Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Beyond the Presidency: International Influence and the Pursuit of Justice

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Beyond the Presidency: International Influence and the Pursuit of Justice

Article excerpt

Jimmy Carter Thirty-ninth President of the United States

Interviewed on 13 November 1998 by S. Austin Merril and Talya Tibbon for the Journal of International Affairs

The Pursuit of justice is the craft of both institutions and individuals. In 1982, one year after leaving the White House, Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn founded the Carter Center to promote human rights, peace and justice around the world. In the interview that follows, President Carter discusses the pursuit of justice and the impact of international organizations and individuals in that endeavor.

JOURNAL: What is your definition of justice and how does it manifest itself on the international level?

CARTER: One of my favorite theologians is Reinhold Niebuhr, who said that the highest calling of government is to establish justice in a sinful world. But justice is hard to define. My concept of justice is a definition that I've evolved over the last 25 years or so concerning human rights. Specifically, it is to promulgate or help to implement or enforce basic human rights for people over whom we have some influence or for whom we have some responsibility.

The field of human rights covers a broad panoply of meanings. One is, of course, the concept of civil rights that I first confronted as a young person in the South, when the Supreme Court had ruled that separate but equal facilities in courthouses, in schools and in public places was justice. But the separation of African-Americans and Whites was not justice, because we know that in the separation, Whites were dominant. When decisions were made, all the advantages were for the Whites and all the disadvantages were for the Blacks. Segregation's concept of "separate but equal" achieved justice as defined by U.S. laws and the Supreme Court ... but there certainly was no equality.

Obviously, to treat people who come under the aegis of one government equally and fairly is a basic concept of justice. But that is not enough. Justice is also, I think, implied in the prevention of abuse of people because they are poor, deprived, illiterate, lacking in influence, inarticulate or physically or mentally incapacitated. This definition recognizes that it is a gross injustice when a despotic ruler imprisons people when they've committed no crime but have just disagreed with his policies--or when such a ruler tortures prisoners or executes innocent people.

Another meaning of justice is meeting the basic needs of a human being to survive. When some portions of a population are assured food, medical care, security, shelter, employment and educational opportunities while other people in that society are obstructed in obtaining them, it is a violation of human rights and therefore a deprivation of justice.

In short, I don't think that you can define justice easily. It is the honest, fair and equal treatment of people who are either directly under the responsibility of a government or are outside that government or society but are influenced by it. When I was president I felt that I had an obligation to global justice. When I saw a dictator in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay or other places abusing citizens, I felt that as a powerful leader I had a responsibility--a direct personal responsibility--to do the best I could to reduce that level of abuse or persecution.

JOURNAL: Twenty years have passed since you became the first American president to place human rights high on a foreign policy platform. Do you see any progress since then in the international community regarding these issues?

CARTER: Certainly, there has been progress in some arenas of government, especially in our hemisphere. I've been personally involved with the Carter Center's monitoring of 18 different elections in troubled countries. When people have reached a point where they could implement an element of freedom and democracy, these elections have helped end wars, bring an end to authoritarian or totalitarian governments and prevent conflicts. …

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