Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh testified Thursday before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs regarding the practices and the promotion of human rights in U.S. foreign policy.
In his testimony, which focused on the 2006 State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Koh discussed the reasons behind what the reports called a “global pushback” against personal and political freedom. Koh said the Country Reports show that the Iraq war has clouded the U.S.’s reputation on human reights, veiled the abuses committed by allies and weakened the country’s ability to criticize and prevent other violators in the world. In his address to what he called a “big turnout” of 15 congressmen, including the new chair of the Foreign Relations Committe, Koh said promoting human rights is a “bipartisan priority.”
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Most importantly, this year’s Country Reports reveal that “we are not telling the full truth either about our human rights conduct, or that of our allies in the War on Terror,” Koh said in his written testimony. Some examples are troubling changes in terminology of “torture” and the obvious underreporting of human rights infringements, he said.
In some foreign reports, for instance, the State Department categorizes many acts that had previously been described as “torture” now under a broader clause, “torture and abuse.” In his testimony, Koh said the Justice Department made this linguistic shift in order to justify its actions — such as alleged abuses at Guantanamo Bay — in the name of freedom.
Law professor Judith Resnik said she agrees that the refusal of the American government to embrace human rights for all persons is not only a violation of international law, but also of our best understanding of the American Constitution.
“The behavior of the executive branch in organizing the horrific spectacle at Guantanamo Bay is a tragedy,” she said.
But Stephen Vaden LAW ’08, head of the Yale Law School Republicans, said that while he agrees that the United States has a responsibility to exemplify morality in its actions, he also believes that the country has a responsibility to face reality.
“I have yet to hear anyone, including Dean Koh himself, describe a coherent alternative,” Vaden said. “It’s very easy for someone to say, ‘We should close Guantanamo Bay, we should scrap the military commissions, and we should completely ban all talks of coercion and what have you.’”
Vaden said he does not see an alternative to the current practices in place, and does not have much complaint with them.
Among suggestions for repairing the damage to human rights, Koh’s written testimony mentions the prevention of genocide and reengagement with multilateral human rights institutions, chiefly the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Human Rights Council.
With respect to the Sudanese conflict in Darfur, Vaden said he agrees with Koh that the United States could be doing more. But on the other hand, he said, parts of Koh’s stance on Darfur undermine his credibility.
“What Dean Koh is calling for us to do is essentially follow the Bosnian model,” Vaden said in reference to the assistance that the United States and NATO gave to Bosnia, which was never approved by the United Nations.
In his written testimony, Koh suggested that the U.S. government should support and be viewed by others as supporting multilateral institutions such as the UN. When American representatives dispute UN policies, he said, foreign countries often interpret their resistance as applying to the entire UN rather than to the specific issues.
Koh formerly served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under the Clinton administration.