I was recently asked to speak at Christopher Newport University (CNU) on human rights. CNU was celebrating 70 years since the signing of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Presented by the university’s Model UN program, the purpose of the discussion was to have some seasoned experts provide insight into human rights violations. Accompanying me was a former ambassador to Bosnia Herzegovina and a WWII Holocaust survivor.
Why me? Who am I to talk with you about human rights? The short version is my background is in the military. I retired a few years ago as a two-star general from the United States Air Force and had the privilege of working for a member of the Joint Chiefs of staff. This wonderful opportunity allowed me access and oversight to international programs run by the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF). One particular SECDEF program I administered was the National Guard State Partnership Program or better known as SPP. It was established in the early 90s as democracy model to develop new relationships with former Warsaw Pact countries such as Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and such. At the time, the defense department felt that the NG could provide an example of not only civilian oversight of the military at a State level but also how a State governs itself. As a federal republic, we know that each of our states emulates, and in many cases, possess more oversight of administering functions for our citizens than the federal government. The idea behind the program was to introduce to these budding democracies military exchanges that first demonstrated security and then graduated to civilian exchanges highlighting governing aspects of our states. Today the SPP covers over 75 global partners ranging from Poland to Mongolia to Tunisia to Chile to Vietnam. It is one of the most successful international programs in the defense department and has been instrumental in assisting over 20 nations to gain acceptance in NATO and the European Union (EU).
The reason I wanted to take a moment and explain this program is to highlight my experience in working with many of these new budding democracies as they shed old standards, conditions, traditions and more importantly the cultures of how they govern and treat their citizens. A modern democracy whether it rises out conflict or a referendum of the people has severe growing pains. What people knew yesterday has changed today and for many, to include those who were formerly in power, it can be a human catastrophe of change. Rarely does a country transition from dictatorial, dysfunctional or abusive control to one of individual empowerment without the “pain of change.” The result is a struggling government, an increase in instability, military overreach, perpetual conflict and eventually human rights abuses.
It is from this perspective that I can share with you my observations of some of the issues with why we still battle with human rights.