Bishop Tutu Calls for a Return to Human Rights

Desmond Tutu is not a reticent man. This is
unsurprising-as a religious leader and one of the foremost human
rights advocates of the last 30 years, he has given endless
speeches, talks, and interviews, in addition to writing seven books
and countless sermons and essays. What is perhaps a little
surprising, however, is his unflagging good cheer; recently he
spoke with me from 6,000 miles away in gray Belfast, and yet it
felt as though at any moment he might reach across the Atlantic,
grab me by the shoulder, and shake some sense into me.

Tutu was born in 1931 in Klerksdorp, in the South African state
of Transvaal. Though early in life he wanted to be a doctor, his
family could not afford a medical education, and so Tutu followed
his father into teaching. After graduating in 1954 from the
University of South Africa, he took a job as a high school
instructor in Johannesburg; he resigned after just three years in
protest of the newly instituted Bantu Education Act, an apartheid
law that discriminated against black students. Tutu began to study
theology and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1960. After a
couple of years of further study in England, during which he earned
a master’s degree in theology, Tutu returned to South Africa to
teach that subject. In 1975 he was appointed Dean of St. Mary’s
Cathedral in Johannesburg, the first black to hold that position.
After a two-year sojourn as Bishop of Lesotho, from 1976 to 1978,
Tutu became the first black secretary general of the South African
Council of Churches.

It was in this capacity that Tutu entered, in the early 1980s,
onto the world’s stage. He began writing and lecturing against
apartheid, which he denounced as “evil and un-Christian.” The
eloquence and equanimity with which he espoused nonviolent
resistance to that racist institution brought him increasing renown
both in and out of South Africa, and in 1984 he was awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. But Tutu’s contributions to
South Africa did not end with apartheid’s fall in 1994; he went on
to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an extraordinary
and widely lauded panel that investigated human rights abuses,
provided victim support, and granted amnesty to human rights
violators. Nothing like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had
been seen before; it set a global model for countries trying to
come to terms with legacies of political violence.

Though he has been retired as an Anglican Archbishop for many
years now, Tutu has not given up his public advocacy for repressed
and subjected peoples everywhere. He is currently in the news for
his work at the head of a global coalition of human rights
advocates trying to persuade the UN to intervene in Burma, the
Southeast Asian country long singled out as one of the worst human
rights violators in the world. Tutu, along with former Czech
President Vaclav Havel, recently commissioned a report detailing
the Burmese military dictatorship’s myriad abuses of power; these
include forced labor, the destruction of thousands of villages, the
systematic and sanctioned rape of ethnic minority women, the
torture and killing of political prisoners, and the forced military
enlistment of 70,000 children. Tutu and Havel are calling for the
UN to restore democracy, deliver aid, and win freedom for political
prisoners in Burma.

In 1985, Desmond Tutu wrote, “The aesthetic, ethical, and moral
values a person derives mainly from the community in which he lives
will determine very largely what he will judge as being beautiful,
good, and true.” Considering the community in which Desmond Tutu
grew up, a community indelibly marked by systematic and
institutional white racism, the fact of his unconditional
equanimity, optimism, and good will is nothing if not

‘God has given us a kind of autonomy. That autonomy allows
humans to perform the most awful atrocities. … If we wanted God
to step in, to intervene, then God would nullify the greatest gift
that He has given us:
our freedom.’
-Archbishop Desmond Tutu

You and Vaclav Havel just released a report on Burma. We have
commissioned a firm of lawyers to produce a report on Burma so that
we could use it as a basis for getting the United Nations Security
Council [UNSC] to intervene [in that country]. What [the lawyers]
have done is look at previous instances where the UNSC has in fact
intervened, and they’ve found that in most of the cases it has been
that there was the overthrow of a legitimate government, there were
gross violations of human rights. They have a number of criteria,
and they’ve come up with the fact that a very, very strong case can
be made for an intervention in Burma.

As I understand it, the report advocates non-military
intervention by the UN. Yes. … It’s not something that is very,
very sharp on the military leaders. It says that … the Burmese
regime ought to be in conversation with the secretary general of
the United Nations to help expedite a movement toward the emergence
of democratic dispensation. Among the first things that would have
to be done would be the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house
arrest and the release of all political prisoners who are
incarcerated because of their views. And try to have a steady
evolution until you get to the point where Burma is where it should
have been in 1990, when they had an election and Aung San Suu Kyi’s
National League for Democracy won more than 80 percent of the

