ICAS Lectures

No. 99-1220-TPH

Humanity and Human Rights:
The Case of Hunger


The Hon. Tony P Hall
U. S. Representative

ICAS Annual Liberty Award Dinner

Faculty Club

University of Pennsylvania

December 20, 1999

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
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Email: icas@icasinc.org


Liberty Award Announcement and Biographical sketch



Humanity and Human Rights:
The Case of Hunger

The Hon. Tony P Hall
U. S. Representative

It is a great honor to receive the Liberty Award from so active and serious a group as the Institute. I want to thank you for selecting me as this year's recipient, and to extend my regrets that I am unable to join you in person tonight.

I am grateful to Dr. John Merrill for agreeing to accept this award in my stead, and know you will leave tonight better informed after hearing Dr. Merrill's insights. I was fortunate to have him with my delegation to Japan, North Korea and South Korea in August, and the United States Government is fortunate to have him at the State Department.

Hunger and Human Rights

Too often, humanitarian concerns -- like hunger -- and human rights are thought of as separate issues. Having worked for many years on both, and been inspired by the energetic and committed people who are the heart of organizations that focus on these issues, I am encouraged by ICAS's interest in the nexus between the two.

As precious as the rights of free speech, free worship, and a free press are, it is hard to imagine any right that is more crucial than the right to food. Yet, too often governments and human rights advocates use a regime's abuse of human rights as an excuse to deny assistance to hungry people. Nowhere is this impulse starker than in responding to a famine.

The motives behind such policies usually are good: to encourage oppressed people to rise up; or to deny resources to a regime that does not seem to have its people's best interests at heart. But the results usually produce just the opposite of what's intended. Starving people almost never rebel -- until the crisis passes. In a famine, no one has the energy or the health to do much more than scavenge for enough food to stave off death. In fact, lethargy is one of the hallmarks of severe hunger: the eerie silence, particularly among young children, is telltale evidence of famine victims' suffering.

Instead of pulling in opposite directions, human rights and humanitarian impulses and organizations should be focused as one on the challenges of ending hunger and expanding human rights -- and the United States Government should be at the forefront of the fight. The odds against our success are overwhelming because we out outnumbered by countless people and special interests determined to keep people poor.

Nor will it be easy to unite across the wide gap between theory and protest, which are the arsenal of a human rights campaign -- and the need to compromise in order to achieve practical results, which is the situation aid organizations face. But the success of one is essential to achieving the goals of the other.

President Clinton's decision to lift sanctions on North Korea is part of an effort to bring it into the mainstream of the world's nations and expose it to the currents that have positive effects on other countries. His decision follows Seoul's diplomatic initiatives and Pyongyang's clear signal that it no longer wants economic isolation. That signal marks an enormous change from North Korea's decades-long policies, and the change it will bring will spill over into its culture -- hopefully leading to improvements in human rights at the same time new economic policies are ushering in relief from famine.

A Watershed?

This year, the world marked the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was not a day for celebrating, as the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights said. Instead, it was a time for reflecting on the strides we have made toward the Declaration's goals, and an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the work still to be done.

We reached this milestone as the dust from the end of the Cold War was still settling. Tremors continue to rumble, but most countries have found their footing and, for the first time this century, there is a broad consensus in favor of market economies. And there seems to be a momentum for democracy that in the past year alone has brought down dictators long thought to be invincible.

  • Nigeria's military regime killed that country's ruthless leader last year and permitted voters in Africa's richest country to cast their first vote in a generation this year. I met Nigeria's new president recently, and understand why so many are encouraged to hope again for their country's future under his leadership.
  • Suharto, Indonesia's strong man for the past 30 years, stepped down after widespread rioting, elections brought to power a president who seems to be capable of uniting many of the people in the world's fourth most populous nation.
  • Former Zaire's Mobutu was driven from power after three decades by citizens' anger at his corruption last year. And while peace does not yet reign there, the fighting recently stopped and there is growing hope that remaining differences can be worked out by diplomats, not soldiers.
  • And in Guatemala and other Central American countries, there are clear signs that the region's long difficulties may soon give way to a new era of peace and prosperity.

Of course, this list of successes could be a lot longer -- but its contents have surprised most observers, made more than a few not-yet-toppled dictators nervous, and encouraged human right advocates to believe a ripple effect may bring positive change to other countries.

Common Goals, Different Routes

The people who advocate development, and those who protect human rights, share a common goal. Their approaches differ, but the people they aim to help are the same. And the work that both do strikes at the injustice and suffering that are fertile ground for wars and other crises.

By easing the deprivations that color every aspect of poor families' existence, development can help remove barriers that keep them from speaking out for fairness and justice. And by helping people raise their voices and pressing governments to listen, human rights advocacy can help these same people get a say in what kind of development best responds to their needs.

