On the Issues: Free to Protect Liberty
Issue   |   Tue, 02/28/2012 - 23:52

It’s sad that I have to write this article. It’s sad that anyone has to write about this, fight against this or live this out as their life; but the alternative is that the world remains blissfully ignorant or carelessly apathetic.
I’m writing about the crimes against humanity waged by some of the absolute regimes across the world. This is an article that shouldn’t need to be written. Say what you like about relative morality, but deep down, there are things that you just know are wrong, things that you can feel in your gut. This is one of those things.

There are two reasons I feel compelled to write this article: first, I want to raise awareness of the extent of the horrors being committed and second, I want to provide a logical impetus for action, especially action by whatever candidate is eventually inaugurated as president next January.

I’d like to focus on the dictatorship in North Korea as a case study of a country where basic human rights mean nothing. Since the state was formed in 1948, the hereditary dictatorship has sequestered its inhabitants from the outside world of any subversive influences by prohibiting freedom of speech, press, religion and emigration. The regime has strictly controlled the distribution of food and, as a result, a third of the 22.7 million people are malnourished, including one in four young children. Over one million people died in the famine of the 1990s and the government has trouble keeping NGO’s involved because they refuse to be transparent.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The dictator, Kim Jong-un, is the center of a national cult of personality, where he is worshipped for his various crafted perfections. The lack of access to information causes the population to be completely ignorant of the world outside their borders, which allows them to believe the government’s lies, ranging from the inherent superiority of North Korea’s people and their living conditions to a fabricated victory over Brazil in their 2010 World Cup match.

North Koreans who express any sort of dissent are kidnapped, along with their extended families to the third generation, and taken to concentration camps where they are used as slave labor, raped, tortured or executed. Around 200,000 “dissidents” currently languish in these camps, where as many as 400,000 may already have died. Those who attempt to escape from the country risk their lives; snipers guard the border, and China’s official policy is to capture and return any refugees who are discovered within its borders, at which point they are tortured and executed. Of course, China doesn’t always return the escapees, instead opting to force them into child labor or sex slavery.

The North Korean regime is one of the greatest current violators of human rights; of the 11 categories of crimes against humanity defined by the International Criminal Court, 10 are displayed by the dictatorship — but it’s not the only state that shows a total disregard for the basic rights that we hold dear. Iran’s president cries out for the destruction of the entire state of Israel. The government-supported genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan has claimed over 400,000 lives and displaced nearly two-and-a-half million people.

Knowledge of these catastrophes is a good start, but it is far more important to do something with it. If we take seriously the foundation of our country upon the security of unalienable rights, then it must matter to us that places exist where those rights are curtailed, abridged or disregarded. If we believe that there are rights that are basic to humans, then an infringement upon those rights anywhere constitutes not only a crime against those directly affected, but it also weakens the grounds of our nation’s government and the security of our own rights.

So, what should we do and what should we expect from our government? First of all, it’s important that the United States is active in the fight against human rights abuses. The president should not condone, in any way, crimes against humanity or the regimes that sponsor them. Congress, for its part, must be willing to follow the President’s lead in taking action against human rights violations and should be willing to commit the necessary resources. Together, the legislative and executive branches of the American federal government should make themselves prominent as the voices of freedom.

Apart from a vague commitment to freedom, there are some very specific and substantive measures that the government can take at the current juncture. First, the United States should put serious pressure on the United Nations to create human rights requirements for member states, even going as far as revoking the membership of any nation not in compliance and instituting broad sanctions upon them. We should also take more targeted action at the various countries committing these abuses. With North Korea, for example, we should take advantage of the transitional period following Kim Jong-il’s death to put as much political pressure on the regime as possible, especially by communicating with China. Sanctions could be enforced against Iran and Sudan, and America should loosen its restrictions on refugee immigration.

One more question remains to be considered on the governmental level: is it legitimate for the American government to authorize the use of force to intervene in cases of serious human rights violations? It is evident that people have the right to rise up against its oppressors and create a new government that will secure their rights. If, however, people are unable to do so, does the United States have a right or even a responsibility to intervene? To say that we do is to authorize our nation as the human rights police of the world — an arrogant and somewhat irresponsible move that opens the floodgates for all sorts of foreign intervention. That’s not a road we want to go down; it leads to more wars such as the recent conflict in Iraq, where we were mired for years with no real goals or reasons. But to preclude such power categorically requires us to sit by and watch nations like North Korea and Sudan kill and oppress their own citizens with no real recourse. I cannot provide a clear answer to this question, but I offer this: even if the power of force is available to us, it should only be used in extreme situations, where all other remedies have failed and with public transparency and the express authorization of Congress.

As individuals, we don’t typically have the power to directly communicate with dictators or fly food into famine-stricken areas, but we can put our money where our rights are and support groups that aid refugees or provide food to oppressed peoples. In addition, we can contact legislators about the rights issues that are important to us, as well as voting for those candidates who will take seriously the moral impetus to preserve basic human rights. We also have the ability to educate ourselves and our peers about human rights issues.

To get involved on the Amherst campus, contact Jennifer Rhee ’14 or Nikki Takemori ’14, the co-presidents of THiNK (Towards Humanitarianism in North Korea). It’s a group that focuses on educating students about the violations of the North Korean government, and it raises money to help refugees in China escape to safe countries; you can visit THiNK’s parent organization’s site at www.linkglobal.org. Whatever you do, get involved; use the freedoms you have to save the freedoms of others.