The Burmese government has been criticized for human rights
violations for years now, and still they’ve been hemming and
hawing. You’re quite right. They’ve kept saying, “We’re now going
to have a national assembly where various groups can help to draw
up a constitution,” but most of those who would come as delegates
have had to be approved by the military junta. And basically it’s
really been people who dance to the tune of the military junta. You
could say there’s been a slight change. … ASEAN [Association of
Southeast Asian Nations] countries have always been wary about
intervening in the internal affairs of member states. But they have
made it clear that if Burma would be willing to accept the
revolving ASEAN chair … the repercussions would be severe. The
United States made it quite clear that they would boycott any
meeting that was chaired by [Myanmar]. And so the ASEAN countries
have made it quite clear that it would be a great embarrassment to
them. And Burma has said they will pass up the opportunity of
chairing, which means that they do respond to appropriate pressure.
And if we are able to persuade nine members of the UN Security
Council that this matter ought to be on their agenda, they could
bring significant pressure on the military dictators.

Hypothetically, if you got China and Russia to sign on as you
say, but the Burmese government refused any kind of concession and
any kind of unarmed intervention, would you advocate military
intervention? We would still say let’s use, for example, economic
sanctions. They worked very admirably in the case of South Africa,
and if they are applied strategically there is no reason why they
should not succeed. We would be very, very reluctant to invoke a
military intervention. We believe that it is still possible at this
very late hour for there to be an evolution toward democracy that
is nonviolent, non-military.

You’ve been an early and often opponent of the war in Iraq.

Leaving aside for the moment the reasons for invading Iraq
originally presented by the Bush administration-i.e., WMDs-how is
Iraq different than Burma? Clearly, human rights violations of a
gruesome nature were occurring in Iraq. Yes. … But I ask: if they
[the Bush administration] wanted to have a regime change in Iraq,
why not China, why not North Korea, why not Burma itself? Why did
they want to isolate this particular country? If it was justifiable
there, it would also be justifiable in any and every circumstance
where there is undemocratic dispensation. But it is precisely
because the world says that diplomacy must be done in an orderly
fashion that you have a problem. And I believe [the Bush
administration] itself acknowledged this by going first to the
United Nations. They were fully aware that the only authority that
would be legitimate in declaring war would’ve been the United

There was no question about going there first … the just war
theory states quite clearly that there are certain conditions that
must be fulfilled before you can say a particular war is
justifiable. I mean can you imagine if India said, “We don’t like
what’s happening in Pakistan. We know they have weapons of mass
destruction, and in addition they are undemocratic, so we are going
to go in there.” The world would be thrown into a horrendous chaos!
It is precisely because we don’t want that kind of chaos to happen
that we have something like the UN. A central authority that can
say, “Yes, this or that action is justifiable, and these are the
conditions that must be satisfied before we can climb in.”

There’s clearly still a great deal of rancor between the Sunni,
Shia, and Kurds, which I think was attested to, not dispelled, by
the new power-sharing constitution. And yet you’ve said that if
forgiveness and dialogue could occur in South Africa following
apartheid, the same might be possible in Iraq. But to me South
Africa seems like an aberration. I can’t see reconciliation
happening in one generation. Am I being cynical? I think that is
the same kind of conclusion you could have drawn about South
Africa. If you had asked many people what they thought was going to
happen in South Africa after apartheid, most of them would have
said there was going to be a racial disaster. Why? Because of the
history-we had had a small white minority ruling the roost,
behaving abominably against the subject peoples. I think the South
African situation is an example and a beacon of hope precisely
because it has been such an unlikely case. … If you think of the
kind of violence we had in our country in the run-up to the
elections in 1994, if you were an observer at that time, you would
have said, “I don’t think there’s any hope for these guys.” But it
is true that we were very, very fortunate to have someone like
[former South African president Frederick] DeKlerk, who had the
courage to say, “We’ve got to get down to talking”; and even more
wonderful that we had a Nelson Mandela. If we’d had anyone less
able, we would probably today be on the skids [laughs].

You’ve also been an outspoken critic of Guantanamo Bay. I think
the Bush administration has tried to justify Guantanamo by pointing
to the extraordinary nature of the so-called war on terror, where
you have an unseen enemy willing to target civilians, and said that
that renders obsolete many of those traditional codes of conduct
and rights of due process. You know, I must say that I am
horrendously distressed that they can use the same arguments that
[were] used by the apartheid government to justify detention
without trial. It is a clear and direct violation of the rule of
law; it is stating that the ends justify the means, and that is one
of the most awful principles ever to have. You have in fact allowed
the terrorists to make you subvert the rule of law and begin to
operate at about the same level as they do. The idea that suspicion
alone is sufficient justification … and we haven’t even got a way
of knowing how these people are held. The images that come out of
there are images that make you wonder, “Is that what a democratic
government can do?” And how many of these people have been charged?
They’ve been held there for unconscionably long periods of time,
and you’d have thought then that your people would have found the
evidence they had against them so that they could appear in court.
But almost all of them have been held there for very long periods
and hardly any of them have been charged. And I think that is
devastatingly horrendous for your democracy.

