Darker Convergence

The example of Andrei Sakharov is important to understanding these matters and guiding us to a sensible response. Sakharov was an elite member of his nation's defense establishment. He gave assurances to keep state secrets and he treated those assurances very solemnly. But he also recognized his higher duty as a citizen to act in the interests of his nation and the world. And he recognized that an open society is suffocated by excessive secrecy — that too often it is used to hide heinous crimes and stupidities. Consequently, Sakharov fully appreciated and valued the role played by whistleblowers and denounced the use of the heavy hand of state power to suppress them.

Sakharov makes four points in this process: First, he reminds us of a fundamental fact: that a state that abuses and mistreats prisoners, that tortures, that disrespects the rights of its own citizens, will almost certainly be a threat to its neighbors and to the world as a whole. Abuse of human and civil rights is the essential indicator for a state that engages in unjustified war-making and false charges in the course of its diplomacy.

Second, human rights and an open society with an informed populace are essential if a state's national security policies are to reflect the fair interests of its people. One of Sakharov's most courageous acts came near the end of his life. He ascended the podium at the Congress of People's Deputies and attacked the decision to invade and wage war on Afghanistan as a horrible crime, causing the wrath of the entire Soviet military establishment to descend upon him. His message is broader: Civilian control of the military and a democratic process in decisions to use force on the international stage are essential if abuse is to be checked. Public debate is essential to root out hyperventilating statements, jingoism and war-mongering and to force an earnest assessment of the likely costs to any society that may result from the use of military force. A patriotic citizen owes his state a duty — not to blindly support every foreign military operation that the state proposes, but instead to scrupulously weigh the case for war. Some wars are just, and must be embraced. But those which are not must be loudly and resolutely opposed, remembering that the outcome of no war is ever so certain as its instigators imagine, that the cost in human life and human misery is immense, and that the benefits of a war of choice are very rarely realized. For Sakharov, the right of the individual citizen to participate in public discussion and decision-making was the very essence of a rights- based modern democracy. One of the greatest failings of the authoritarian state was their exclusion of the individual voice, and their silencing of the voice of conscience.

Third, human rights include fair access to information — that is, the natural tendency of the state to preserve security decisions to its security-clearance holding elites by restricting access to vital information must be firmly limited. The cult of secrecy is a growing challenge to the Western democracies, but particularly to the United States. Moreover, human rights include the free exchange of information and ideas among peoples, including the right of communication and the right to travel. Human contact across borders constitutes a natural process of rapprochement, builds understanding and lowers mutual distrust. This is particularly true for journalists, lawyers, healthcare professionals, politicians, artists, educators and scientists who should strive to the creation of a professional environment that overcomes borders. Throughout human history, conflicts have been exacerbated by distrust, xenophobia and unfounded suspicions which transparency, free communication and travel can incrementally reduce.

Finally, human rights can (and should) be recognized as a universal value, just as true for Western democracies as for the formerly socialist world, for the masses of the Middle East or the dramatically developing economies of East Asia. This commonality of values will reduce the likelihood of conflicts among peoples and among nations. The American security establishment distances itself from human rights just as the concept and its universality are once more validated, as millions take to the streets across the Arab world, demanding the right to live their lives free from torture, with guarantees of dignity to their physical persons and a meaningful voice in deciding their own future. In East Asia, the same concept of human rights is now understood as fundamental to the most successful societies — Japan, Korea and Taiwan, for instance — and its spread throughout the region is inevitable. Walking back from human rights is tactically foolish, and it would put the Americans on the wrong side of history.

On these points, Sakharov found ready support in the Western democracies, because he articulated values fundamental to them. That was clearly the case in the America of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In Europe, that continues to be the case. But America today urgently needs to reaffirm its commitment to its founding values and its role as a beacon-carrier for human rights. Its conduct over the last decade has provided even its closest friends with reason to question where it is headed, and to wonder if they are making a mistake following in its wake.

The work that Sakharov foresaw, the construction of open societies founded on a commitment to democracy, the rule of law and fundamental human rights, remains far from complete. Although its proponents will claim otherwise, it now seems likely that historians will view the "war on terror" as a detour from the historical path favoring human rights and democracy. To be candid, of course, it is a project which will never reach completion. But the conditions, viewed fairly, exist for us to continue this work today, to turn away from the xenophobia, fear and hatred which have so far dampened this process. Sakharov was a skeptic about political ideologies of all types. But he was convinced about one ideology:

"The ideology of human rights is probably the only one which can be combined with such diverse ideologies as communism, social-democracy, religion, technocracy, and nationalism; it can form as well a foundation for the positions of persons who do not want to tie themselves to theoretical intricacies and dogmas, who are tired of the abundance of ideologies, none of which have brought people simple human happiness. The defense of human rights is a clear path toward the unification of peoples in our turbulent world and to the relief of their suffering."

Sakharov offered these words as guidance for his fellow citizens. But for America in 2011, they might be the essential elixir.


Tags: aleksandrov, andrei sakharov, bin laden, bush administration, civil liberties, cold war

    • Scott Horton
    • Scott Horton is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, where he covers legal and national security issues. As a practicing attorney, Horton has focused on investment in emerging markets. He is also a life-long human rights advocate and serves as a director of the Moscow-based Andrei Sakharov F...

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