentioned earlier that I had intended to research the motivations of the Rwandan government in establishing the Mucyo Commission, thinking that the primary motivation might be along the lines of the Bosnia v. Serbia case at the ICJ—even if that move was motivated by the French “indictment” of Kagame for the assassination of Habyarimana. But even before I arrived, the lack of any “noise” following the Muyco Commission Report in the media (even the government “sponsored” media here in Rwanda) made me consider other motivations for the Commission’s work. It is my strong sense that this government is “done” with the genocide. The ICTR process is set to wind down. It is no longer hearing new cases, and is slated to wind up hearing and deciding on appeals in 2010. The gaçaça process of locally adjudicating third-class offenses during the genocide is slated to wind up in February.

It might be the case that when the government decided to establish the Mucyo Commission in 2006, it was considering mounting an international legal case. Had it done so, given the findings in Bosnia v. Serbia, the ICJ might very well have made a finding of complicity (this assumes, of course, that France would have submitted to the jurisdiction of the court). But it seems that in the intervening years since 2006, the Rwandan government appears to be signaling to the international community that it is time to move on. In their view, there are too many good things happening here, and to continue to drag on with the genocide, and the years it might take to finally settle these matters of justice, might be counter-productive. The Mucyo findings represent a kind of repository of blame. The government can say it did its work, it made its finding, but there are more important matters that need to be pursued. It is time to begin looking forward and not backward.

I have to admit that while this makes sense, as an advocate of international law, I am disappointed. Clearly the government of France was complicit in the genocide—even if it was not responsible for carrying out killings. The French government needs to answer for what it did here. France is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. It has a special responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. Maybe, for political and diplomatic reasons, an ICJ case is not the best place for that kind of justice to be achieved. But genocide is among the gravest of crimes under international law. Justice demands that France assume its responsibility.

The Civil Servant

•January 6, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Yesterday, as we sat in the office of an affable and crisp bureaucrat from one of Rwanda’s ministries, an odd thought crossed my mind: he was the archetype of the Hegelian civil servant in the Rechtsstaat: part Aristotelian aristocrat; part Weberian rational bureaucrat. But he was certainly no democrat. And then I wondered: Is this a problem?

Rwanda is the “poster child” of sub-Saharan African development. It is making some measureable progress on meeting the Millennium Development Goals. It’s a magnet for post-conflict resolution and reconciliation projects. Its Millennium Village has been wildly successful at challenging development stovepiping. Businesses are flocking here. The Global Fund and PEPFAR have large operations here. As far as personal safety goes, Rwanda stands head and shoulders above the rest of the continent. There is no tolerance for government corruption. And for the environmentalists: non-biodegradable plastic bags have been outlawed. Rwanda is, in the words of the Weberian, “efficient,” “tops” on all the lists. He is extremely proud of these facts—not just as a Weberian, but as a Rwandan patriot (thus the Hegelian civil servant frame seems more apt).

As it is now, Rwanda was considered to be an exemplar of development on the eve of the 1994 genocide as well. The difference now is that the state is much more involved in what donors are up to in the country. Rwanda’s “Vision 2020,” the master development planning document, is the first thing that international donors are handed when they propose doing work here. If they cannot demonstrate how they can assist Rwanda in meeting those goals, with government input and oversight along the way, donors are politely (I am sure) shown the door. That’s how the Weberian put it, without mincing any words.

In my courses where development is featured (like my HIV/AIDS course), we spend a lot of time discussing the problems of donor-driven development agendas. Rwanda seems to have rejected that model. The development people we’ve met with do not like this. There is a considerable tension: after all, they are the “experts,” and feel thwarted when the government rejects their suggestions (for anything I suppose) that do not fit into their own goals. It’s not entirely clear how the government crafts those goals; from whom they get their input into what the people “need,” but that’s how it seems to work.

How is one to assess this state of affairs?

In most instances, the problem with development assistance is accountability and corruption. That’s why there has been so much of an emphasis placed on delivering services through civil society rather than the state. But the development experts here readily admit that corruption in Rwanda carries a very heavy price: ouster (and maybe worse). So what’s the problem?

This is a very complicated question. And there’s a paradox at work. Since the 1990s, the aid and development industry has been trying desperately to bypass the state at all costs, given the corruption problem. Yet this same industry confronts a dilemma when it readily admits that this government in particular is free of corruption. So they come up with a different complaint: that the Rwandan government is non-democratic and authoritarian (which in many respects it is). They tell me, for example, that MPs are pressured by the government to meet the country’s master plan for development or they will lose the government’s support, and most certainly the next election (since there is no effective opposition party in Rwanda). So that’s one problem.

