U.S. has undermined human rights, Yale law dean says

Dean Harold Koh and former Vice President Walter Mondale answered questions Tuesday.

Justin Horwath

In a presentation at Cowles Auditorium on Tuesday, Yale University’s law school dean Harold Koh used what one political science professor at the event called “objective evidence” to show that the United States’ global human rights reputation has been insolvent since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Koh served as assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations – the top executive position in the U.S. Department of State – and is considered a prominent advocate of human and civil rights. During the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs forum, he said the United States has undermined basic human rights policy principles under the current Bush administration.

Those basic principles, he said, include telling the truth, having universal standards and taking a consistent approach to the past, present and future in policy-making.

“These are self-inflicted wounds,” he said to those in the nearly full auditorium. “We’ve moved, in just six years, from a zero-tolerance policy to a zero-accountability policy (on human rights).”

Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale and regents political science professor Kathryn Sikkink joined Koh in a question-and-answer session after Koh invoked personal stories about his advisement of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the proliferation of torture scenes in the popular television show “24” and Supreme Court cases alike.

Mondale said in an interview after the forum, echoing Koh, that the use of “hard power” has weakened President Bush.

“We had very strong human rights policies,” he said of the Carter administration. “In every case we didn’t go after (countries like the Soviet Union, Argentina and South Africa) with military power and we raised the issue with them on human rights. We have lost our ability to be credible because now we’re playing games with the issues ourselves.”

Koh also attacked Guantanamo Bay detention camp, calling it a human rights “disaster,” and criticized Attorney General Michael Mukasey for not denouncing waterboarding as a torture technique before the Senate.

“It’s a little scary,” he said. “Here’s a guy of great stature and experience who ends up parroting what’s given to him.”

Koh’s opinions on these issues, however, don’t come without dissent. Members of the College Republicans at the University, who didn’t attend the event, said they don’t see a human rights crisis occurring in the United States.

“The U.S. has always been known to be good with human rights,” said Ryan Mattson, executive director of the College Republicans and political science senior. “There’s too much of an effort to create a negative view. I think it has more to do with politics than it does with human rights.”

Despite Koh’s prominence, the crowd during this event didn’t feature a plethora of University students – a concern Mondale said Koh articulated in the undergraduate lecture Mondale teaches with political science professor Larry Jacobs.

“He was openly worried about the fact that this generation of young Americans doesn’t seem to be in the streets like they have been in past wars,” Mondale said. “Each person will do it differently.”