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Freedom's Ravages

By Jimmy Carter

Published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Former President Carter delivered his annual State of Human Rights address on Dec. 8 in Houston. Following are excerpts from his speech.

Democracy itself does not prevent direct involvement in conflict and human suffering. Most often, conflicts come from human rights violations brought about by ethnic divisions, racial and religious discrimination, or hatred of neighbors who are different.

Dramatic events in the Soviet Union have brought about the end of the Cold War. The resulting freedom in Eastern Europe, plus democratic elections in Namibia, Nicaragua, Zambia and the partial dismantling of apartheid in South Africa have brought new hope for international respect for human rights.

However, this good news has been overshadowed by violence and oppression of minority ethnic groups by regimes controlled by a dominant majority.

Ethnicity as a social and political force should not be underestimated. The commitment of people to their own blood relatives, language, customs and religion is too fundamental and pervasive to be eliminated even by totalitarian oppression over decades or generations.

Such differences among neighbors, even in the absence of an oppressive regime, are too often too intransigent to respond to dialogue or mediation.

Human rights organizations have long publicized increasing ethnic abuses, but for many years these reports have been largely ignored.

More recently, the terrible persecution of the Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Turkey was belatedly acknowledged because it was one of the justifications for launching the Gulf War.

The destruction of Croatian communities and cultural life by neighboring Serbs is now making front-page news, and is deeply troubling to a European community that see this tragedy as a possible harbinger of similar violence in other nearby nations.

Ethnic violence and its resulting human rights abuses are especially difficult to prevent or alleviate. Quite often, the oppressors are private citizens, not officials of the state, who act with much fervor and political strength that public officials are reluctant to protect those under attack.

Even constitutional guarantees, protective laws and independent courts are not effective. With large and powerful citizen groups acting in concert with the state, there is no effective counterforce to whom an appeal for justice can be made.

Foreign action is restrained because the oppressive ethnic group will most likely have influential defenders and supporters among American citizens and those in other countries whose families have close ties to the oppressors.

In too many cases, ethnic discrimination is hidden and perpetuated by subtle means, most often under the guise of unavoidable social and economic circumstances.

It is convenient to maintain that poverty and its ramifications are either an inherent state of some minorities or that their suffering is too intransigent to be alleviated.

This permits our own ascendant status in a discriminatory society with a reasonably clear conscience.

I grew up in the Deep South, where racial segregation and discrimination were maintained under existing laws. We now see horrendous suffering in Sudan, based on discrimination by a fundamentalist regime against the religious beliefs of constituent groups.

We deplore these two examples and many others as terrible examples of discrimination, some from the past and others still with us.

However, the most prevalent and unacknowledged discrimination is by the rich and powerful against the poor and weak. Most often, there is an ethnic distinction between these two groups.

We take for granted our basic human rights to a home, gainful employment, the development of our minds through education, a nutritious diet, a healthy environment, protection against preventable disease and the prospect for our children to have a productive life.

We tend to ignore the plight of others who have none of these rights or assurances-homes, jobs, education, food, health care, influence or hope for a better future.

We do not need to look at the slums of Calcutta, the deserts of Sudan or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro for examples of this deprivation of neighbors within sight of affluent leaders.

Particularly in the last decade, the poverty rate has been rapidly increasing among African-Americans and other minorities.

Increasingly, many Americans share with developing nations the ravages of insensitivity to the suffering of those who are different from us.

It is not sufficient for us merely to enumerate the human rights abuses around the world in distant lands. Suffering can be just as severe if caused by neglect as if deliberately perpetuated by despotic rulers.

Only with the willingness to share our wealth, security and influence with others can we hope to alleviate the suffering we deplore.

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