The second, they say, is that this plan-driven government is stubborn as hell about letting aid implementation agencies do their work unencumbered. One possible reason for this is obvious: aid agencies were invited in by the Habyarimana regime in the 1980s and 1990s, and thrived here—unencumbered (Peter Uvin has written about this, in his book, Aiding Violence). And all but a few human rights groups failed to notice the genocide that was being planned and even rehearsed right under their noses). It’s no wonder the Rwandan government doesn’t trust aid organizations.

What’s the truth in all of this? Clearly I have not been here long enough to really know. But I have some intuitions. This government is quite secretive and (as we heard from NGO people) not tolerant of dissent. But at the same time this is not the same brand of dictatorial authoritarianism as was the Habyarimana regime. The genocide was the “solution” to the “problem” of sharing political power. France in particular did not want to lose its influence here, and was clearly complicit in the regime’s planning for the genocide to come. But the Habyarimana regime was also notoriously corrupt. And everyone knew that. But that did not seem to bother aid agencies and donors who were “free” to do as they please here, so long as it was “technical” in nature and did not interfere in the regime itself.

The problem here, I think, is what constitutes “development,” especially in the Rwandan context. This government is obsessed with planning and Weberian efficiency. But they are also fervent patriots who believe they are serving the common good, as they see it. That good includes raising standards of living for the sake of the livelihoods, health, and welfare of the Rwandan people. What is remarkably absent is the typical situation where non-accountable bureaucrats and politicians seek power in order to feed liberally at the public trough—and invite their friends to the feast.

Which leaves me to my last point. Rwanda is a “republic,” but not a “democratic republic.” In the former—at least in the Aristotelian sense—the state is run by “the best” in the service of the common good of all. The “best” here means those who serve out of a duty to the common good and not to their own good. But classical republics have authoritarian tendencies. That fact finds discomfort to our democratic-republican sensibilities, but it is well worth our time to carefully consider the intricacies of “development” as we ponder the future of Rwanda.

On Genocide Memorials

•January 4, 2010 • 1 Comment

Today we visited the Genocide Museum in Kigali. There are scores of memorials throughout the country, but the museum in Kigali has a three-fold mission: as an archive of artifacts and documentation; as a center for education and prevention; and as a burial ground. The remains of around 280,000 human beings in interred on the museum’s grounds, in vast crypts topped with simple concrete slabs. Three new ones have been built since I was here in 2007. The work of properly burying the dead goes on as more mass graves are discovered.

I recall that one of the students who was with us in 2007 was appalled at this, what she called “genocide tourism.” I am not sure if she was upset at the idea, or of being “forced” to go through these memorials (the one in Kigali and the even more raw and powerful memorial at the Nyamata church in Bugesera) because she was part of our group. On the one hand I can understand her sentiment. It’s not easy to reconcile the idea of visiting these types of museums and memorials as something “to do” while on vacation. One feels a sense of this when leaving the space. You’ve just toured an exhibit that chronicles, in vivid detail, the planning and swift implementation of a genocide of a million people in 100 days. How do you talk about it after leaving? It’s not like seeing Caravaggio at the Chicago Art Museum. Yet the act of touring the exhibit is the same. As in 2007, I left the museum with a profound sense of discomfort.

But I think that is the idea. For the rest of the world, what happened here in the years leading up to 1994 and during those 100 days, the genocide is something to be studied and understood from a safe distance; words on a page; an archival document; a typed testimony; the subject of a lecture. And much of the exhibit here in Kigali is similar to that, with the addition of photographs and some video testimonies of survivors, for example.

Toward the end of the exhibit, one moves from facts and abstractions–the colonial history; the documents; the planning of the genocide; the hate propaganda; the political factors–to realities. One dimly lit room is unadorned and features several glass cases with neatly arranged rows of skulls and piles of bones. The skulls reveal how gunshots, machetes and clubs ended lives. Another case contains these implements. Inside many of the cases are other artifacts, also neatly arranged in the center: identity cards (which the militias used to identity their victims); wallets emptied of cash; photographs; a crucifix.

I have been thinking about these displays, in particular the rows of skulls neatly lined up. I have been wondering why this arrangement is done (here and at other memorial sites). It seems at first cold and clinical–like walking into a room full of anthropological specimens. Perhaps it is simply respectful to have these displays so tidy–each one with its small bit of space in the case. Maybe its meant to convey a sense of equality, although if one takes the time to look closely, one realizes how very different each person was just by looking at the unique features of each. Perhaps its meant to convey a sense of both uniqueness and sameness. I’m not sure. But going into that room, as difficult as that was, made me think about all I had already seen and brought the point home in the strongest possible terms: perversions of economic and political power led to this result and looked the other way as it was happening.

