5 August 2013 - BONNIE C. BRENNAN - Human Rights Guest


BONNIE C. BRENNAN


- Human Rights Guest -

G'day guys,

Welcome to a special and multi-talented guest whom I have been trying to interview for some time - Bonnie C. Brennan. Bonnie is a lawyer, lecturer in Human Rights and local town councillor.

Welcome, Bonnie ...



WHAT’S YOUR CURRENT JOB?

I actually have three jobs: 

I am an appellate attorney for The Legal Aid Society. I represent criminal defendants who are appealing their convictions.  It is a not a popular job, but I believe that an attorney’s greatest duty is to represent those individuals who are least popular in society. 

We are not encouraged to believe variously that someone is not guilty, that they have been overcharged, that they have been charged for political reasons or that they have been unfairly sentenced.    We have a psychological investment in believing that the police have gotten their man and that no district attorney would prosecute someone who was innocent.  It makes us feel safe both because a bad man has been taken off of the streets and because we feel secure in believing that we ourselves will never be falsely accused.  It does not occur to us to question these things – and yet, who is infallible?  The police?  The prosecutors?  Why would we believe that when we would not likely believe it of anyone else?  

As the Founder of and Senior Advisor to the International Legal Foundation, Natalie Rea, recently suggested to me and I agree, the greatest danger that we as individuals face is being detained without cause.  Early and effective representation ensures that individuals will not be improperly detained and even less intentionally disappeared (or unintentionally lost in the system).  In short, due process, especially where it begins soon after an individual is arrested, is a human right that is, in every way, as important as any other.

I also teach human rights and humanitarian law at the New York University Department of Politics.  I realize that criminal law, human rights and humanitarian law would appear to be three very different areas of the law -- but as I have already said, criminal due process numbers among the most important of human rights.  Moreover, with the creation of the International Criminal Court, which of course tries cases against individuals who have been accused of committing crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes, these three branches of the law have become intimately connected.

Lastly, I am a member of my local town board.  Although I am relatively new to politics, it is nonetheless a privilege to represent the interests of my town’s most vulnerable citizens.



WHY DID YOU CHOOSE HUMAN RIGHTS?  HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN HUMAN RIGHTS?  WAS THERE ONE PARTICULAR INCIDENT?  ANY PERSONAL INVOLVEMENTS?

Strangely, I did not much care for law school and even considered quitting.  I was already a Ph.D. candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.  I had spent the years before law school looking at the big questions, and law school was very dry nuts-and-bolts stuff – or so it seemed to me at the time. 

Moreover, legal ethics was, in my view, no ethics at all.  Contract law depressed me when I discovered that persons were not bound by their promises and that the law provided a long list of means by which to evade them.  Tort law (personal injury law) was an even more miserable experience.   I discovered that businesses were encouraged to measure the cost of recalling and retooling a defective product that could and likely would injure and even lead to the loss of lives of innocent consumers against the cost of defending suits and paying out judgments and/or settlements to those who would be injured or killed.  Need I say that if the projected costs of recalling and retooling a product were greater, then of course those uninformed consumers were left to be injured and die.  I thought it was an abhorrent lesson in life.

Then, near the end of my first year, I was sitting at the counter of a New York City diner when I encountered a third year law student.  She had been working in a legal clinic addressing issues relating to the poor and the indigent at New York University where we were both attending law school.  I told her what I so far thought of the law and law school.  She responded that it was not important whether I liked either.  What was important was that a law degree was a powerful tool that could be used to fight injustice and that, when I began practicing, I would discover that the law was very fulfilling.

After our conversation, I applied for and was granted a human rights fellowship for the following year, changed my dissertation topic to human rights, and never looked back.  I regret that I do not recall that young woman’s name, as her wisdom was great and I owe her an immense debt of gratitude.

WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF HUMAN RIGHTS?

Plainly this is and has always been a very controversial question.  When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, it addressed not merely civil and political rights, but also economic, social and cultural rights.  When the original covenant was being drafted, the Cold War was already well underway and negotiations devolved into ideological polemics. 

