Nelson Mandela and Human Rights
What follows is a guest blog post written by my friend and colleague David P. Forsythe, the Charles J. Mach Distinguished Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at the University of Nebraska. He is the author of more than 100 books and articles in the field of international relations, most recently The Politics of Prisoner Abuse: The United States and Enemy Prisoners After 9/11. Forsythe is widely regarded as having been among the first to help establish the study of human rights and humanitarian affairs in the discipline of political science.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the 4th of July. It would have been eminently symbolic if Nelson Mandela had died December 10th, International Human Rights Day. No single person better personified the notion of human rights in modern times than Mandela, who passed from this life on December 5 at the amazing age of 95. Despite 27 years of prison which included stretches of hard labor, his body proved as strong and vibrant as his mind. Both were devoted to fighting South Africa’s version of racial segregation.
Mandela’s incarceration was entirely legal under the laws of white minority government in that nation. But the idea of human rights rests on the argument that there is a universal set of personal rights which are fundamental for securing a life with dignity, whatever this or that national law might say. After all, the Nazis had laws too.
How then are we to know what those universal rights are? We could rely on philosophers, whether they believed in natural law or not. A practical answer is that all the states of the world meet and negotiate a set of fundamental personal rights. This is what happened on December 10th in 1948 when the UN General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without dissenting vote (but with 8 abstentions). Human rights treaties followed to convert diplomatic agreement into law.
Universal human rights do not implement themselves. People like Mandela have to take up the challenge of securing implementation. This he did first through peaceful protest and legal argument, then later through support of armed action when the white authorities increased repression. From jail he continued to lead the opposition to apartheid in the name of the rights of all regardless of color and other superficial distinctions like gender or economic status.
Those South Africans with vested interests in the status quo resisted for a long time with brutal determination. Such elites always do, because human rights are not given. They are wrestled from below in a political process. The white minority South African elite yielded not to superior moral and legal logic, but because they finally recognized that given the pressures they faced, their own self-interests could only be protected in rainbow democracy. All-race elections occurred there in 1994, and a free Mandela voted for the first time in his life.
Americans now praise Mandela, from President Obama to Tiger Woods. But U.S. foreign policy was slow to decisively oppose apartheid in South Africa. Nebraska acted earlier, applying economic pressure through the Unicam as Senator Ernie Chambers led the fight to deny state pension fund investments to companies profiting from racial discrimination in South Africa.
Commentators now sermonize about how South Africans should keep alive Mandela’s memory and his determined but politically shrewd commitment to universal human rights. Americans might do the same as we continue to debate immigration reform, health care reform, and other perplexing questions such as what to do about violation of human rights in Syria. Universal human rights might indeed prove important in shaping national developments. Mandela (and Jefferson) believed in that possibility.