As a scholar of politics, of course I am interested in the political events and circumstances that led to the genocide, and the consequences that are shaping the future of Rwanda and the world right now. But the value of this memorial, this museum, is far more profound than anything one can read about in a book. I’m just not sure how the two really intersect, except perhaps solely within the mind and heart of the person who studies and experiences the genocide in this way.

And so these places are important, especially perhaps because they leave the visitor–even one like me who thinks he “knows” about the genocide–speechlessness when he leaves.

Rwanda Revisited

•January 3, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I am again in Kigali, two years after my initial visit in 2007, this time with three of my students who are working on separate research projects. Whereas the first time I was here by virtue of “coming along” on a trip that was planned by someone else, this is one of our own making: my students and I worked together on the proposal. So in that respect it feels more like “ours.” Still, as with most things, we received a great deal of help from others in making contacts for site visits, for which I am very grateful.

I just re-read the posts I made the first time I was here and realized that in my second post, I mentioned that I would ruminate on a number of topics that interested me during that visit. Of course, I never completed those. Hopefully this time I will be able to do some of those, and perhaps some new ones, from a fresh perspective and point of view.

Even though we’ve only been in-country for less than a day, it feels very familiar and comfortable to be back here. One of my students, Amanda, was with me on the last trip. Both she and I have grown quite a bit in the past two years, so it will be interesting to see how our knowledge and insights into this place have evolved over time. For the other two students–Ashley and Rob–this is their first time in Africa, and so it will be fun to watch their sense of discovery unfold.

We are all interested in Rwanda’s supposedly “post-ethnic” environment and the development projects that are framed in that context. The project that I was interested in pursuing has become moot–or rather, I now have an answer to my initial research question. I was interested in whether the Rwandan government might seek to mount a case in the International Court of Justice over their “finding” in the Mucyo Commission Report about France’s complicity in the genocide. The answer now seems to be most certainly, “no,” since it appears there has been a diplomatic rapprochement between Kigali and Paris in recent months. This seems to suggest that my initial intuition about the Mucyo findings was simply to put the question of complicity to rest (by finding that, despite France’s rejection of the accusation, it was indeed true) while at the same time saying to the Rwandan people, “we’re finished with this question. It’s time to move on.” Even though I believed Rwanda had a much better case of complicity against France than Bosnia did against Serbia, it appears that was not what motivated the constitution of the Mucyo Commission in the first place.

Still, my own interest aside, my reason for being here is really to help out my students in their own research. Amanda is writing a senior thesis on health financing in the areas of HIV, TB and malaria. Ashley’s project (again, a senior thesis) is exploring the claim of many microcredit programs that they “empower women,” without offering a great deal of empirical evidence (or not really defining what they mean by “empowerment.”) Rob in interested in the effects of Rwanda’s efforts at land reform–a vital component to Rwanda’s post-conflict development plans.

So, here we are, ready to get started…

Our Rights

•December 31, 2008 • 5 Comments

As a gay man, it would stand to reason that I would be infuriated with the people of California and Arkansas for voting to limit my (potential) right to get married (by virtue of Proposition 8, in California) or adopt/foster children (by virtue of Act 1, in Arkansas). The logic here is that my particular, group-related, identity-based interest should drive my infuriation. But this is not the case. Something much larger and much more important than my particular rights is at stake.

The first point I would like to make, briefly, is that although Proposition 8 and Act 1 were enacted by voters in states as disparate as California and Arkansas, and deal with separate issues, they are deeply interconnected. I will return to this below.

The trouble in both California and Arkansas is that the will of the majority has trumped respect for basic human rights. But shouldn’t the interest of the many outweigh the interests of the few? In some cases, yes. But we do not live in a democracy—we live in a liberal democracy. As any of my students will tell you, the adjective “liberal” does the heavy lifting in the concept of “liberal democracy.” When the will of majorities and the basic rights of individuals conflict, fundamental rights of minorities trump the majoritiarian will. While very few rights are absolute, the reasonable limitations we place on rights ensure that we do not pit individuals and their rights against one another. Limitations are not to be used to exclude whole classes of people from their enjoyment. Our federal Constitution includes basic enumerated rights within its many amendments, and protection of these rights take precedence over statutory law—at the federal or state levels. But our Constitution does not enumerate a right to marriage. Issues surrounding defining and placing (reasonable, constitutional) limitations on marriage are left to the States. So is there a basic, fundamental human right to marriage?

This is an interesting question. Marriage is an institution whose meaning is socially constructed. This means that social and cultural variations attach to the institution. Those “meanings” are particular, not universal. If marriage is so contingent, how could there possibly be any universal “right” to it?

In 1947 and 1948, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights struggled with this question. They included such a right in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration, guided in particular by the scourge of Nazism—the Nuremburg Laws which forbade Jews from marrying non-Jews and allowed the Nazis to legally separate families. Therefore, according to the Universal Declaration, the right is not to be limited by race, nationality or religion.