Throughout the Cold War, the West argued that only civil and political rights were true human rights because they could be implemented with the stroke of a pen.  By contrast, economic, social and cultural rights were deemed to be, at most, aspirational.   Economic, social and cultural rights could not be fulfilled without adequate resources; hence, they were not binding.  Obviously, the Soviet Bloc represented the other side of the debate; but that was the very death of economic, social and cultural rights.  Western human rights advocates could not take up the cause because they would be characterized as mere Soviet puppets.

As fate would have it, the decolonization movement was also underway during the early years of the Cold War and the United Nations was flooded with the newly independent states of the Third World.  They, now a majority of the states members of the UN, decided to resolve the problem by dividing what was originally to be one covenant into two.   The first was to address civil and political rights and the second to address economic, social and cultural rights.  They were to share a single article providing for the right to self-determination upon which, it was believed, all other rights were founded.
  

After the fall of the Soviet Union, a window of opportunity opened up to reshape the debate without losing credibility.  The current trend is to argue that the two groups of rights are interdependent and indivisible.  I believe that this is the correct view.  It is easily illustrated.  If a child does not have adequate shoes or clothing, he can hardly go to school.  If his belly is not full, he cannot concentrate on his schoolwork even if he is able to attend.  If he does not get even a basic education, he will not be literate.  If he is not literate, he will not be able to adequately inform himself.  If he cannot adequately inform himself, it is unlikely that he will exercise his right to vote.  If he is able to exercise his right to vote, he will not be in a position to do so in an intelligent manner.  If he is unable to exercise his vote in an intelligent manner, he is unlikely to choose candidates that will represent his interests – and the interests of his children.  If he selects candidates that do neither, then his children will not have adequate shoes, clothing, a full belly or the opportunity acquire even a basic education. 



DO YOU DO ‘PRO BONO’ WORK IN HUMAN RIGHTS CASES?

Although I receive remuneration, I serve only indigent clients.


WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES IN THE WORLD AS YOU SEE THEM?

As I previously said, since the end of the Cold War, a window of opportunity has opened up to renegotiate human rights and to steadfastly pursue their implementation.   One of the products of this enterprise has been a growing movement to wed human rights and humanitarian law even though they had very different origins.  Human rights were intended to define the relationship between a government and its citizens.  Humanitarian law was created to regulate the relationship between belligerents in a state of war. 

What soon became clear is that gross violations of human rights and other humanitarian crises invariably occur in the context of armed conflict.  Famine, for instance, is rarely the product of drought.  Rather, drought combined with war creates famine and the untold suffering of vast numbers of human beings.

It has been suggested that the right of peoples to peace is a human right possessed by all humankind.  I think that it is naïve to suppose that there will ever be an end to war.  There will always be conflict in the world. That is the nature of our species. 

Certainly, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which was negotiated soon after World War I and required states parties to renounce the use of war as a means to resolve disputes, failed to prevent World War II.  Its historic failure established, at least for me, that war, like disease, is simply part of human existence.  It can be managed, but it cannot be stopped.

I do, however, find hope in the emergence of the international legal principle of the responsibility to protect.  It is unacceptable to me that the world would complacently stand by while a government commits gross human right violations against its citizens.  I realize that the responsibility to protect has been unevenly implemented.  I also understand the fear of many people of good will that the international community does more harm then good when it intervenes in the name of humanity.  The central concern is that many innocent people loose their lives at the hands of the interveners.

Sadly, collateral damage (an ugly euphemism) is unavoidable.  When those who would commit mass murder are confronted, they are likely to put even greater pressure on civilians in order to retain their power.  In the short term, the cost in human life will likely be greater than the costs of ongoing low-level violence.  But that is only in the short term.  When measured over many years, terminating the violence will save lives. 

Unfortunately, I know of no other way to fight these terrible evils except with armed force.   Mass murderers will not be persuaded with mere words and high-flown ideals.  If they were susceptible to such things, they would not be who they are nor would they commit such atrocities.



