British Diplomat Jon Benjamin spoke to students at Philips Autograph Library on Wednesday evening about the importance of human rights in foreign policy and the benefits of democratic government.Benjamin has a 20-year standing as a British diplomat and serves as Deputy Head of Mission at the British Consulate in New York. He formerly served as Head of the Human Rights Policy Department in London.
The British diplomat stressed the importance of having human rights in foreign policy, explaining nations have a legal obligation to grant basic human rights and they must be responsible to public opinion. Human rights is a relatively new concept, only being ratified in 1948 after World War II with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration has been signed by nearly every country in the world. Six treaties have been added to the declaration since then and a seventh, regarding disabled rights, is now in the process of being put into effect.
Benjamin told the audience of about 40 students and several faculty members that when the Nazi regime conducted the Holocaust, it did not break any international human rights law because there wasn’t one to break. This fact emphasizes the importance of human rights laws in foreign policy. Human rights was also a powerful component in ending communism in the Soviet Union, Benjamin said.
According to Benjamin, when a country signs a human rights treaty, it is signing its willingness to be judged and criticized by the standards of the treaty. “Signing the treaty is not enough, it’s about implementation and following up to what they say they will do,” he said.
Pressure and information from non-government organizations (NGOs) have also helped increase human rights policies. When Benjamin was working in London, he saw a representation of various NGOs everyday because London has more NGOs than any other city in the world. The human rights policy department would hold thematic human rights panels with experts in the field, commonly of an NGO, to find out what to do better.
Benjamin spoke about the difficulties of balancing human rights policies with the dozens of other governmental issues, such as national security and defense, trade and commercial relations and security of citizens. “Many foreign policy issues clash directly with promoting human rights,” he said.
A problematic issue for the U.N. is also protecting human rights as well as countering terrorism in a post-9/11 world. Dealing with detainees and interrogation practices has been difficult to balance with human rights policies.
Benjamin said that Europe has higher standards on torture than the United Nations. In Europe, prisons and police stations can be inspected anytime without prior notice.
There are correlations between open democratic governments, a demand for human rights and a successful economy, Benjamin explained.
As soon as people can break free of dictatorships and head toward democracy, they demand rights such as a free press, democratic elections and fair trials. “There is an undoubted link between human rights and successful economies,” he said.
He explained that adaptability and mobility in an economy only works in an open society. Benjamin told the audience of statistics found by a NGO, Transparency International. In the 55 least economically corrupt countries in the world, 45 of them are complete democracies. In the 53 most economically corrupt countries, all 53 of the countries are authoritarian.
Jon Benjamin ended his speech telling audience members not to be discouraged to get involved with human rights. “You’ll see that the line on the graph of human rights globally has been going up. Whatever the setbacks, human rights will improve.