Like the rest of the country, William F. Schulz did not anticipate terrorists would hijack three commercial airliners and crash them into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon last September.
But as executive director of the human rights organization Amnesty International, Schulz knew human rights abuses left unchecked in other countries eventually would affect the United States.
"The more respect for democracy and human rights that you find in a country the less likely that country is to violate its international agreements, to settle its disputes with other countries violently ... and harbor terrorists," Schulz told an audience Tuesday evening at Centennial Hall.
Just a few months prior to Sept. 11 Schulz released a book titled "In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All." In the book he aimed to answer the question: What does defending human rights in other countries have to do with someone living in America?
He says the events of Sept. 11 prove his thesis, noting the suicide terrorists came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia - countries "rife with corruption" and "renowned for the brutality with which it treats its citizens."
The inability of Saudi and Egyptian citizens to play an active role in government coupled with populations facing skyrocketing unemployment create an atmosphere that breeds extremism, Schulz said.
"It's just one example of how ignoring human rights violations ... have come back to haunt us," he said.
Schulz said terrorism and religious extremism aren't the only ways unchecked human rights violations can have a significant impact on the United States.
He said substandard cells in Russian prisons have resulted in a powerful strain of tuberculosis that cannot be treated. The disease has spread around the globe and now can be found in the United States, Schulz said.
Russia also dumps solid and liquid nuclear waste in its arctic seas, which likely makes its way toward Alaska, Schulz said.
"Why does Russia do something so foolish?" Schulz asked. "Well, when Russian environmentalists ask that very question and try to stop the practice they have been threatened, harassed and arrested."
While U.S. citizens should be concerned with human rights violations in other parts of the world, Schulz said many of the same violations happen here in the United States.
He said 5 percent of all Americans and 9 percent of Americans of color say they have been brutalized by police.
"If you are a racial minority - particularly if you are young and male - you will not doubt for a moment that those reports are accurate," he said.
Schulz also noted that until a year and a half ago 14 U.S. states did not make it a criminal offense for prison guards to have sexual contact with women prisoners. The number of states recently dropped to four, but Schulz said the number of women inmates is rising and the lack of such laws is a poor reflection on our own sense of human rights.
He also said Amnesty International opposes the use of stun guns, which have become standard equipment for most prison guards but also have been adopted by other types of security services across the nation.
"The University of Iowa just today issued its college security guards stun weapons to be used on its students," he said.
Schulz also said the United States is the leading manufacturer of torture equipment such as thumbcuffs, stunbelts and leg harnesses, with at least 52 U.S. companies selling such items within its own borders and to countries around the world.
Although addressing human rights issues at home and abroad poses the biggest challenges for Amnesty International, Schulz said practicing tolerance for other cultures' beliefs is another hurdle the organization faces when those beliefs are at odds with our own sense of human rights.
"But what do we do when those of another religion or culture commit acts that violate our universal notion of human rights?" Schulz asked.
He said victims often defend the abusive practices that are used against them.
Using African-Americans in the antebellum South as an example, Schulz said slaveholders often argued that slaves openly supported their own enslavement on the plantations.
But Frederick Douglass, a notable abolitionist of the day had a quick retort to such arguments, Schulz said.
" 'That's well and good,' Douglass said. 'But give them their freedom and see if they ever try to give it back.' "
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.
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