A man wearing a white shirt and a black blazer gestures in front of a podium.
Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, spoke last month at Harvard Law School.

Last month, Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, drew more than 100 students for a fascinating lecture entitled “Ending Double Standards: Human Rights in the World Today.”  

Clinical student James Tager, JD ’13, later followed up with Shetty in an interview about everything from the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa to the need for strong human rights advocacy in the United States. Below is an edited version of that interview, which is also posted in the Harvard Human Rights Journal.

JT: In your lecture, you said that “the clear cut division that the purists sometimes like to make in the human rights world—between civil and political rights on the one hand and economic social and cultural rights, on the other—was exposed as meaningless” by the Arab Awakening. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?

SS: Let’s take Tunisia, for example, and look at the case of Mohamed Bouazizi.  Bouazizi was the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in protest, an action which then set Tunisia on fire, which set Egypt on fire.  If you were to ask: Was he unhappy about his unemployed status, and the fact that he didn’t have a livelihood?  Or was he protesting against the fact that he couldn’t express himself freely, and he had no way of getting any redress?  And the answer, obviously, is both.  Bouazizi’s actions were a graphic illustration of that.

There are other graphic illustrations.  In Egypt, 40% of the population in Cairo lives in slums, with very uncertain tenure.  I visited many of the slums in Cairo—Manshiyat Naser and others—where people are forcibly evicted.  Then, when they go to the government to complain, they are further repressed, and there is massive corruption.  So there is really a combination of factors at play here.

There’s another example in my mind that is particularly poignant, of a woman in a favela in Saô Paulo, who is in an abusive relationship with her husband, who doesn’t have a next meal to look forward to, and who has no security from the police.

The bottom line here, the thread that connects all of these stories together, is:  It is those who are poor who have no voice, and those who have no voice who are poor.  With this in mind, the distinction between civil-political rights and economic-social-cultural rights becomes a bit meaningless.  Legally, of course, we understand that there are different Covenants that enumerate different rights, and so on.  But in a very practical way, the distinction doesn’t mean much.

JT: In your remarks, you share your concerns regarding situations where “an apparent victory for human rights and democracy has come to seem much less of a bright shining victory than governments would sometimes like to suggest.”  Can you tell us more about what the issue of an “apparent victory” means in countries like Egypt and Tunisia?

SS: My line has been: The dictators have gone, but not the dictatorships.  We have published action plans for Egypt and for Tunisia, which we call a Human Rights Agenda for Change.  The Agenda lays out the roadmap for creating the institutions, the rule of law, and the human rights culture, that now need to fall into place.  The agenda discusses basic constitutional issues as well as basic freedoms which need to be converted into legal provisions.  But, more concretely in the case of Egypt, our biggest concern is around women’s rights and minority rights, and we are pushing hard to engage on this issue with the political parties in the country.

For Egypt, we actually wrote to all 54 political parties who were contesting the January 2012 elections and asked them to make clear commitments to human rights principles, through adoption of a ten-point human rights manifesto.  Interestingly, there was a positive response to many of the points within the manifesto.  But when it came to women’s rights, both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists [which are associated with the two biggest Parliamentary parties after the January 2012 election, the Freedom and Justice Party and the Islamist Al-Nour Party, respectively] were very cagey in their response.  So there is a lot more work to be done.

JT: Your comments make reference to the fact that the Bahraini government has recently missed an important deadline to meet key human rights benchmarks set by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in the aftermath of the country’s 2011 anti-government protests.  What are the next steps that need to be taken, now that the deadline has passed?

SS: In the case of Bahrain, the Western powers, particularly the United States, have significant influence.  So I think it is absolutely essential for the United States and European allies to put pressure on the Bahraini government.  What is needed, very simply, is implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry recommendations.

And then, of course, there’s a massive issue of justice, of reparations for those who have been attacked in the last year, including reinstatement of the people who have lost their jobs, and compensation.  All of the basic freedoms that were suspended need to be put back in place, and there needs to be a systematic investigation of all abuses, and people need to be brought to justice.

When I call for a systematic investigation, I am of course referring to an independent investigation.  The Commission based its recommendations at a very high level of analysis, and I believe they did a phenomenal job, but we now need to move on to individual cases.  And let’s not forget that, since the Commission, there have been further abuses, massive abuses.  This includes last month, at the one-year anniversary of the original protests.  So there needs to be a comprehensive, independent process.

JT: Does the need for increased American awareness of international human rights issues  translate to human rights issues here at home, regarding the United States itself?

SS: Well, let me illustrate by using two big issues that Amnesty International is concerned about.  The first is Guantánamo Bay.  That has been one of our biggest disappointments with President Obama’s first term.  With President Obama, there was a clear promise to shut Guantánamo Bay down.  Now, Guantánamo has become part of the political ping-pong process between the Congress and the White House.  All at the cost of the victims who are facing daily suffering inside Guantánamo.

The other issue is the death penalty.  The United States simply cannot continue to be one of the few developed, Western nations that continue to use the death penalty in this day and age.  The other day, I received a letter from the president of Mongolia, thanking Amnesty for its anti-death penalty campaign and declaring that Mongolia is now a death penalty-free county.  And we still have the United States following this completely primitive procedure.

And all of this links into public pressure.  We hope that the Troy Davis case, which Amnesty International worked on and where Troy Davis sacrificed his life, marks a significant departure from how American people think about the issue of the death penalty.  And we hope that this translates into pressure that the Americans will put, that they need to put, on their Congressional representatives and other leaders.

JT: Tell us a bit more about your thoughts on the work of encouraging and growing a human rights culture.

SS: It involves schools, and universities, and campuses, and people at young ages starting to think about these issues.  Because if you don’t develop an understanding of the issues at an early stage, it becomes very difficult at a later stage.

But I think that certain trends are in our favor: The increasing exposure of young people to the international media, the growth of an international consciousness. So I believe that the creation of a true, and healthy, international human rights culture will happen. But we are hoping that we can catalyze and accelerate the process.  We see Amnesty as having a big role to play in accelerating the growth of this culture.

JT: You included in your remarks a focus on the BRICS countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.  As these countries grow economically and politically, how do you think they will develop in their relationship to human rights, as agents on the international stage?

SS: I would start by saying that we cannot put all of these countries into the same category because Brazil, India, and South Africa all claim to be democracies, and so they are purportedly champions of human rights.  Given this, the standards to which we hold those particular countries are quite different from countries that make no such claims.

In my mind, this all needs to be related back to my previous points on building a human rights culture.  The BRICS countries are large countries.  And large countries—and the United States could be seen as another example—do not have much of a focus on international relations or foreign policy issues.  The concerns are very domestically focused.  But now these BRICS countries have an upwardly mobile middle class, along with more international exposure; these are two trends that I see as contributing to the potential formation of a human rights culture.  I think that engagement on building a human rights culture in these countries will be an important next step.

James Tager, ’13, is a member of the International Human Rights Clinic and an online editor at the Harvard Human Rights Journal