One of the consequences of Iraq and the war on terror is
heightened tension between fundamentalist Islam and the West. I
recently read an interview with writer V.S. Naipaul, in which he
said that fundamentalist Islam will never topple the “secular” West
because fundamentalist Islam is the equivalent of a “philosophical
shriek,” while the West is characterized by “philosophical
diffidence.” What was Naipaul saying? Do you agree with him? Well,
basically he is saying that [fundamentalist Islam] is way out
there, and there is no way in which you can see the two at some
point coinciding. But you know, I think that we should bear in mind
that Christianity has its own fundamentalists and extremists. I
mean just look at the guys in your own country, the people who were
responsible for say the Oklahoma City bombing-they did that on
religious grounds. The people who kill doctors who perform
abortions, or the people who get so up in arms about gays-those are
fundamentalists. It was fundamentalists who had the kind of views
about blacks that made it possible for someone to drag a man to his
death behind a truck. So we mustn’t appear to be superior, speaking
from a superior position.

Each religion has some of the most wonderful people and some of
the most ghastly people. And every effort to characterize one
religion by the worst aspects of its worst adherents. … I mean
Christians would be very upset if we said, “Just look at the Ku
Klux Klan. That represents Christianity.” It doesn’t represent
Christianity. Nor do the new extreme Muslim fundamentalists. We
will get into very, very serious trouble if we tend to do that.
We’ve got to say that there are good Muslims, and there are good
Christians, and there are very bad Muslims and there are very bad
Christians. And we’ve got to work on the basis of dealing with the
best aspects and best adherents of whatever faith. Religion in and
of itself is neither good nor bad. It is morally neutral.

You mention homophobia, which is clearly prevalent in both
groups. Is homosexuality antithetical to Christianity? How do you
feel about gay marriage? I have always felt strongly about anything
of which someone can do nothing at all-ethnicity, gender, sexual
orientation. Because we fought against racism, I fight against all
forms of discrimination where the individual can do nothing to
change his or her situation. It ought not be called marriage, but
if I believe that gay persons have rights at all, they have the
right to choose whether to be celibate or whether to have a
lifelong partner.

One more question. [Laughs.] Okay, man. But I’ve really got to

Millions of lives are still in jeopardy in Pakistan because of
the difficulty of getting aid in there, in addition to the 80,000
who have already died in the earthquake. Pakistan, the tsunami in
Southeast Asia, Katrina, all of this suffering in the last year
brought on by natural phenomena-it made me think of your book, in
which you talk about the redemptive power of suffering. How do you
reconcile all of this apparently senseless suffering with a
merciful God? It is the same question that all of us have asked.
And you have to answer that God has given us a kind of autonomy.
That autonomy allows humans to perform the most awful
atrocities-the Holocaust, for example. If we wanted God to step in,
to intervene, then God would nullify the greatest gift that He has
given us: our freedom. But, we must also say that we live in a
world with an ordered universe-there is cause and effect. Part of
Katrina’s happening had nothing to do with God and everything to do
with the stupidity of human beings. People said that the levees,
which would have protected these people, would have protected New
Orleans, were totally inadequate. God couldn’t have stepped in and
stopped that stupidity.

But what about the tsunami, what about the earthquake? Those
were not the result of human folly. Then you say, well, we cannot
know everything about the universe. We must have a certain degree
of agnosticism. Innocent suffering is a great mystery, and we must
be careful in how we respond. … Suffering can ennoble people,
making them more compassionate and caring than they might otherwise
have been. Of course, suffering can also embitter … I would hope
people would say that we do in fact have a God who, although He is
omnipotent, is also impotent. I would hope people would say that he
gives us autonomy by not intervening, and we must have the proper
reverence for that. And God keeps waiting on us to help God in
precisely those situations. If it was possible we would say people
must move away from all areas where you are likely to have
disasters. But then what happens? We have to remember that the
choices we make have consequences. They say that a lot of what
happened in New Orleans happened because of global warming. And so
we bear some responsibility in how our lives turn out.

Mr. Archbishop, thank you. God bless you.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu gives a lecture titled
Reconciling Love: a Millennium Mandate

on Friday, November 4, 8 p.m.,
at the Arlington Theatre.
Call 893-3535 or visit


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