HOW CAN ORDINARY PEOPLE BECOME INVOLVED?

If we read newspapers, and most of the people reading this blog do, it is enormously difficult to perceive the world as other than an evil place.  It is commonly said among journalists that if it bleeds, it leads.  I believe, however, that newspapers and other media outlets provide us with a highly skewed view of the world and, as a result, are doing the public a great disservice.  The fact is that good people are out there fighting such evils every day as soldiers, humanitarian workers, medical doctors, lawyers, civil engineers, educators, fundraisers …  There are so many and their efforts are rarely reported. 

We can help.

Obviously, few of us will have the opportunity to go abroad and speak to the leaders of states committing atrocities against their own people.  There are things, however, that we can do as ordinary citizens.  States that integrate human rights into their foreign policy are states that have a domestic political culture that supports the human rights enterprise.  Any contribution that we can make must begin with becoming fully informed about the various human rights violations that are occurring around the world.  Then we must make clear to our elected officials that their willingness to promote human rights abroad, especially in conflict-ridden areas of the world, will have a substantial impact on our vote.  We can do this through petition drives, letter writing campaigns, and volunteering with organizations that are actively involved in providing services to the victims of human rights violations. 

These things appear small, but countless times we have seen close political races in which every vote cast can alter the outcome.  Politicians will listen because they must.

HOW CAN WRITERS AND AUTHORS HELP?

This is a great question.  I would like to extend it not merely to writers of fiction, but screenwriters and television writers as well. 

I love novels.  Indeed, I love them so much that I hesitate to read a single novel because I know I will have to pick up at least two more before my appetite will be sated.  I rarely have that kind of time available!  But I never regret having done so.

Fiction is a great teacher.  It provides direct insights into the mind and experiences of another since every writer has to begin with what they know.  Because my mother was a high school English teacher, I grew up on novels.  I consumed every novel that she brought home – some probably inappropriate for a small child, but oh well.  I have no question that they shaped my personality in deep and profound ways.  Where people are not compulsive novel readers like myself, they almost certainly watch movies and television; hence, without necessarily being aware of it, they, too, are shaped by the fictions they find in these visual forms of entertainment.

Writers of fiction can do what documentarians and journalists do, often with greater impact because they reach larger audiences.  The subtle integration of important human rights issues into one’s writing can quite literally change the world.  Who can doubt the impact of To Kill a Mockingbird, whether you read it or saw the movie or both?

Ideas matter.  A good wordsmith can change people’s views including the views of voters, politicians and judges (and yes, judges live in the world, too).  And it is these people, the People, all of us, who together decide the direction our future history will take.

DO YOU BECOME FRUSTRATED BY THE LACK OF POLITICAL WILL REGARDING HUMAN RIGHTS?

In a word, yes.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR GREATEST VICTORY?  WHAT HAS BEEN THE SADDEST MOMENT IN YOUR WORK?  WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST FRUSTRATIONS?

I would have to say that my greatest victories must be measured as my mother and the many other teachers in my family would measure them.  Every time one of my students decides to pursue human rights, humanitarian law or other humanitarian work as a career, I have won – at least to the degree that I have played a role in that decision.

I am saddened when, due to some inadequacy of my own, I fail to reach a student.  It is often easier, I suppose, to believe that nothing can be done, that nothing can be changed, that the world is as it has always been and will be.  It is hard to persuade people, especially young, already cynical students, that even if the world is often a horrible place, it need not necessarily be so.

Again, members of the news media, who write the first draft of history, would certainly lead us to believe that change is impossible.  Rather then focusing on what has been done, they focus on what has been left undone, on the fact that yet more blood has been spilled; hence, they play a major role in engineering compassion fatigue.  It is difficult to overcome the perception that we cannot realistically make the world a better place even though there is substantial evidence to the contrary.

A good teacher can make substantial contributions to the betterment of the world in which they live by influencing young minds in a positive direction.  Despite my best efforts to inspire young people to embrace the pursuit of human rights, I fear I often fall short of the mark.



WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?

