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Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, Human Rights at Harvard Reception

The Charles Hotel, Cambridge, Mass.

Last year I said a few words about the success of the cooperative intra-University model in talking about the urgency of human rights issues around the world. I referred especially to what I had learned in the year before about inadequate health care – and the failures to treat AIDS, in particular – as being a human rights issue.

And so, as I thought about what to say here tonight, three things came to mind that I don’t think we would have fully anticipated a year ago. But they remind us of the continued urgency of human rights issues.

The first is the events at Abu Ghraib. We all would have been aware that the treatment of combatants and prisoners of war were vexing and difficult ones, especially in wars of an ambiguous type. We all would have guessed a year ago that what was happening in Guantanamo raised important and profound questions.

But none of us would have predicted what has come to light in the last year. At one level, Abu Ghraib is a moral failure of our country, and a failure that will certainly have profound consequences.

And at another level, it is an intensely practical problem. How do we, in a world of limited resources, establish the norms, the cultures, and the understandings that would make what happened at Abu Ghraib unthinkable? This is a very profound question.

The second is the situation in Darfur. We would hope that what happened in Rwanda, the contributions of the people here at the Carr Center, and the question of genocide more generally would create a climate where this couldn’t happen again. But there is rather less evidence for that hope today than there was a year ago. I hope that our collective reaction will not be to despair or to give up, but to engage in this profound question for all who are concerned with human rights.

This is a particular challenge for those of us who tend to identify with progressive internationalist and moral impulses because the record of the United States with respect to Darfur, the record of the United Nations, and the record of the international community is quite clearly worse. And it seems – at least from the point of view of this amateur – that there is no evidence that waiting for multilateral agreements will bring effective and strong pressure to bear on this problem.

The third is a personal observation: perhaps things haven’t changed so much in the world as they’ve changed in my perception. Reading two professors’ books during the last year has led me to think somewhat differently than I had before.

Graham Allison’s book, Nuclear Terrorism, is deeply frightening with respect to the risks of catastrophic terrorism within the next decade. Even if you deflate Graham’s estimate of a 50 percent chance of a nuclear weapon going off in the next decade by a factor of ten, we are talking about a profound and enormous problem.

Michael Ignatieff’s book, The Lesser Evil, reminds us of two things. First, the failure of just and democratic societies to defend themselves successfully is the failure of these societies to uphold justice, democracy, or human rights. Second – and these are my words, which Ignatieff may or may not accept – extraordinary threats may require, in certain circumstances, different responses than responses to ordinary threats. This is a profound set of dilemmas.

Human rights studies here at the University goes beyond exhortation of what would be good in an ideal world and involves the most careful and rigorous thought about what would be better in an apparently imperfect world. It is a commitment to thinking harder, not less hard, about something that is morally urgent. It is a reason to be more careful in one’s calculation of consequences, not a reason to simply hope for the best.

The work around human rights at Harvard has made an enormous contribution to a set of issues that is becoming not just more intellectually important, but more practically important every year. And so I congratulate the entire human rights community for all that you are doing.

I look forward to the day when there will be even more courses and even more scholars at the University pursuing this urgent set of issues. And I join you all in looking forward to the day – which I fear will not come soon enough – when there will be fewer failures of human rights for us all to consider, study, and put right.

Thank you very much.