But there are limitations. Spouses must be “of age.” Those entering into marriage must equally and freely consent to the marriage. The Universal Declaration, therefore, recognizes that the traditions of a society—no matter how deeply embedded in the culture, no matter how large the majority supporting them—are outweighed by the rights of individuals who wish to enter into marriage.

Now…who can get married? The Universal Declaration specifically uses the words “men and women.” One might argue that, therefore, the right to marry is limited to heterosexual couples. This would require us to project our contemporary concerns back into the past—a presentist fallacy. The terms “men and women” reinforced the contention that the parties to a marriage be adults, not children. In addition, the article does not recognize the right of “men and women” to “marry one another.” The emphasis is on the word “and”—that the right was to be enjoyed on an equal basis by men and women. There is nothing to suggest that they used the terms “men and women” in order to exclude same-sex adults.

Now, lest someone suggest I’ve gone way too far, I will admit that I seriously doubt that the thought of same-sex marriage would never have crossed the drafters’ minds—even Eleanor Roosevelt’s. However, does that mean that, had they considered it, they would have used that language to exclude same sex couples from the right? Of course, that’s impossible to answer. However, the Universal Declaration never meant to be frozen in its own time. It was meant to be a living, organic statement of universal principles—in the words of its preamble, “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” Standards change over time, and the drafters were well aware of this. New rights might be included as societies and states progressed. After all, none of the Enlightenment philosophers who first enumerated “natural rights” spoke of a right to social security. In addition, the concept of universal rights meant that rights previously held only by the privileged few would be extended to larger groups of people—that who was considered “human” would grow. The idea that “peoples,” through democratic processes, would seek to limit basic, universal rights certainly would have been anathema to the drafters of the Declaration. Yet this is the outcome that Proposition 8 and Act 1 have achieved.

In the United States over the past few decades, the extension of “direct democracy” by ballot initiatives and referenda has slowly replaced our older ideal of republican government—that is, democratic government through responsible, elected representatives whose duty it is to effectively balance majoritarianism and individual rights and liberties through a process of reasoned deliberation. This recent “democratic impulse” is, I believe, a symptom of Americans’ overall dissatisfaction with, if not hatred of, government. “Let the people decide!” is a popular sentiment. But this trend has distracted us away from the liberal democratic ideals that have developed through our amended Constitution—where the balance between “liberal” and “democracy” must always favor basic rights. This trend concerns me deeply.

What makes universal human rights meaningful is the principle of equality. Equal rights emphasizes the rights-holder rather than the right itself. Universal human rights foster recognition of the “self-in-other” that is the basis of human freedom. For some reason, however, Americans have a difficult time seeing the “universal” in rights, and focusing on the “particular.” “I have a right!” Americans tend to view rights as a kind of privilege—the right to exclude others from what I have a right to enjoy. When we place fundamental questions about who should have rights before the public on a ballot, we get into potentially dangerous territory. The question of who has rights should never be “sold” to the highest bidder through a process of pitting groups and their particular interests against one another on issues of basic fairness and justice. That, to me, is the antithesis of the liberal democratic ideal and a sign of political laziness.

The question of marriage and family are deeply intertwined. The third clause of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration, which I discussed above, states that the family is the “natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” The drafters intended thwart both the tyranny of social “tradition” and totalitarian states. Families are group units formed by free individuals who have a right to form families of their own choosing: no arranged or child marriages; no determining of the number and spacing of children; no denying people of one race from marrying people of another; no forcible separation of families.

Tyrannies can be of one, of a few, or of many. That we would allow democratic processes to be used to deny individual, fundamental, universal human rights is a repudiation of our fundamental liberal democratic tradition. It is deeply un-American.

It would stand to reason that my concern about Proposition 8 and Act 1 stems from my particular interest as a gay man. After all, my particular rights have been curtailed (or denied). Nevertheless, I am more deeply concerned as a human being and an American citizen. Our fundamental human rights should never be sacrificed on the altar of democracy.

(Originally published in the Hendrix College Profile, December 2008. Reposted with permission).

Rwanda: Some Initial Impressions

•July 6, 2007 • 1 Comment

(This was originally written July 3, 2007)

We arrived more than a week ago, and today is our first full day of R&R since we arrived. We’re currently at Lake Kivu, in a town called Gisenyi. We have seen so many people, visited so many projects, and learned about so many things that it is truly a challenge to recount them all. We’ve been to sites in and around Kigali, Ruhengeri and Gisenyi.

Among the things we have done during the past nine days are the following:

Continue reading ‘Rwanda: Some Initial Impressions’