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December 10, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 165




Claire Schaeffer-Duffy On war and human rights

By Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor

Today is Human Rights Day. On December 10, 55 years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1948, much of the West was reeling from the atrocities of World War II. During that sober, penitential season, wise minds rightly realized an international norm concerning the treatment of human beings needed to be set forth.

I've always been grateful to the human rights movement because it affirms the innate worth of the human being, boldly proclaiming this truth to the big and powerful-nation states, armies and propagandists for genocide.

In the past 30 years, the human rights movement has had considerable success promoting its principles. The international treaty to ban landmines; the establishment of an International Criminal Court (the U.S. has refused to participate in either of these); the slow but persistent adjudication of war crime tribunals and Mexican President Vincente Fox's recent decision to make "respect for people's right" a state policy are just a few of many examples that indicate the standards of human rights are becoming more widely understood and accepted.

And yet any advancement in our understanding of human rights is completely undermined by our reliance on war. No matter what its apologists may say, war and the human rights agenda are incompatible. As battles drag on, the rights of the enemy, civilian or combatant, are no longer recognized and even the "clean," limited war becomes dirty and indiscriminate.

Recently, I read an account from Iraq by Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a grassroots organization engaged in violence reduction. CPT has maintained a delegation in Iraq since last summer and the organization says it has been documenting "cases of US military raids on civilian homes in the Baghdad area."

They say these raids occur at night and regularly involve destruction, looting, and the arrest and detention of the males in the house. Often those arrested, like the 16-year old Iraqi boy (name withheld), who gave his testimony to CPT, have no idea what the charges are. The boy said that during his several days of detention, he was forced to sit in the sun, where temperatures ranged from 110 to 120, his wrists bound with plastic ties. He described being beaten and kicked on one occasion after asking a soldier for water. His brother, who made a similar request, was gagged and beaten so badly, "blood started flowing from his mouth."

Israeli reservist Liran Ron Furer has just written a book titled Checkpoint Syndrome, documenting the cruelties that he and fellow soldiers indulged in while stationed in the Gaza Strip. Furer beat up Palestinians because they didn't show him the proper courtesy. He shot out the tires of cars because their owners were playing the radio too loudly. He gratuitously abused a mentally retarded Palestinian teen, lying handcuffed on the floor of a military jeep.

The former art student is not uniquely deranged. He is bravely honest. Checkpoint syndrome, he maintains, affected many "good boys."

"At the checkpoint," he writes," young people have the chance to be masters and using force and violence becomes legitimate ... As soon as using force is given legitimacy, and even rewarded, the tendency is to take it as far as it can go, to exploit it as much as possible."

The descent into bestiality that occurs in war is not limited to combatants but also affects civilians who can behave more brutally toward their enemy than professionally trained soldiers. Knowing this (and how can we not know, given all the war accounts that have been written) why do we continue to put people in such morally treacherous circumstances?

Can we not consider war a violation of our right to become who we were made to be -- an image of God, a being just a "little less" than an angel?

Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the SS. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.

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