Copyright Clancy Tucker (c)
- VERY SPECIAL GUEST -
Today I introduce an amazing woman with a wealth of experience in human rights issues - Judith Armatta. Judith is an author and human rights lawyer based in Washington DC and her specialties are numerous: academic, administration, attorney, consulting, council, documentation, government, grant writing, labor relations, legal, litigation, local government, mediation, microsoft office, microsoft windows 98, news releases, organizational development, organizational skills, personnel management, police, policy analysis, presentation skills, protocols, public relations, public speaking, research, safety, seminars, supervisory skills and technical training. Judith has been directly involved in major crises in Serbia, Kosova, the former Yugoslavia and also the West Bank. Wow! Judith, tell us more ... how did you become so involved?
WHAT’S YOUR CURRENT JOB?
I am working on a new book. The working title is “The Making of a Sex Offender: An American Untouchable.” It is inspired by what happened to my grandnephew.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE LAW?
I was working in Washington D.C. for a U.S. congressman after college. The Vietnam war was raging, which I actively opposed. Several constituents who had been convicted of draft resistance wrote the congressman about the horrid conditions in U.S. prisons. I wanted to be able to do something about that and other injustices (racism, poverty, gender discrimination). This was at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court had a progressive majority so it seemed like one could use the law to address social injustice.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN HUMAN RIGHTS? WAS IT ONE PARTICULAR INCIDENT?
As long as I can remember, I identified with the underdog and outsiders: poor people, racial minorities, people with disabilities, or those struggling with alcoholism or mental illness. Because my father was an alcoholic, I learned compassion for people who are socially marginalized. Besides living in a chaotic, sometimes violent household, we didn’t have much money. I felt different from other kids, outside their circle of play and laughter, though sometimes I tried to fake it. When kids made fun of a boy who stuttered and another who was lame from polio, I didn’t find it funny. It hurt me, as if they were making fun of me. My mother said I was “overly” sensitive.
An early memory: seven years old, sitting in the basement of St. Mary’s school, watching newsreel images of the liberation of Buchenwald, stacks of emaciated bodies that looked more like cordwood than humans. The nuns didn’t believe in sparing children. After all, we grew up with calendar pictures of martyrs being boiled in oil. This was real, however. The memory never left me; it became a part of who I am. I was so young and open to the world. Powerless, but with a child’s belief in goodness and the possibility of stopping evil.
I grew up in a time of social ferment. Though far removed from violence on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, I watched TV where angry white people, faces distorted by hate, taunted black people walking peacefully in the street; police attacked the marchers with water hoses and German shepherd dogs. No one needed to tell me something was wrong with this state of affairs. I knew which side I was on and what I wanted to be doing.
The Vietnam war colored my late high school and college years, as I lost friends to death, prison, and refuge in other countries, and watched newsreels where U.S. soldiers shot Vietnamese villagers and U.S. bombs burned children with napalm. I made friends with former soldiers from Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Concerned Officers Movement. I marched by the White House and U.S. Capitol and quit my job with a congressman who couldn’t decide how he felt about the war.
When you’re aware of these injustices, you either despair or try to do something about them.
WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF HUMAN RIGHTS?
Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect and have what is necessary to develop their full potential. That includes adequate food, water, shelter, a healthy and safe environment, access to medical care, the ability to participate equally in their community and its governance, an education, a decent job and standard of living, the freedom to worship as they please or not at all, the right to love whom they please and to form a family with whomever they choose, the right to be safe and free from violence and to be protected by the community (and state). I really can’t say it any better than those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
DO YOU DO ‘PRO-BONO’ WORK IN HUMAN RIGHTS CASES?
I have done pro-bono work throughout my entire professional career, though I do not represent individuals or litigate cases. My work has been directed through nongovernmental, not for profit organizations such as the Coalition for International Justice and the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES IN THE WORLD AS YOU SEE THEM?
People have a right to live safe and fulfilling lives, yet we live in an incredibly violent world. People experience violence at the hands of the state (e.g. Syria), militias (e.g. DR Congo), sectarian groups (Iraq, Afghanistan), as well as community and family members. The widespread poverty and disparities in wealth throughout the world are also forms of violence, as are the lack of medical care, clean water, adequate food, and housing. Poverty fuels the drug trade and trafficking in persons. Trafficking is one form of modern day slavery and is prevalent in poor and rich states. By nature, it crosses borders.
