Pacem in Terris Lecture Series

Human Rights are Best Served by Democracy and International Law
November 17, 2003

It is a privilege to welcome you in America, and to be able to pass on to you at first hand my profoundest gratitude to the United Kingdom, and in particular to the Prime Minister and you, for the steadfastness and courage you have shown in your friendship for the United States — and indeed for the eloquence and intellectual power of the leadership you have shown in the difficult war against brutal terrorism which has been thrust upon the civilized world.

We value our relations with our British Allies — to be concrete, Winston Churchill, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair — for their classic British virtues: candor, the stubborn insistence of the British bulldog, ferocity in criticism, honesty of purpose.  Better than any leaders in the world, such British leaders have always given it to us straight.  We thank you for your loyalty-and toughness.

I have just returned from Italy, from Venice, where the whole nation is in mourning for the eighteen brave and good Italian soldiers and carabinieri whose lives were ruthlessly taken from them-no, who laid down their lives, so that a people they had never met might enjoy the opportunities and the protection of basic human rights that Italians have enjoyed these past fifty-five years.  No greater love has any man than the love these men showed.  And then came the awful news of the twin bombings of two synagogues in tolerant and welcoming Turkey, and again a mournful counting of the 23 dead and hundreds wounded, in the innocence of a religious celebration.  What cruelty we face.  What destructive, nihilistic intentions.

These are the realities that frame our discussion today, on a topic our British visitors expressed eagerness to address-human rights, democracy, international law.  We face terrorists who appear to dread human rights more than anything in the world, and wish to obstruct them, and in ruthless lawlessness to blast them away.  All the more gratitude to you, Ms. Booth, and to the Prime Minister, for having the courage-long before others grasped the danger-to press on.

Twenty-five years ago, a new President Ronald Reagan asked this University’s Jeane Kirkpatrick to become the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and, more than that, to lead a new international intellectual and political effort to build new democracies around the world — in Latin America, Southeast Asia, in Eastern Europe, and even in the Soviet Union itself.  It was my privilege to undertake at her direction two small assignments for the UN Human Rights Commission, and to be the very first to carry to Europe the new message of expanding the protections of human rights by building democracies.

I learned from Ambassador Kirkpatrick that neither democracy nor human rights is protected by mere words.  The Constitution of the Soviet Union, for instance, contained many words about human rights which meant nothing at all in daily habits or institutions. Ambassador Kirkpatrick was fond of the words of the author of the U.S. constitution, James Madison, that the rights of Americans are not protected by parchment barriers, but by the habits and institutions of a free people.  Human rights protections are concrete realities, enfleshed in living human practices.  Our government, together with yours, set out in the eighties to promote these habits and institutions.  In 1981, there were only three democracies in all of South and Central America. By the end of that decade, only three of more than thirty nations were NOT democracies.  The human rights of Latin Americans became better protected than ever before-not perfectly so, but far better.

One regret I have about my own service at the Human Rights Commission is that I did not say more in those years about the human rights of Muslim peoples, particularly in the Middle East.  Most lived in great poverty, despite the vast oil wealth of their nations, and most lived under the surveillance of secret police, in regimes that in many cases succeeded one another not by rule of law but by assassination.

Some say the Arab peoples are not yet ready for democracy, lack the culture and habits of democracy, do not yet enjoy the associations and institutions that allow democracy to function.  Yet surely there are no human rights that belong only to Christians, Jews, and humanists that do not belong also to Muslims.  Already more than a dozen Muslim peoples have begun building democracies and have already gone through at least two changes of power by peaceful democratic procedures.  It is well past time to speak of the vision of democracy in that part of the world, to study the important resources for realizing it, and to describe the practical tasks that will accomplish it. If the road is long, it were well begun today.

Indeed, that road may be shorter than anyone now thinks.  No one thought President Reagan practical when he announced in 1981, in the presence of another great British Prime Minister, that Communism was about to fall into the ashbin of history, and that in our time democracy will be the destiny of Russia.

We all know that democracy is not an abstraction, but a concrete reality of painfully acquired habits.  It requires the habit of forming associations, the conscientious daily routines of civil society, the slow building, by trial and error, of suitable institutions, and reliable checks and balances.  Democracy grows from the ground up, in what Edmund Burke called “little platoons,” and by realizing that what Tocqueville called “the first law of democracy,” the forming of associations to achieve the local common good.  Only slowly do these local circles of freely accepted responsibilities swell into a national network.

And yet the experiences of the last two decades show how rapidly the common people of this earth conceive a love for democracy and its protections, and struggle mightily to insist upon it.  They like passing judgment on their own leaders.  They like the protections of limited government and the rule of law.  One could almost say it is in their nature to love such things, once they have the opportunity for them.

We Americans may be publicly more religious in our thought and speech than our European friends find easy to take.  In any case, our own founding documents speak soberly of our rights springing, not from the hands of monarchs or nobles, but from the hand of God.

On the second subject you have asked us to address, we Americans also distinguish between two quite different meanings of international law. Outside the United Nations building in NYC stands a statue of a most famous Jesuit, Francisco de Vittoria (c.1486-1546), often called the Father of International Law.  It would be odd indeed if a largely Christian and Jewish people such as our own did NOT think that the Creator of all things had in mind a law that binds all humans everywhere, slowly to be discovered by learning the lessons of our own common human nature.  The roots of international law, dimly perceived, lie in the law of God.  We can discern it through trial and error, codifying it through the democratically expressed consent of the people, building it up slowly through democratic procedures.  Its legitimacy springs form the consent of the governed, not from the attractive ideas of certain elites.

A new sense of international law has also arisen during the past thirty years, however, and about this new so-called law we have many grave, perhaps insuperable, doubts.  This is a law discerned solely by experts, with little or no basis in popular sovereignty, experts in law, politics and letters who are answerable to no one.  This form of international law is founded chiefly in the prejudices, political commitments and ethical preferences of certain elites.  Our colleague, Robert H. Bork has written brilliantly of the inadequacies of this conception of law in his new book, Coercing Virtue.

In two recent serious matters, the Kyoto Accords and the International Criminal Court, there is absolutely no chance that the American people will allow the United States Senate to approve of these treaties.  (The Senate vote against Kyoto was 98-2.)  These treaties lack legitimacy if they are not based on the consent of the people.  One might wish the American people had other convictions, but they do not.

Some say that Europeans come form Venus, Americans from Mars.  The truth is, about 200 million Americans have family roots in Europe.  Our experience here has been different from Europe’s.  It can even be said, in the words of the Colombian writer, Herman Arciniegas, in the 20th century America discovered Europe, in the sense that new democracies and economies in Europe after 1945 came closer to the American model than ever before, and experienced unprecedented prosperity and peace.

Others say that Americans today are rooted in Hobbes, while Europeans in today’s comfortable Europe are rooted in Kant.  The truth is, America is rooted in St. Augustine, whose book The city of God was possibly the most influential book upon Protestant divines in this land, second only to the Bible.  Its vision of the inexpungible presence of pride, greed, ambition, and other disordered appetites in the daily human life of “the City of Man” greatly influenced our forbears — sense of the limits of human virtue, the need for checks and balances, and the urgencies of popular checks on the passions of elites-and also the reverse.

In these respects, the American approach to law seems much different than that of contemporary secular Europe.  We are far less trusting in utopias, and much more modest in our expectations.  At least, so it seems to us.

© Michael Novak, 2003