Alum Class of '11 (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 12:54

There's nothing wrong with this article. It states what pretty much everyone knows about North Korea. That is a horrible dictatorship where people suffer beyond imagination. The things you advocate for are valid and the U.S. and Europe do the best they can with sanctions on North Korea and Iran. But they also have to provide food aid for those who inevitably suffer still or even more due to sanctions because the regime hoards everything for itself. You are left with difficult choices, making it hard to truly impose change on a regime. Political pressure is important and is done so. The problem lies primarily with China and Russia which have just as much sway at the UN as the U.S. and hold a great deal of global political power as well. And we do not want to start a war with China or Russia, whether through direct military actions or economic actions. China still props up North Korea as a buffer from South Korea and Western forms of governance. The U.S. alone won't be able to change China's views. As China's economy exponential increases, something will come to a head as more people demand freedom and transparency just as protests against Putin are gaining steam. As you state, military action generally is not the best idea given the severe repercussions it can have.

So, your article is left to stating something fairly apparent, but simply advocating individuals take a more pro-active approach by contacting their politicians and joining groups that publicize these horrors in graphic detail in the hopes of forcing the U.S. government to take more significant action on the issue. Though again, what further action they can really take, I have no idea.

In any case, you yourself don't exactly have clear solutions to the problem because of the complexity of the issue. Advocating for human rights is never a bad thing of course.

Someone from '12 (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 22:15

First, by asserting that "It’s sad that I have to write this article," you are essentially implying that the lack of democracy in North Korea is something that most people in the US and elsewhere ignore, and that you deserve to be lauded for bringing it to the attention of the ignorant masses. Second, this article adds absolutely nothing to the current debates on the North Korean situation. You don't really offer any solution to the problem and merely rehash what countless other have said about North Korea. When you write an "opinion" piece for a newspaper, you should write something original and thought-provoking, not something you can simply paraphrase from other sources.

akaake14 says:
Sun, 03/04/2012 - 14:45

My assertion was referring to the fact that such conditions should not exist and, therefore, should not need written about. Also, while the main point of this article was to simply raise awareness of human rights violations in various totalitarian regimes, it also made the secondary point that this is something worth taking action on, and (if you've been following this series of articles) it has a backdrop of my defending it as one of the issues that should have prominence in this election cycle. That said, anonymous senior, since you find my writing to be so substandard, please write a better piece and send it in to the Student; I look forward to reading your thoughts with a name attached.

Alum Class of '11 (not verified) says:
Mon, 03/05/2012 - 15:09


While human rights are always an important issue, in the end, I don't think a President Romney will do anything significantly different on these human rights issues than President Obama would, for the complex reasons I listed above. Also, I think overall Obama has done a good job on foreign policy and will continue to do so. As for the other Republican Candidates - I'm sure you have got to agree with me that Ron Paul would be a complete disaster in foreign policy. I don't think Rick Santorum has a level enough head to be the leader of the free world. Neither does Newt Gingrich.

akaake14 says:
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 12:52

I agree that Romney wouldn't be much of a change from Obama; that's part of why I'm not voting for him. For what it's worth, I'm not too upset about Obama's foreign policy, but he's a little heavy on the interventionism in all the wrong ways. If we intervene, I'd rather it was in a Sudan or North Korea than in a Syria or Libya. Ron Paul's policies would, to say it nicely, be detrimental to the United States. I think Santorum is fit to lead the country (of course, having caucused for him, I'm biased); while I haven't read his articles, he has spilled more ink on Iran than the other candidates combined, which makes me think that he at least takes foreign policy seriously (see: Ron Paul, isolationism; Newt Gingrich, moon base).

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Mon, 03/05/2012 - 16:42

what an excellent response to criticism. "well if you think it's so bad why don't you do it yourself"

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 13:32

In my eyes, the moment you said in one of your comments that Santorum takes foreign policy seriously, you lost all credibility. I'm sure that he as President and someone like Sarah Palin as VP would do a fantastic job of managing America's relations with the rest of the world, and that they would be able to easily overcome the complex diplomatic problems raised by the situations in North Korea and elsewhere that seasoned diplomats and statesmen/women have not yet been able to resolve, though not for lack of trying.

interested alum (not verified) says:
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 13:49

Obama just recently succeeded in getting North Korea to curtail nuclear weapons activity and allow inspectors in again.

Given that N. Korea does have the bomb, and that it's stability is important to China, a military intervention there would be a pretty extreme and dangerously destabilizing move.

Santorum writes about Iran so much because he obsessed with religion, and the status of Christianity in public life. He is far to religiously biased to even-handedly conduct either foreign or domestic policy without causing a great deal of alienation among non-Christians.

Personally, I find Santorum to be a pretty angry guy with a big chip on his shoulders about sex. He downplays his extreme views on the national news programs, but in smaller venues, he acts like a rhetorical bully. He doesn't appear to listen to other viewpoints, and has that kind of belief in the "truth" that should be pretty scary to contemplate in someone who might wield the power of the presidency. I think not only are his views too extreme, he is immature and intolerant. This is pretty apparent in his demeanor as well as in his viewpoints. The big "middle" of American voters already recognize this and will, eventually, put him out of the running.