Another form of modern slavery can be seen in the mass incarceration of two and a half million people in the U.S., in particular of black men, poor people, and those with a drug or alcohol addiction or mental illness. Following incarceration, those released are subjected to lifelong legal discrimination in housing, jobs, public benefits, education, and medical care. Many states deny ex-felons the right to vote. They form a permanent group of outsiders, those who can be eliminated during times of social and economic turmoil without anyone objecting.
Discrimination and violence against women is an epidemic throughout the world, taking various forms such as dowry murder, widow burning, female infanticide, domestic violence, rape, forced prostitution, honor killings, and trafficking for sexual and domestic labor.
An overriding human rights issue is the impunity of powerful states (e.g. United States and China) and individuals. Until everyone is treated equally by the law the promise of human rights in the Declaration cannot be realized. Indeed, the exceptions undermine the existence of human rights and threaten their extinction.
HOW CAN ORDINARY PEOPLE HELP, OR BECOME INVOLVED?
Get educated. Be aware. Witness. Educate others. Support groups like Human Rights Watch, Medicins Sans Frontiere, and Amnesty International. Join their listserves. Is there a local group or chapter you can volunteer with? (In Oregon, e.g., the Oregon Partnership for Safety and Justice). Write to politicians and newspapers. Sign petitions. Use Facebook to get out the message. Organize the local community. Arrange for speakers in your or your children’s schools, places of worship, community groups, businesses. Whenever you can do something – like write a letter, email, or make a phone call—call a friend, or ten friends to do it with you. As one of my heroes, Julian Beck, wrote, “When people feel the emergency, they will act. And when they act, they will change the world.”
HOW CAN WRITERS AND AUTHORS HELP?
First, educate ourselves. Research and learn everything we can about a human rights issue that moves us. Connect with “real” people who are suffering human rights abuses, e.g: prisoners, poor people, minority group members, people with a mental illness or struggling with an addiction, those who are different and despised. Be a witness. Tell their stories or help them to do it. Work on our own prejudices. Write knowledgeably and honestly. Expose injustice through writing, non-fiction and fiction. Read Naseem Rakha’s “The Crying Tree” (fiction), Blaine Harden’s “Escape from Camp 14” (non-fiction), Chantithy Him’s “When Broken Glass Floats” (memoir), Elliott Jaspin’s “Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America,” oh, and my book, “The Twilight of Impunity: The War Crimes Trial of Slobodan Milosevic” (nonfiction)!
DO YOU BECOME FRUSTRATED BY THE LACK OF POLITICAL WILL REGARDING HUMAN RIGHTS?
Does a cow “moo”? Human rights are often last on the political agenda – whether of national or international bodies—as if they are a luxury. Human rights are trumped by economic and power issues. For example, the U.S. and other Western countries are careful to not challenge China’s human rights violations too loudly since China is a major economic power. Similarly, states give the U.S. a pass and rarely make an issue of the death penalty, mass incarceration, widespread poverty, or war crimes committed by our government and its representatives.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR GREATEST VICTORY?
For nearly twenty years, I worked in the U.S. movement to raise awareness and improve response to widespread violence against women—in the home, on the street, and on the job. While violence against women has not been eradicated and, in some areas we are seeing a backlash, there is now widespread awareness and disapproval of it, new laws prohibiting domestic violence and providing civil remedies, education programs for those who abuse their domestic partners, and shelters, hotlines, and reparations to aid victims. Forty years ago none of this existed. It was legal in the U.S. and most countries for a man to beat (chastise) his wife. Nor could women get redress for being raped. If they were believed, they were often blamed for it. Things have changed, yet it is an ongoing struggle; we can’t rest on our achievements. Also, we are now seeing the laws that were passed to protect women being misused to entrap more people into the criminal justice system, such as charging a child with domestic violence when there is a family argument that turns physical.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE SADDEST MOMENT IN YOUR WORK?
The day my grandnephew was arrested for rape for having consensual sex with a girl who claimed to be eighteen, but was, in fact, a fifteen year old runaway. Earlier I my career, I was involved in efforts to get the community to address child sexual abuse. It is often hard to obtain a conviction where a young child is the victim because of the child’s difficulty in testifying. Prosecutors sometimes use statutory rape laws to get a conviction when they can find no other way. Under statutory rape laws, they do not need to prove the act was nonconsensual. All a prosecutor needs to do to secure a conviction is establish that the sexual act occurred and the victim was under 18 years of age. Mistake of age is not a defense where there is a three to five year age difference (depending on the state). This law was used to convict my grandnephew at twenty-two (he was twenty when the act occurred), imprison him for nineteen months, and require him to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. He now faces discrimination in jobs, housing, public benefits, student loans, education, etc., which is all entirely legal.
WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST FRUSTRATIONS?
There is so little support for human rights work. Most of it is done gratis, often at significant personal sacrifice. I do not pretend to have made the sacrifices made by many human rights activists abroad who have suffered violence and even murder. Yet my work on human rights is a hardship for my family who cannot look to me for assistance when they’re struggling financially and for my partner who has supported me for the last seven years so I can do human rights work.
That’s personal. My greatest frustration in doing human rights work, however, is U.S. exceptionalism, the false idea that the U.S. is a world leader in human rights, does not abuse human rights at home or abroad, and, therefore, should not be held accountable. This attitude is manifested in the U.S. withdrawal from the International Criminal Court and its failure to hold former President George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Woo, and others accountable for torture, mass murder, and other crimes associated with the Iraq war and the “War on Terror.” When I spoke about the Milosevic trial to a roomful of Palestinian law students, for example, they justifiably asked how I, as an American, could lecture anyone about human rights violations. Of course, one can’t remain silent because her own country is a major violator. You have to work on both fronts—at home and abroad.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?
Prompted by my grandnephew’s experience, I am working on a book about serious problems with the U.S. criminal justice system. This is not a new area for me. Earlier in my career, I was a prisoners’ rights attorney and my work on violence against women and children necessarily involved the criminal justice system. But my grandnephew’s arrest, conviction, and imprisonment was a wake-up call to what has happened over the last twenty and more years while I was largely working abroad. Since the 1980s, America’s penal system has grown astronomically, fueled by a “War on Drugs” and tough on crime policies generated by fear-based political campaigns. The present system is an (increasingly private, for-profit) industry with nearly unstoppable momentum that threatens U.S. democracy. We have created a vast “out-group” of felons and ex-felons who do not have the same human and civil rights as non-felons. Millions cannot vote. When you consider that a large and disproportionate number of these millions are African American the threat to U.S. democracy is obvious.
Yet the creation of a shadow legal system with fewer rights that applies to a large class of people threatens democracy in another way. As history shows, any outgroup can be expanded. What today focuses on poor people, those with a mental illness, and minorities can tomorrow encompass others who live on society’s margins and ultimately anyone the state chooses. This is the pattern that creates fascist states and lays the ground for genocide.
Within this outsider group is a group that is regarded with even more opprobrium: the sex offender. Sex offenders have been dehumanized in the U.S. They are depicted as monsters—generally men who stalk children in parks and playgrounds, though the reality is that most child sex abusers are known to the child, a relative, close family friend, priest, scout leader, or coach. Regarded as nonhuman monsters, sex offenders live under a separate justice system where they are controlled based on what they “might” do. They are restricted in where they can live, which public spaces they can frequent, who they can associate with, and what jobs they can hold. They are also required to register as a sex offender (usually for life), their names, addresses, and photographs accessible to anyone on-line which has led to vigilante violence in a number of cases. The law makes no distinction among sex offenders. A person who urinates in public, what we called a “streaker” in my day, i.e. someone who runs naked through a public space as a prank, a teen who engages in “sexting,” a young man who has sex with his underage girlfriend or fiancée, anyone with child pornography on their computer regardless of who put it there, peeping toms, child pornographers, date rapists, stranger rapists, serial rapist-killers -- all must register as sex offenders. The public isn’t told what the crime is or the circumstances surrounding it.
Thus the law considers my grandnephew as dangerous as a serial rapist who tortures and kills his victims and leads the public to believe it, too.
DO YOU WORK ON OTHER CASES, BESIDES HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES?
I’ve worked on the development of rule of law in states emerging from communism, totalitarianism, or war. In Montenegro and Serbia, for example, I assisted in the development of independent judges’ associations, legal curriculum, and civil society organizations, as well as other law reform.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT SOME GOOD THINGS ARE BEING ACHIEVED IN HUMAN RIGHTS?