The challenge, I believe, is to answer these questions honestly:

  • Does withholding aid punish those who violate human rights? Or does it make the poor pay twice -- once because their human rights are denied; and again because they are condemned to remain in the shackles of poverty? and. . .
  • Does giving aid reinforce and further entrench a repressive regime? Or does it open up the possibility for engagement with the government, for dialogue and progress?
New Opportunities/New Risks

For decades, developing countries allied with the Soviet Union argued that economic development must come first, political freedoms second. This position is largely self-serving, and no surprise when it comes out of the mouths of military rulers. But in fairness, it is also an expression of people who know that poverty is a kind of hell, one that traumatizes anyone who has ever been in its grip and drives them to do almost anything to escape it.

Americans should be able to understand this: many of our ancestors were fleeing poverty when they immigrated to the United States. And our parents and grandparents? experience of their hardships will echo in the way they talk and act decades later.

My point is, the Cold War no longer forces the two camps to harden their position. The experiences of a wide range of nations show that the fastest route out of poverty is a parallel track: one that presses for political rights, and one that develops economic opportunities. Both are needed; one without the other simply doesn't produce results.

That is a lesson for those who would put human rights a distant second. We are right to say, as President Clinton told China this year, that countries "cannot purchase stability at the expense of freedom." But those blessed with freedom should learn the lesson too. If we aren't willing to take a country's concerns about economic development seriously, we'd be foolish to expect any country to swallow its pride and reverse decades-old policies.

Too often, the United States has pressed for political and civil rights without helping lay a foundation for economic growth. Without confidence that their children won't starve, without a basic level of health that frees people from the sickness and disability that poverty breeds, without some education and literacy -- many people we think we are helping find that the right to be involved in their country's political process to be hollow.

Hunger and absolute poverty don't always motivate people to take to the streets and change the policies that are keeping them down. More often, they drive people inward, to search for their piece of a shrinking pie -- and fight with other desperate people who are after the same piece. As Latin America and Russia's experiences show, unless people see that democracy is accompanied by better living conditions, they may not cherish their right to elect their own leaders, and build upon it.

A Win-Win Option

The way to make the most of the window of opportunity that accompanies the end of the Cold War, especially on the Korean Peninsula, is not to continue the counterproductive "chicken-or-egg" debate over whether to push human rights or human development first.

The win-win solution is to redefine development to embrace methods that empower the poor; and to redefine human rights to include work that will help people escape poverty. In addition to being a proven route to success, this solution also could unite the voices of development and human rights activists against those who are working hard to defeat any effort that empowers people.

Aid, Rights Protections Reinforce Each Other

What is happening in North Korea is one of the best examples of the power of humanitarian aid I have ever seen.

  • Both aid workers' presence and their projects? existence are proof of the world's concern about the poor. Because many projects target women -- who are both among those vulnerable to malnutrition, and the workers in much of the world -- these also stand as a counterbalance to the discrimination and hardship women in many countries face, and a testament to their value to the international community.
  • Humanitarian projects also serve as a model of sensible development -- because too often non-democratic governments don't realize their greatest asset is their people, and improving their capabilities is the most lasting investment.
  • And aid workers are among the finest ambassadors from our country and others. They are commendable for their dedication and fearlessness; surprisingly, the dangers and deprivations they face seem to have turned them into some of the best-humored people I've ever met. That's appreciated everywhere, but especially by Koreans.

    I first visited North Korea three years ago, when famine there forced the "Hermit Kingdom" to let foreigners inside. Children and adults alike ran away from me -- a powerful testament to what they had been told about Americans. The next year, they stared and whispered. Last year, they laughed and pointed at us. And this year, a few of them started waving as soon as they saw us!

    That represents more progress than we have made in 50 years of our nations' military stand-off. And it is clear evidence that the presence of foreigners (and the food and medicines we are bringing) are casting doubt on what they have learned about Americans.


    Koreans and Korean Americans have a unique understanding of these difficulties. Koreans rose from the food shortages and desperate poverty of colonial times to achieve remarkable prosperity, and did it at a time they were winning greater human rights in South Korea. Today, while many people are concerned about human rights in North Korea, I suspect it is Korean people who have the most realistic appreciation of how difficult it will be -- for those on both sides of North Korea's borders -- to win improvements there.

    I hope you and other members of the Korean American community will be a part of the effort to engage North Korea. I also hope you will help to forge a new partnership between those in America and South Korea who are committed to expanding human rights in their traditional sense, and those who are interested in the equally compelling human right to be free from the want of the absolute poverty.

    That is a fate that plagues one third of human civilization -- and a far greater percentage of people in North Korea today. If human rights abuses by their governments are used as an excuse not to address this most fundamental of human rights, we all will be the poorer for it.

    In closing, I want to again thank you again for honoring me with the Liberty Award. I wish you and your organization the best in your work on behalf of all human rights, and especially on behalf of North Korea's long-suffering people.

    This page last updated 12/21/99 jdb

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