December 3, 2012
Larry Cox was raised by a poor, single mother, at a time when anything seemed possible. He took inspiration from Martin Luther King, who demonstrated that a better world was within reach, and he brought that ideal to his work at Amnesty International.
The former executive director of Amnesty International USA will be speaking at the Monterey Institute for International Studies this Thursday about the fight for human rights in the United States.
The Monterey County Weekly e-mailed with Mr. Cox before Thursday’s talk. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Weekly: Your talk is called "A More Perfect Union: The Fight for Human Rights in the USA." Are people often surprised to hear there's a fight for human rights going on here in the US?
Cox: The fight for human rights in the United States is a long, deep and continuing one, but people are often used to thinking that human rights only involve people who are imprisoned or tortured by dictators in other countries. Many, if not most people, have been told little about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They do not know that the rights they have as humans include, in addition to free expression and protection from torture, the right to a good job, adequate income, education, and health care. When they realize this they begin to see that the fight for dignity, justice and equality by poor people, immigrants, workers, women, students, minorities, the elderly, and gays, are all about human rights that our government is obliged to protect, respect and fulfill.
Weekly: What are some of the biggest human rights concerns for people of this country now?
Cox: Poverty is perhaps the greatest violation of human rights. It's an assault on dignity and a severe limit on life, life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The fact that in the richest country in the world more than 46 million people are living in poverty and many more are close to the line, is a human rights crisis.
The United States also leads the world in putting people in prison, many of whom have committed non-violent offenses and a greatly disproportionate number of whom are people of color. We are also number four (after China, Iran, and Iraq) in killing prisoners through the death penalty.
Weekly: How does what's happening here at home relate to what's going on in the rest of the world? And why does what's happening in the rest of the world matter to us?
Cox: Human rights is about the kind of world in which we want to live. Emerging just after the horrors of World War Two, the Universal Declaration begins with the recognition that justice and peace depend on respect for human rights everywhere. In recent years we saw this demonstrated in the most dramatic and painful way when the violations of human rights in Afghanistan contributed to the horrific direct attacks on the United States, and the way we responded led to our involvement in not one but two terrible wars. Our world has become more interdependent than ever before and the need to work together to solve shared problems like climate change has never been greater. Human rights is the expression of universal values that can bring all human beings together, but this means that we all need to work to realize those values everywhere.
Weekly: How has the fight for human rights changed since you started, and do you think the world is a better place now than it was before?
Cox: I started working for Amnesty International in 1976 when few if any governments took human rights seriously. Some could carry out massive cruelty and repression with no fears of being held accountable. The human rights movement has changed this dramatically and has demonstrated that people acting together can open prison doors, stop torture and create the political will to begin to address economic injustice. There are now far fewer dictatorships than there were in 1976. Human rights organizations, once located mostly in North America and Europe, can now be found in all regions and almost all countries. We have a long way to go, but there is more possibility of realizing human rights than ever before.
Weekly: As a human rights activist, what do you do on a daily basis, and why did you choose to enter your line of work?
Cox: I became a human rights activist because I was raised by a single and poor mother who told me I had to try to create a better world for people like her everywhere. I came of age at a time when Dr. Martin Luther King demonstrated that if people came together with determination and love and a commitment to rights, a better world was possible. I joined Amnesty International because its goal was to build such a moment worldwide. Today I am spending my time working with donors who want to support efforts to ensure that this global effort has a strong and effective U.S. movement for human rights.
Weekly: You've been around the globe from the Philippines to Peru. Putting aside for a moment the very serious nature of your work, what's been your favorite place to visit, and why?
Cox: In the early 1990s I spent a lot of time working with indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon who were fighting for their land. The beauty of that environment was only exceeded by the beauty of the people, whom I will never forget.
Weekly: What's your advice for people interested in pursuing human rights work, or supporting a cause?
Cox: My first advice is simply to get involved in any effort to help people fighting for their rights and learn from them. My second advice is to realize that no one is helped by people who are unhappy or burned out, and that means activists in particular need to take care of their spirits. (I know the importance of this because it is not advice I have always followed!)
Weekly: What's your favorite book? What book should everybody read?
Cox: Any collection of sermons by a Christian theologian named Paul Tillich is my favorite (leaving aside mystery novels). Right now everybody should read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, an extraordinarily powerful book on mass incarceration and the war on drugs that I hope will change thinking and lives.
Weekly: What is the best meal you've ever had, and where?
Cox: My mother's meatloaf and potatoes in Avon Lake, Ohio.
Weekly: Anything you want to add?
Cox: To make this a better world, as historian Howard Zinn used to say, it is not necessary for anyone to do everything. It is necessary for everyone to do something!
7pm. Irvine Auditorium Monterey Institute of International Studies, 499 Pierce St., Monterey. Free. 647-4180