This summer, I have been invited to offer a course on humanitarian law at Université Chrétienne Internationale in Congo-Kinshasa.  I was invited by the Chancelier-Recteur, Dr. Stephen Nzita, on the theory that spreading an understanding of humanitarian law may play a role in healing the violence in that still conflict-ridden country.  While I do not believe that those most responsible for the violence will be persuaded to change their behavior because they are better informed about international humanitarian law, one hopes that others who are in a position to resist them will be so persuaded.  It is my great honor to undertake to do so.

WHAT ORGANIZATIONS ARE YOU A PART OF? WHY?

I fear that I am not currently active in any volunteer organization.  Juggling three jobs doesn’t allow me to participate in a meaningful way.

I was, however, a Big Sister in the Big Sister Little Sister program while I was still a graduate student and retained my relationship with my Little Sister for some fifteen years.  Sharing my time with one little person was invaluable to me.  She taught me, a person from a privileged middle class background, how difficult living in poverty is, the despair it engenders, and the ways in which it makes it virtually impossible to envision a better future.  Sad to say, my Little Sister did not complete high school.  I was overjoyed, however, when she went back and completed her GED.  I am happy to report that my Little Sister went on to live a far better life than her single mother was capable of providing for her.  I would like to believe that I made a small contribution to her success.

I was also a volunteer instructor for a program sponsored by the New York Civil Rights Coalition and the New York Civil liberties Union.  I co-taught a race relations and civil rights course with a person of color in a local New York City high school with a history of racial tension to encourage better interracial communication and understanding.  The theory was that, if the students saw a white person and a black person standing side by side teaching the course, they would be influenced to believe that racial harmony was genuinely possible.

It so happens that on one of the days that we were teaching, violence broke out in California in connection with the verdict clearing the police officers that had beaten Rodney King.  The administrators at the high school, as well as many of the students’ parents, were concerned that there would be a similar outbreak of violence at the school.  The principal called us out of our class and had us participate in a crisis intervention workshop with kids that they thought might be tempted to express their anger about the Rodney King verdict in a destructive manner so as to preempt a disturbance in the school.  Happily, calm was maintained.  

In addition, I volunteered my time at the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights under the Law of the Boston Bar Association in 1993-1994 while on leave from the Legal Aid Society to work on my dissertation.  I did employment discrimination intakes and legal research and writing on behalf of the director.  While there, I also volunteered to participate in an investigation of Boston banks that were accused of redlining.  I posed as a married middle class person with a fictional resume and went to an assigned bank to apply for a mortgage.  After I had done so, a person of color with a substantially similar, though fictional resume applied for a mortgage at the same bank and the results were compared – but, and no surprises here, were not comparable.  The bank was prepared to extend a mortgage to me.  The person of color was not given the same courtesy.

More recently, I volunteered with the Military Affairs and Justice Committee at the New York City Bar, an old and venerable organization.  It offered me the opportunity to work with a group of people who had served as officers in the armed forces, some of them as members of the Judge Advocate General (JAG).  As a result of their experiences, they had the capacity to influence highly placed individuals in matters concerning human rights and humanitarian law. 

We wrote letters and reports examining, for instance, the question of whether women should be permitted to serve in combat in the U.S. armed services on an equal basis with men. (That question has now been resolved largely in favor of women.)  We also addressed the question of child soldiers and, through a letter writing campaign, tried to influence more states to ratify the relevant international human rights instruments prohibiting the forcible conscription of children below the age of 18.


One cannot measure the impact one has as an individual volunteer with such organizations; but, as I have already argued, civil society, which is largely comprised of volunteer organizations, can have a tremendous impact on the promotion of human rights.  Even if one cannot know with certainty how one’s individual efforts have contributed to positive change, one can measure the impact such volunteer efforts have had on one’s self.  It has been my finding that becoming immersed in volunteer work is a wonderful opportunity to grow as a human being and I would highly recommend it.

DO YOU WORK ON OTHER CASES, BESIDES HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES?

No.

WHO HAVE YOU WORKED FOR IS THE PAST?  WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST DREAM?

