Michael Breen, president and CEO of Human Rights First, spoke at the Ford School of Public Policy Thursday as part of a series of lectures sponsored by the Josh Rosenthal Education Fund. Breen discussed violations of human rights across the world and the challenges facing advocates.
The fund was established in honor of Josh Rosenthal, who died on Sept. 11, 2001, by his mother, a long-time faculty member at the University of Michigan. She aimed to bring insightful discussion around the aftermath of 9/11 and its consequences on human rights.
Breen shared personal narratives about his own experience as a U.S. Army officer serving in Iraq post-9/11. During his service, he was responsible for detaining Iraqi bomb makers. Breen said he sat down with their families prior to arresting their loved ones.
“I remember saying, ‘We are different from the soldiers who might’ve been here six months ago under the previous regime,’” Breen said. “We’re Americans, we don’t torture people.”
After he learned about Americans torturing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, he decided to leave the military, enroll in law school and tackle refugee and human rights issues head-on. He became involved in Human Rights First, an organization that had support from the most senior-form military leaders who stood against torture.
He explained the United States played a prominent role in the human rights movement post-Cold War and World War II. The United States became a pioneer for human rights, as well as a national example for other democracies to follow and activists to rely on for support.
“The degree of freedom, the upwards trajectory, hard-fought as it was, made it reasonable for the human rights movement to champion American leadership and wise for it to leverage it on behalf of human rights activists in other countries,” Breen said.
The United States was able to use its human rights initiatives to differentiate itself from the Soviet Union and other world leaders during times of political strife and decolonization, according to Breen.
“In the context of the Cold War, it was clear that championing human rights was both the right thing and the smart thing to do — an ethical as well as a strategic imperative,” Breen said.
Breen referenced the Helsinki Accords — a pivotal human rights pact signed in the 1970s — as a document that fought against suppression and coercion and protected notions of human rights to promote peace around the world. He also noted, though, that the end of the Cold War did not translate to the progress of human rights that was envisioned.
“Many forces and tools that we once believed would inevitably favor the advancement of human rights turned out to be double-edged swords,” Breen said. “It was widely believed, for example, that economic growth would lead to democratization and a call for more rights. The reality, unfortunately, is that some autocrats have succeeded in linking their rule to economic gains and security.”
Breen used China as an example of a government that has succeeded in convincing its people that economic growth relies on the health of the Communist Party and its rule and that democratic ideals would threaten that growth. He went on to note authoritarians around the world have been pointing to the failures of liberal democracies to strengthen the credibility of their own regimes. Moreover, he said the claim the United States is the leading example of a human rights-driven democracy can no longer be supported.
“The United States began the century as a respected and unrivaled military, economic, political and, in many ways, moral power,” Breen said. “But consider America’s record in the eyes of the world since the turn of the century: illegal torture and black sites in the wake of 9/11, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent recession that followed, the 2016 election and the continuing awfulness of our politics.”
Breen claimed the Trump administration is worsening the human rights crisis in the United States by allowing for multiple human rights violations, specifically against immigrants and refugees. He said that as a consequence, activists in other countries are no longer using American values in defense of their protests and are instead having to appeal to localized rhetoric and goals.
“Today, we have arguably the first administration since the Second World War to stand in open opposition to human rights,” Breen said. “Human rights, the concept, the system, the universal language and its greatest traditional champion, the United States, holds less promise for activists who are coming up for strategies for their movements today than it did 10 years ago.”
Human rights protests around the world should give people hope, he said, but they are also a sign of the increasing authority that autocratic governments are commanding over their people. Technology is enabling autocratic leaders to spy on their dissenters and censor them, Breen said, and is also increasing the spread of misinformation.
“It is threatening not only individual rights, such as the rights to privacy, but also individual autonomy and agency with things like the sophisticated manipulation of individual perception and choice,” Breen said.
Breen described China as an authoritarian, nationalistic regime with a “Charles Dickens-style capitalism” that has succeeded in making its people dependent on the government for their needs. He suggested China is an example of what might happen to the United States if fundamental human rights and their advancement aren’t promoted.
Breen co-founded International Refugee Assistance Project, an organization that provides pro bono legal counsel for refugees. In his own experience, he’s seen human rights violations firsthand. He said these include tactics like family separation, the conditions of the spaces used to confine immigrants and the treatment of immigrants overall. He warned climate change would only increase the number of immigrants and worsen human rights issues, such as income inequality.
Business freshman Eric Haun said the event was enlightening for him because human rights violations are not something he had much exposure to in Ann Arbor.
“It was interesting for (Breen) to talk about what we can do to try to prevent the issue, and the idea that voting is power and how much of a privilege it is that we have the ability to vote, but that there’s more that we need to do to help combat the issue, such as donating or retweeting,” Haun said.
Business freshman John Prisby said it was inspiring for him to learn real change can be done without government interference.
“A lot of it comes from the work done within NGOs, and a lot of the NGOs spend a lot of time lobbying and getting government to do things, but NGOs and people supporting these NGOs can really make a difference themselves,” Prisby said.