Yes, I do. The emergence of mechanisms to enforce human rights violations in the form of ad hoc tribunals and the permanent International Criminal Court, accompanied by the development of a body of international criminal law, including the law of genocide. Some state leaders have been held to account in international courts, notably the conviction of Charles Taylor and the prosecution of Radovan Karadzic. And I still maintain it is a victory that Slobodan Milosevic ended his days as a prisoner standing trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
Other achievements include the creation of international instruments outlawing discrimination against women and minorities, and prohibiting torture. Increased awareness of violence against women and children and the many forms it takes, also of trafficking and slavery. I am encouraged that Apartheid fell in South Africa, occupation ended in East Timor, Daw Aun Sang Suu Kji was released in Burma, truth commissions and prosecutions have occurred throughout Latin America. The law and rules of war are generally accepted throughout the world; though not always practiced, they remain a standard for accountability. There have been some successful efforts to stop using children as factory workers and soldiers.
WHO OR WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST OBSTACLES?
State sovereignty. Great powers’ exceptionalism. The U.S., Russia, Israel, China need to join the International Criminal Court and subject themselves to its jurisdiction. U.S. exceptionalism manifests in its failure to ratify international treaties including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and conventions to eliminate discrimination against women and on the basis of race, as well as the International Criminal Court.
Lack of resources devoted to addressing human rights—both to securing them and holding accountable those who violate them. Ignorance and denial of human rights abuses. Certainly, in the U.S. the prevailing view is that the U.S. is the world leader in human rights and, essentially, does no wrong. A large percentage of the population knows little about human rights, their violation, international institutions, or anything that’s happening in other states with the possible exception of Syria at the present time.
ARE WESTERN GOVERNMENTS PROACTIVE OR REACTIVE?
Some, like Canada and The Netherlands, are proactive. Others, like the U.S. and the U.K., are reactive. This is clearly seen in the failure of Western and other governments to intervene to stop genocides in progress, and, more important, to prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing from emerging. The violence, ethnic cleansing, and attempted genocide in Kosova was foreseen three years before it broke out. Diplomats swept it under the rug when they signed the Dayton Accords to end the war in Bosnia. Despite the fact that there was a large nonviolent movement in Kosova before the war, Western powers ignored and did not support it.
ANY ADVICE FOR A LAWYER CONSIDERING HUMAN RIGHTS LAW?
Get some real world experience, if you don’t have it. Volunteer or intern for a human rights group. Travel. Leave your comfort zone. Meet local people who are working in the field on human rights.
IF YOU HAD AN OPPORTUNITY TO ADDRESS ALL WORLD LEADERS, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
You have the power to do great good or great evil, not least by your words and the examples you set. If you pander to our lesser selves for your political benefit, you are responsible for the harm and violence you engender. If you appeal to our better selves, the people will aspire to that. In this way, selfishness, greed, and cruelty will not be valued.
You have not been “chosen” to lead so that you can thrill to the feel of power or to live in luxury. Leaders are trustees of the common good. Leaders serve the people they lead. You must use your power carefully, thoughtfully, put your ego aside. By all means listen – not just to your inner circle, but to a broad range of opinions. Stay connected to the people. Try always to make wise choices and to consider their effect on the seventh generation coming after us.
WHAT’S YOUR GREATEST DREAM?
Of a world where people realize we are all connected and that one person’s suffering hurts everyone; a world where everyone is valued and has the chance to fulfill their human potential; a world where talk trumps violence; a world where we all strive to be our best selves and have active concern for others. On a more personal level, I hope and dream that my grandnephew will be able to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life.
DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
It begins with a cappuccino and the New York Times – preferably on a balcony overlooking the Adriatic Sea, or at least a flower garden shaded by knotty pine or evergreens. Classical music plays in the background. The cat(or cats) is curled next to me. After an hour or so, I turn enthusiastically to six hours of meaningful, enjoyable work – writing or working with others on efforts to effect social change. Of course, there is time out for lunch and a walk in nature or along old city streets with fountains, flowers, and picturesque houses. Perhaps a friend or two joins me. After work, I exercise, have a simple dinner at home with my partner, or meet friends for a meal out. The evening holds time to read and listen to music, always time to read before bed. The cat (or cats) purrs warmly on my lap. On some days, I go on a photo shoot instead of working! On some days, I travel to new and interesting places.
Clancy's comment: Wow, Judith. It's been an absolute pleasure to have you as my very special guest. Keep going. I'm dying to meet up with you on one of those photo shoots.
Love ya work ... love ya work! - CT
Mm ... have we learnt anything from the past?