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Speaking at the Institute of Politics last night, six panelists explored the varied challenges facing human rights activists and questioned when and to what extent Western nations should intervene to prevent human rights violations around the world.
"The basic concept of human rights has undergone an enormous change in the last 50 years from being dismissed as a utopian ideal, to a universal acknowledgement that those rights should be fact," said Graham T. Allison '62, Dillon professor of government at the Kennedy School of Government.
However, other panelists pointed to many on-going rights violations.
"I have to add the footnote of genocide to Allison's optimistic proposition," said Samantha Power, executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. "With Sierra Leone and Kosovo, we have a testament to the limits of progress and the bounds of state behavior."
Power said the U.S. government does not take action unless its vital interests are at stake, using as an example the decision not to intervene in the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
"The government thinks that there are no political consequences for non-action in such cases," she said, "but Americans are taking humanitarian issues more and more seriously."
The AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa is another example in which humanitarian aid is desperately lacking, said Debrework Zewdie, global coordinator of AIDS/HIV at the World Bank.
"I don't see how we can treat a disease that requires behavioral change in a culture where people are too afraid to find out if they are infected or not," Zewdie said.
She said that the issue of AIDS requires "world solidarity" and must not be left to the governments of the stricken countries.
Panelists also questioned whether Western intervention represents a cultural imposition on other countries.
"Africa's post-independence history bristles with such tremendous human rights violations that it is easy to forget its long record of heroic struggle for those rights," said Kwesi Botchwey, director of Africa research and programs.
Botchwey said Westerners who criticize Africa's lack of progress on human rights do not understand that these violations are the result of to extreme poverty.
"Human rights is at bottom a matter of poverty eradication," he said. "The focus should be a balance between the political and economical."
Botchwey said that the West has treated Africa inequitably compared to European nations.
"Africa needs help from its international allies," he said, "but they need to implement the same policies, whether they apply to Kosovo or Sierra Leone."
Michael Ignatieff, visiting Carr professor of human rights, called this imbalance the challenge of activism.
"What it means to believe in human rights is to subscribe to a very uncomfortable discipline, which forces you to do things nobody wants to do, but that you must in the name of moral consistency," Ignatieff said.
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