By Craig Lang || Adjunct Assistant Professor of Government
As some of you know, over the last twenty years I have spent much of my professional life wrestling with issues of human rights and the rule of law. For ten of those years my job as a Foreign Affairs Officer with the U.S. Department of State involved either helping protect minorities in Kosovo, or managing more than $200 million a year of U.S. rule-of-law assistance to Colombia, which included strengthening their criminal justice system.
Today, I continue to address many of these same issues through my teaching and research, albeit focusing on these problems within post-conflict states. Yet over the last year, I am finding that students are increasingly seeking to understand elements of human rights not as students of international relations but rather to apply these principles in their own domestic context. As I am now challenged to address these concerns within the United States, I am troubled that there has been little discussion or appreciation for the connection between a society governed by laws and the enforcement of human rights.
To put it more succinctly, in my experience, there cannot be the full protection of human rights without the rule of law. Unfortunately, within our current, politically-charged and divided country, you either support the protesters or the police. This approach is flawed and inherently dangerous. Problems with certain police or courts should not lead to an abandonment or weakening of these institutions. Instead, we must focus on the long-term process of reform.
Let me clearly state that I am not condoning or ignoring violations of the inalienable right to life committed by certain police officers, nor am I excusing the cavalier destruction of personal property by some protesters (nor am I equating the two). My fundamental point is that you do not have to decide between upholding human rights or enforcing the rule of law. They are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, the early progenitors of modern-day human rights, the French revolutionaries of 1789, recognized this. Within the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Articles 12 and 13 note, “The guarantee of the rights of man and citizen necessitates a public force; [and] for the maintenance of the public force and for the expenses of administration a common tax is indispensable.” What the French labeled a public force, we now commonly use terms such as law enforcement or police.
Based upon my experiences in new and fragile democracies, establishing viable and transparent rule-of-law institutions was a prerequisite to accomplishing all of the other goals of convening free and fair elections, maintaining law and order, strengthening the economy, and protecting human rights. In areas where the state failed to establish a permanent law enforcement presence, which persists in parts of Colombia today, the inevitable outcome is political instability, crime and violence.
Fortunately, we live in a consolidated democracy, and we have functioning rule-of-law institutions. Are they flawless? No, but from my work overseas I am grateful for those here that willingly serve their communities. Are there areas that need to change? Yes, of course, but reform takes time. Instituting new training procedures, conducting police vetting, and implementing other reforms being discussed must be done correctly, which includes devoting the proper financial resources to accomplish these tasks.
Constant political pressure and oversight are also required for real change, but so is a sense of personal responsibility. The passion demonstrated by many F&M students to improve society through peaceful means encourages me. It has also forced me reevaluate what more I can do. To that end, I am reminded of the biblical admonition to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. How many of us can say we meet this high standard on a daily basis? And what would our communities look like if we strived to do so?
Although it may appear cliché, the United States is at a critical moment. How we chose to move forward is important. Based upon experience, and considering the admonition from some of the early forefathers of modern-day human rights, the path forward involves both strengthening and respecting the rule of law in order to ensure the protection of everyone’s human rights. It is also going to require each one of us to roll-up our sleeves and lovingly engage in our communities.
Craig Lang is an adjunct assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org