Myself.  Long ago, while I was still a graduate student, I had my own small publishing services company in partnership with another graduate student.  I enjoyed starting the company.  It was not unlike giving birth to a child.  Shaping it, growing it, promoting it was all great fun.  I sold my share of the company to my partner when I went to law school, which was my long-term goal.  I look back with pleasure on the experience and hope one day to put it to work by starting an organization of my own that is geared towards promoting human rights.

Ms. Rea was an inspiration in this regard as she successfully launched a NGO promoting the creation of criminal defense organizations in states like Rwanda and Afghanistan.  Criminal defense work is no more popular abroad than it is in this country, especially where the defendants have been accused of participating in terrible crimes like genocide.  She has described to me the difficulties she faced fundraising for her organization.  She was often confused with the people she proposed to defend.  Ultimately, her organization was so successful that she was able to retire from its management.  See www.TheILF.org.

I cannot say that I know precisely what form my personal effort at social entrepreneurship would take.  I, however, believe that captaining my own human rights ship would be extremely rewarding.

ANY ADVICE FOR A LAWYER CONSIDERING HUMAN RIGHTS LAW?

As you have already undoubtedly learned, positions in human rights law are generally poorly paid relative to work in the private sector.  If you really want to work in human rights, you will have to be prepared to take a vow of (relative) poverty.  On the other hand, I always found that the best-paid legal jobs were rather boring.  Who really cares which big corporation gets the last million dollars in a contract negotiation or legal dispute?  Fighting for someone’s liberty is vastly more rewarding because the stakes are so much greater.  So young lawyers are forced to make a choice between high remuneration and their moral convictions. 

Once you have made up your mind to pursue human rights law, you will soon find that trying to break into the field, particularly at the international level, is very tough.  The big two, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have many volunteer opportunities, but few full time positions.  There are, of course, many smaller organizations with which you may have a better chance of landing a fulltime job.  Because there is more risk involved, a willingness to go into the field in some capacity may be the break for which you are looking.  It is also highly valuable for purposes of gaining genuine first-hand knowledge of what you are fighting for.

When all else fails, going to work for yourself may be just the thing.  There are many organizations supporting individuals wishing independently to pursue social entrepreneurship.  In the end, you may make a greater contribution to the field by directing your efforts towards filling a niche not already addressed by the bigger, more established organizations.



DO YOU BELIEVE THAT SOME GOOD THINGS ARE BEING ACHIEVED IN HUMAN RIGHTS?  WHO OR WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST OBSTACLES?  ARE WESTERN GOVERNMENTS PROACTIVE OR REACTIVE?  IF YOU HAD AN OPPORTUNITY TO ADDRESS ALL WORLD LEADERS, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?

At the risk of repeating myself, absolutely good things are happening in the world of human rights and not just abroad.  In this country, for instance, the Defense of Marriage Act was just ruled unconstitutional.  The Gay Rights Movement has made major headway in record time relative to other social movements and it is deeply gratifying to see.  On the other hand, only a day before, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had been a major achievement of the Civil Rights Movement.  Ironically, the Supreme Court reasoned that the objective it was intended to address has already been achieved; hence, we don’t need it any more.

It is simply not true that racism, and more broadly bigotry, is a thing of a bygone era.  I am deeply proud that the American electorate chose to hire Barak Obama for president.  It hardly follows that we as a country have permanently defeated racism.  I observe that fact in my job as a criminal defense attorney every day.  Overwhelmingly, the people on the criminal docket are persons of color.  I have great difficulty believing that white people commit no crimes!

Moreover, bigotry has had other victims.  We have seen states (as in “provinces” in the American context) pass draconian bills intended to regulate illegal immigration.  Their targets are primarily Mexicans and other Latin Americans who have entered this country illegally.  Without regard for the fact that many Latinos are lawful American residents, some of whom have successfully sought citizenship, they are now effectively required to carry proof at all times that they are here lawfully.  They may be challenged on the street if local police believe that they may be here illegally.  Needless to say, there is only one foundation for supposing that they are and that is that they are recognizably Latinos.

