On Monday, dozens of students and faculty gathered in Gund Gallery Community Foundation Theater to discuss international politics. After Professor of Political Science David Rowe’s brief introduction, Amos Guiora ’79, professor of law at the University of Utah, took the stage to talk about America’s foreign policy and its relation to issues of human rights.
Much of the lecture took the form of what Guiora called a “historical tour,” as he walked the audience through America’s history of foreign relations and how the concept of human rights had come to exist in the international sphere. He began the journey over 200 years ago, when George Washington, in his farewell address, warned Americans to “be wary of foreign entanglements.”
“The reality of the situation is back in those days, 200-odd years ago, the notion of human rights was not uppermost in anybody’s mind,” Guiora said. “Rather, the question was American power and protecting American interests.”
Guiora fears that this attitude is returning. He sees this exemplified by the current administration’s decision to withdraw from a variety of overseas agreements.
Guiora worries that withdrawing from the world can be dangerous without an understanding of the geopolitical consequences.
“I would suggest that in 2019, the question of human rights, at the moment, is not at all a central aspect of American foreign policy,” he said. “If you, like me, believe in the importance of allies, if you believe in entanglement amongst countries — at the moment we have the exact opposite of that.”
The presentation was followed by a discussion session, in which Guiora took questions from the audience. Several of the audience members shared passionate opinions on the subject. One student from Syria stood up and said that she spoke on behalf of the Palestinians who were unable to express their own views.
“The question of this discussion is ‘Should human rights matter for US foreign policy?’” she said. “Should we even ask this question? Just asking this question indicates that you don’t care about human rights, since you can’t even answer this question for yourself.”
Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann expressed concern that the motivation of “human rights” has been used in the past to justify activities rooted in American self-interest.
“The problem is that, when we intervene on behalf of human rights, it is sometimes very hard to tell whether what is human rights and what is imperialism,” Baumann said. “One way or another, we’re always promoting that what we say is for the good of the world.”
Student reaction to the talk was generally positive, though some were surprised at the intensity of the questions posed for the speaker.
Audrey Mueller ’22 felt that Guiora had avoided addressing some of the questions directly. “I think he stuck to safe topics,” she said. “He shied away from more concrete or emotional observation.”
Guiora will also teach a workshop on April 7 and 8, which is part of a three-part series for Kenyon students about the moral issue of the bystander. The workshop is based on his book, The Crime of Complicity, and focuses on human rights violations during the Holocaust.