Despair and hope

Mark Gibney

photo by Jonathan Welch

Mark Gibney is an ambitious man. When he’s 85, he says, he’s going to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world. But at 53, he’s pretty busy doing his bit to make sure there’ll still be a world by then, through such efforts as his forthcoming book, Ending the Nightmare: How to Save the World in Four Easy Steps.

Gibney is the Belk Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at UNCA, where he teaches political science. He’s also the newly announced winner of the Human Rights Coalition of North Carolina’s International Human Rights Award for 2006. (Nominated by the WNC Chapter of the ACLU, he is the first WNC resident to win the award.) Gibney has written extensively about international human rights in works such as Five Uneasy Pieces: American Ethics in a Globalized World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), and he maintains a widely used, Web-based “political terror scale” that measures levels of political violence in more than 175 countries.

Xpress interviewed Gibney at UNCA just after the U.S. Senate’s Sept. 28 approval of the controversial detainee-interrogation bill.

Mountain Xpress: You’ve just won an international human-rights award — how does that relate to your work?

Mark Gibney: I’m an international human-rights lawyer. I teach mostly domestic law — such as civil liberties, constitutional law, immigration law — which kind of serves as a blend of the two [domestic and international]. But I’ve never … liked the sharp demarcation between domestic and international. Even the terrorism cases are a blend.

MX: Speaking of which, what’s your opinion of the recent federal interrogation legislation?

MG: I think it’s an absolute nightmare. When it looked as if it was just the president doing this, then you could say, well, he’s going against the wishes of Congress. But now you have Congress signing off on this. I think what you’ll see in the Supreme Court decision that will have to address this is the Constitution [and] international law invoked. And I think much of it will be struck down.

MX: What are the constitutional issues that might derail the law?

MG: For one thing, the Congress saying to the president, “You decide what ‘grave breaches’ are.” That takes away the power to declare what the law is, which has always resided in the judicial branch. [They] decide what the law is, not the president.

In terms of international law, I still think that the way they’re trying to massage the Geneva Conventions is woeful. It’s just taking the plain meaning of the language and perverting it in many ways.

MX: What’s your opinion of the current proposals for federal or state immigration legislation?

MG: I think there is a decided lack of imagination. The debate seems to consist of little more than how high and how wide to build the wall. People are coming here illegally because it is next to impossible to come here legally, unless you have very special business skills or else you are a close relative of an American citizen. But also, prospects in their country of origin are not very good. This certainly seems to fit the profile of nearly all the 12 million undocumented aliens in the U.S. right now. So I am severely disappointed that the debate never even mentions how and why people wish to leave their country in the first place. Are their human rights being protected back home? Not bloody likely. Will immigration debate in this country ever begin to address the hows and whys of human migration? Not bloody likely.

MX: How do you define human rights?

MG: That’s easy: rights that every human being has — you, me, everybody, no matter where he or she lives. The political rights are the kind of rights we find in the Constitution — freedom of speech, freedom of thoughts, freedom from torture, freedom of beliefs. And then there’s economic rights — the right to education, the right to housing, the right to food and water, right to social security. And really, that Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] continues to be, to my mind, one of the best documents ever written.

MX: How are you feeling about the human-rights situation internationally?

MG: It’s bad — on all counts. It’s frustrating to me that there’s almost no concern with the issue of enforcement. You know, 50,000 people die every day … because of lack of food. That’s just the kind of thing [for which], I swear, 40 years from now people will be calling us war criminals.

I’ve argued that there’s no reason why we couldn’t create an international civil court [to give victims recourse]. [Barring that, we could] allow individuals … to use domestic courts of other countries [that have endorsed the U.N. Convention Against Torture]. And there’s precedent. The reason why countries continue to violate human rights is because they know they can get away with it. There’s no remedy that people have. The moment you give them one, I think [this abuse is] all over.

MX: How do we strike a balance between security and human rights?

MG: I don’t buy this argument that there is any need to strike a balance. Rather, human-rights protection is directly supportive of the need for security — for all. For example, there is no question that the greatest and gravest human-rights violations in the world are violations of economic rights. The way this could impact our own security — setting aside the security of these other people — is that this might bring about large-scale refugee flows. … Or these negatively affected individuals could find the siren song of international terrorism quite appealing. What else do they have to lose?

MX: How do you respond to the argument that we have to play rough with terrorists? (Think ticking-time-bomb scenario.)

MG: The truth is, there has never been a single case of a ticking time bomb. Why, then, does everyone always use that example? How about this example instead: A peaceful individual of Middle Eastern heritage is picked up one day and is tortured to [within an] inch of his life. Because of this, and only because of this, he decides to become a suicide bomber, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people. This scenario is not only far more likely … I am very confident that it already has taken place. By the way, how many of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were suspected of having knowledge of a ticking time bomb?

MX: How long have you had a bent toward this kind of work?

MG: I actually pegged the moment — sophomore year of high school. We had summer reading assigned, and one of the books was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I was living a life of unrelieved insignificance before then, and that was the moment the light went on. That changed the whole way I thought of the world.

MX: You talk about how, in 40 years, we’ll look back differently on human rights. How are we going to get to that point?

MG: Oh, I think law, actually. You don’t appeal to people’s best interest: You demand it as a matter of right. The premise here is I have a right, and you have a secondary duty to meet that right. We have to hold states’ feet to the fire legally. I think that’s the only way it’s going to change. This voluntary stuff — compassion, wouldn’t it be nice, kumbaya — I’m not a kumbaya guy.

MX: What keeps you going?

MG: Coffee. … I think I’m very optimistic — you have to be optimistic in this field. It just takes some willingness to look at the world differently. [My new book] is fueled by this absolute disgust I have with international human-rights law and, at the same time, this schizophrenic hope that it’s the only thing that we have. So it’s despair and hope together.


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