This insight about the limits of absolutes is an important one for human rights because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the premier articulation of the fundamental rights that any human being may claim, contains more than 40 of them. What happens when one of those 40 comes in conflict with another? Article 3 of the Universal Declaration provides that “everyone has the right to security of person.” Being safe from terrorism is not just a nice idea; it is our right as human beings, every bit as important a right as any other. Indeed, some might argue it is our most important right, since if we are dead, we can hardly claim any of the others.
The U.S. government has contended that in some cases the release at a public trial of sensitive intelligence information about terrorism might jeopardize the public’s safety. If the government’s claims are true, how do we reconcile the “security right” of Article 3 with the “liberty right” of Article 10, which insists that those charged with crimes must receive a “public hearing?”
Fortunately the Universal Declaration offers some guidance in deciding priorities among competing rights. Article 29 declares that rights may be limited to secure “public order and the general welfare in a demo-cratic society,” to protect us against, say,
terrorism. This is the international equivalent of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg’s famous remark that, for all its guarantees of freedom, “The U.S. Constitution is not a suicide pact.”
The critical question then becomes: “How many limitations are necessary?” If we accept the U.S. government’s position, the answer is “Many.” If we accept the opinion of many human rights analysts, the answer is “Few.” But the government has not stopped to consider the full implications of the compromise of human rights, not least for the success of the war on terror. And the human rights community has not provided an adequate strategy for fighting terrorism while still maintaining optimal respect for human rights.
A few days after September 11, 2001, the FBI arrested a man named Cheik Melainine ould Belai, the 20-year old son of a Mauritanian diplomat. Ould Belai’s English was limited, and the officials provided no translator. For more than a month he was shuttled between detention centers from Kentucky to Louisiana, often without access to a lawyer or his family. Then, 40 days after he was apprehended, ould Belai was released. He had never been told why he had been detained, and within a short time he was deported. Before he left, however, ould Belai had one last thing to say; “I used to like the United States,” he observed. “Now I don’t understand it. I was going to learn English but now I don’t want to ever speak it again.”
Cheik Melainine ould Belai is typical of the 1,200 foreign nationals, virtually all of them Muslim, who were taken into custody in the weeks following 9/11 and the thousands of others who have been interrogated and detained since then. We must ask ourselves this: Are we safer for having mistreated thousands of Muslim residents, or is alienating people who had previously looked upon the U.S. with admiration and respect—those who had wanted to emulate our traditions and learn the English language—a surefire way to make the world more dangerous?”
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