Profiling does not end with African Americans or Latinos, however.  Since 9/11, we have seen the profiling of persons whose national origins may indicate that they are likely to be Muslims.  This has become a world-wide phenomenon and is deeply concerning.

In 1993, the late Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008), a great though conservative Harvard political scientist, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Clash of Civilizations,” in which he argued that, with the end of the Cold War, divisions between civilizations would replace divisions between ideologies.  Among them, he mentioned the historical divide between the Muslim world and the West and recommended greater intercultural understanding to curtail the anticipated conflict – a prescription that any liberal would do well to take.  He was pilloried by the press and other academicians and, as a result, felt compelled to write an entire book by the same name to defend his position (published in 1996).  The problem is, he was right – even if his thesis was not politically correct.

In light of the advent of military conscription, Rousseau long ago argued that wars are between states and not their respective peoples.  Whether on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, it is incumbent upon us to remember that individual representatives of the opposing state are not (with some exceptions under current humanitarian law) criminals.  Needless to say, the “Global War on Terrorism” is unique inasmuch as it is not a war between states, but rather an asymmetrical “war” fought between states and non-state actors. 

Although it should be a self-evident proposition that not all Muslims are terrorists, many Americans appear to forget that.  One of my students was verbally assaulted on a bus in New York City for speaking his native language, Arabic, in public.  Ironically, his father was a Lebanese Christian who met and married a Palestinian Christian, my student’s mother.  Moreover, my student had no religious affiliation. 

Another student, a young Sikh gentleman, had a similar experience in the streets of New York.  As you undoubtedly know, Sikhs wear turbans.  Members of an often-unsophisticated American public therefore assume that they are Muslim.  Indeed, only last summer, a white supremacist and U.S. Army veteran fatally shot six people and wounded four others including a responding police officer at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  

There are many, many such stories.  Moreover, in light of the leadership role of the United States, other states have seized upon the opportunity presented by 9/11 and the ensuing wars to attempt to take out their own “troublesome” Muslim minorities, which they too labeled as “terrorists.” 

In 2006, the then foreign minister of Indonesia, a primarily Muslim state that has long been friendly to the U.S., expressed concern regarding the American public’s anti-Muslim sentiment at a graduation ceremony at Fletcher of which he was himself an alumnus.  He said that American diplomats had reassured him that he should have patience, that American attitudes would change with time.  Given the constant anti-Muslim rhetoric in the American news media, he wondered just when that would be. 

I have watched not merely the news media, but also popular movies and television, and do not see that much progress has been made as of this writing.  I was especially distressed by the uncritical representation of torture of the most brutal kind by American officials in the movie, Zero Dark Thirty.  Tragically, I believe that the average person would come away from that movie believing that torture was an intrinsic good -- this despite the fact that it is inconsistent not only with our international obligations, but also our own domestic law.

I recognize that recovering from traumatic events is a difficult process.  I have written elsewhere to that effect (“Targeted Killings and Humanitarian Law,”
A Contrario, http://acontrarioicl.com/2013/02/08/targeted-killings-and-humanitarian-law/). 

Over the last decade, anyone who questioned American activities in Afghanistan risked being castigated as being unpatriotic.   In light of 9/11 and the public’s strong feelings about that event, it has to be said that it took great courage for lawyers to challenge the denial of the writ of habeas corpus to the detainees at Guantanamo before the Supreme Court and similar courage for that Court to decide that the detainees were entitled to at least some of the benefits of the Constitution in 2008.  It was already seven years after the attack on the World Trade Center, yet many Americans were outraged. 

Indeed, that debate continues even as of this date.  As a result, Barack Obama has been unable to deliver on his campaign promise to close the detention facilities at GITMO down.  I believe that this is more than regrettable.  It sullies our reputation both here and abroad.

Notably, many of the graduate students now attending my classes were mere children when the Towers fell and have no detailed memory of the event.  This is the march of time of which the diplomats spoke.  As young people, they feel able to raise the questions that their elders have not.  They will no doubt write new histories that are capable of greater objectivity as to what led to 9/11 and why we seem to be unable to move past it.  No doubt, we will bemoan the fact that they are not capable of capturing the emotions associated with the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  But moving past those emotions is central to moving past those tragic events. 

