Tom Farer Interview (2000): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

International Law and Human Rights: Conversation with Tom Farer, Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver, 4/19/00 by Harry Kreisler

Photo by Jane Scherr

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Human Rights

As an international lawyer, a practical moral philosopher, and a person with specialized historical knowledge, tell us about your experience doing human rights work in Latin America. What shall we draw from that experience in terms of the evolution and dispersion of international human rights norms in those countries during that period? What might that tell us about problems that we see down the road, for example, for human rights in China? Farer and lawyers in the Human Rights Division of the State Attorney's Office, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1996. Are the two cases entirely different, or might some of what you learned in Latin America inform us about how we should deal with those problems in the future in a place like China?

I'm not sure that my experience as a lawyer is as important as my sense of what can be done. I'm a pragmatist, and I'm not sure that law made me a pragmatist; I think you're a pragmatist on the basis of your early upbringing, your character, your whole life experience. For me the issue is: What will improve the condition of real people in a real place at a given moment in history? Take the case of China. There are two positions you could adopt. One is that the Chinese are violating human rights in varying ways, that your function as academic, as a writer, as someone concerned about human rights is to condemn, is to bring to bear all of your critical resources and most flagellating rhetoric.

I look at China and I ask myself where are human rights in China today compared to where they were in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping consolidated his position and launched the new policy of openness. Well, I haven't spent all that much time in China, but I've certainly spent time with people who know China from 1979 to the present, and there's nothing to dispute here. Farer and China's Ambassador to the U.S. Li Zhaoxing, in Denver, 1999. The degree of individual freedom and well-being that the average Chinese person experiences in the year 2000 is incomparably greater than it was in 1979. It's not a perfectly straight line, but it's moving upward pretty steadily. The policy of openness has worked. It's true it's worked for the Chinese elite, maybe the pressures on them would be even greater if they had not been growing at a rate between six and eleven percent a year during this period. I mean, once you lose your ideological legitimacy -- and no Marxist regime has it anymore -- what do you have going for you? Success! And they've been pretty successful. So I look at it and I say, "I don't want to batter that social and economic machine. It's working. I want to help enhance the way it works for the Chinese people." I don't have an absolutist position. I approach all human rights cases that way.

I'm trying to build bridges to China. Farer and Dean and professors from Peking University's School of International Relations; Denver, 1997. At my school I've established a Center for China - U.S. Cooperation and we have visiting scholars and we have students, and we go to China and we have workshops with state institutions, and I see this as an important way of linking our societies. But does that mean that it's improper or dysfunctional for people who belong to a human rights organization to expose violations of human rights? No. Which activity you're engaged in at any particular point in time is very much a function of chance and personality. The role that I've been attracted to in the Chinese case is constructive engagement.

Now, in the Guatemalan case, thinking back to the 1980s, or the South African case, I was dead opposed to "constructive engagement" because I felt that pressure could succeed in improving the conditions of people there. My case-by-case approach as far as means are concerned may reflect less my legal training than my sense of history and my absence of a strong ideological orientation. A post-modernist would say I'm kidding myself, of course I have a strong ideological orientation, I just don't know it. But be that as it may, this is the way I think about issues.

To come back to the original question about my parents and their influence on me, I reiterate their relative freedom from dogma. They weren't intellectuals. They were educated, but they weren't intellectuals. They reacted to injustice as they saw it. I always hated bullies, maybe because I wasn't big enough to be one, I don't know; and I react to injustice as I see it. And I want to do something about it. To the extent I haven't been just an academic it's because as an academic you send your words out into space, you don't know if they have any consequences.

What I discovered as a member of the Human Rights Commission is that under some circumstances, exposure can have consequences; but it very much depends on the structure of the society. In the country I was most deeply involved in, Argentina during the period of state terror, what I realized was that the military government could not have functioned murderously any more than the military government in Chile could have without the support of a certain sector of society. Farer and leaders of the 'Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo,' Buenos Aires, 1998. Maybe it's only twenty five or thirty percent, but it's a significant sector, and many of the people in that sector, at least in the Argentine case, truly didn't want to believe that a campaign of extermination was being carried out. They knew there was repression and they assumed some abuses were occurring, but they thought repression was necessary because there really were two rather large and violent subversive movements, and that some abuses were a regrettable incident of it. But they didn't want to believe that a campaign of extermination was going on. When the commission wrote its report and presented it, 360 pages with tremendous detail, then they knew the truth. And so people of good will, who thought of themselves as honorable, withdrew their moral support from the government, and it began to unravel.

But in Guatemala, the military didn't care about international opinion, and it only articulated with a very small part of society, what is called the oligarchy because they really are an oligarchy, and they didn't care about the methods that were being employed. In fact, as in Salvador, they were helping to finance some of the paramilitaries. So their exposure had no effect internally, because the people who were being brutalized knew they were being brutalized and the people who were supporting the brutalization favored it.

Different instruments work in different circumstances and they require judgment which can sometimes be wrong. I have tried in my life to try to understand each case and even to try to understand the perspective of the torturers. I actually once gave a keynote address at a symposium sponsored by Amnesty International, in which I gave the best case I could for torture in order to help my audience enter the torturer's mind. I pretended to be a Latin American colonel. In the end I wasn't persuaded, and presumably my audience wasn't, either.

One is left with a sense of the pragmatism, the subtlety, the drawing on different bases of knowledge of political science, law, history, and so on that you've applied as you have done the work of international law.

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