December 28, 2003
Combatting Terrorism by Seeing a Larger Picture

From the window of John Shattuck's office at the JFK Library, you look out to a view of crystal blue sky and the shimmering water of Dorchester Bay. Shattuck looks out that window and sees a city that symbolizes freedom, a city of human rights activists, both past and present. He sees Boston filled with students and workers from other countries, reminders that some of us were handed our human rights--the free speech and equality before the law, the right to basic human necessities, and to living without fear of torture or enslavement--at birth; and others achieved them only after a long, difficult journey.

As chief human rights official in the Clinton administration, as former ambassador to the Czech Republic, and now, as CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and author of Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response , Shattuck has spent his career focusing on human rights issues worldwide. And he wants Americans to realize that that global concern is in their best interest.

"It's a practical subject, not just a question of one's ideals. It's about the interest we have as a nation to promote international stability," says Shattuck, noting that "terrorism finds its best breeding ground in countries where human rights are repressed."

Listening to Shattuck I am reminded of the Zulu word ubuntu . It's a hard word to translate because it stands for a concept we don't have in English, though we may need it. Ubuntu means that in order to be fully human, we need to know that others have their rights to be fully human, as well. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness , Desmond Tutu described ubuntu as "knowing that (we belong) in a greater whole and (are) diminished when others are humiliated or diminished." A useful model for nations, too. Maybe for one nation in the world to be fully realized and for its citizens to be fully free, all nations and their citizens must live with similar freedom. It sounds like just what Shattuck is talking about, what he feels we have the obligation to promote.

Yet that's a model we Americans seem reluctant to embrace. Although we feel a little proprietary about human rights, we've also been reluctant to act on behalf of human rights on the world stage. The astounding list of international treaties the U.S. is not party to, for example, includes the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers; the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; and the Optional Protocol on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict; as well as the Rome Treaty on the International Criminal Court, from which President Bush withdrew America's signature.

Our national traditions of exceptionalism, isolationism, and unilateralism, Shattuck argues in his book, "have made the United States an ambivalent, and from the point of view of other countries, untrustworthy leader when it comes to human rights."

Just recently, on December 10, International Human Rights Day marked the 55th anniversary of the U.N.'s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Is it just coincidence that the day falls in this season of darkness and light? Maybe the slowly lengthening days will remind us of the imperative for human rights to shine throughout the world.

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at

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