It will undoubtedly take many years for the rest of us to reverse course.  We still memorialize Pearl Harbor, an event with which 9/11 has often been compared, every December 7.  Yet we long ago made our peace with Japan. 

One wonders what is so unique about 9/11.  One has to suppose that it is indeed the product of the “clash of civilizations.”  The enmity between Christianity and Islam has a long historical record; but, that enmity seems foreign to a largely secular world.  In compassion not merely for our own Muslim citizens but also those of other states who have been denied their human rights because they are Muslims, it is time to put it behind us.



DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY?

There are two kinds of perfect days for me.  The first is when I win a case.  A couple of decades ago, someone at The Legal Aid Society analyzed the statistics and discovered that we won about 12% of our appeals.  I would guess that the percentage is now much lower in light of the fact that the Appellate Courts are largely manned by conservative judges appointed during a period when the State of New York had a very conservative governor.  Although we are aware of the potentially tragic consequences for our clients, we tend to become inured to our losses over time.  Notably, even misdemeanors can have catastrophic consequences where the defendant is not an American citizen and will be deported as a result of his conviction.  We recognize that we are always fighting an uphill battle.  So we pretty much float on air when we get a reversal.

The other perfect day is one that my mother, now deceased, also reported experiencing.  As I have said, it is very upsetting when I fail to reach one of my students and he or she clearly displays antipathy towards me.  So, when one of those students later approaches me to tell me that my class changed their life in some significant way, I am truly delighted.


WHAT ARE YOUR FIVE MOST FAVORITE BOOKS?

Only five!  I have read so many books in the course of my lifetime, it is very difficult to categorize my favorites.

I confess I love romance novels with happy endings.  So I would have to list Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.  (I don’t care what the critics say.  I still prefer Jane Eyre to Wuthering Heights.)  Both were also notable for their commentary on the classist society of the UK.

I also loved A Tale of Two Cities.  I felt Dickens’ insights into the French Revolution were extraordinary.  He was very forgiving of the revolutionaries despite their terrible excesses.  I suppose that, upon reflection, he was also using the opportunity to comment on the social problems of Britain, many of which he personally experienced.

Moby Dick also makes my list.  I was so enchanted by Melville’s use of the English language that I read it aloud so that I could hear the mellifluous cadences of his book.  His commentary on the price of revenge did not fail to make an impression on me.  Indeed, I believe the lessons of his book, especially the insatiable appetite for revenge of many, are broadly applicable.  Revenge so often drives the resort to war and ends with the denial of human rights to many innocents.

I would guess that I should include at least one academic book.  I think that has to be the great liberal theorist, John Rawls’ book, A Theory of Justice (1971).  In that work, he introduced the concept of a “veil of ignorance.”  It supposed that an assembly of persons, knowing nothing of their own situation in life, would be best placed to reach a fair agreement about principles of social justice.  His work has heavily influenced my own thought on human rights since reading it.

HOW DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE?

In historical terms, the time that has passed since World War II is very brief.  Yet during that brief time, the international community has drafted innumerable human rights instruments, which have seen increasing if uneven enforcement. 

Those instruments have played a role in the waves of democratization in Latin America and Africa during the 90’s and the more recent Arab Spring.  While some of those experiments in democratization have failed, and many have not been accompanied by the adequate implementation of individual human rights, I think what has been accomplished so far bodes well for the future.

Though it is a job that is never really done, I am very hopeful that liberal democracy will continue to spread, that there will be greater peace as a result (Kant’s “democratic peace”) and that the world will indeed be a better place.  I invite you to join me in that belief.



Clancy's comment: Wow! Many thanks for this interview, Bonnie ... and for your passionate work for others. Keep going. As you know, there is plenty to do. Gotta keep doing our bit ... no matter how small.

Love ya work!

I'm ...








Think about this!