Promoting Justice


Mar 22, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on March 22, 2005.

Washington—Nearly everyone who grew up in the United States can remember reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school, ending with the words “with liberty and justice for all.” Now as the United States seeks to fulfill President Bush's commitment to promote freedom and liberty around the world, promoting “justice for all” is vitally important as well.

For oppressed people around the world, justice is as attractive a goal as liberty, and a dream that drives and inspires them. Justice is recognized as a basic human right, and as a necessary prerequisite to create a society based on fairness, constraints on power, mutual respect, compassion for others and freedom itself.

But freedom is not self-executing. There is a theory that democracy by itself will bring justice and ensure freedom yet in many parts of the world, a free vote would lead to governments that would crush freedom, suspend justice and never again hold a meaningful election.

Hitler came to power through an election — and then transformed Germany from a democracy into a murderous dictatorship that destroyed justice. In Latin America, democracy has existed in many countries from time to time. Too often though the only ones who enjoyed either liberty or justice were the powerful oligarchic families. To the peasants and slum dwellers, freedom has meant little in the absence of justice.

To be successful, the United States' efforts to advance democracy and freedom should also be aimed at eliminating corruption, establishing legal systems that protect human rights and reforming social and economic development policies to rectify the inequities blighting much of the world. This requires a major U.S. commitment — not only to political efforts, but also to provide the funding and other tangible resources necessary for social and economic change. An attack on political oppression can only be successful with an attack on the injustices that sustain it.

Justice is as American as freedom. The true genius of the United States' founding fathers was to create a political system based on freedom protected by a shield of justice preventing a tyranny of the majority from arising. History has shown that without such safeguards, liberty can lead to a reign of terror as happened in the French Revolution.

Liberty untempered by justice only means freedom for the powerful. And as Lord Acton famously said, “power tends to corrupt.” Abuses of power are actually abuses of freedom. In the United States we have seen this when lawbreaking chief executive officers have robbed helpless shareholders, and when corrupt union bosses have exploited their members for personal gain. The answer to such abuses in the United States is to bring such people to justice.

The president is right when he says that the jihadist terrorists hate our freedoms — in part because they equate freedom with immorality and licentiousness. But even more important is that terrorists exploit feelings in the Muslim world that the United States is unjust and tolerates injustice in their homelands.

As we look out upon the world, we see impoverished people struggling for justice even more strongly than they do for freedom. Indeed, their idea of liberty is often mere freedom from injustice. The tragic refugees in Darfur are in need of justice. Many who have taken up arms in the world's conflicts — Northern Ireland, the Palestinian territories, Chiapas in Mexico — have done so in the name of what they perceive as justice.

Separating freedom from justice can be calamitous. The last century was plunged into war and revolution by the clash of ideologies propelled by extreme concepts of the two.

The essence of Nazism was the “Triumph of the Will.” Unfettered by a sense of justice, the Nazi supermen felt free to commit barbaric crimes against humanity.

Communism was a caricature of justice. It claimed the right to do anything in the name of fighting oppression and exploitation. Communists had their own definition of liberty: freedom from unemployment, hunger, poverty and homelessness. It did not work, but in the name of such “liberty,” millions were murdered.

Communism and Nazism both turned out to be catastrophes at least in part because there was no justice under the Nazis and no freedom in the Soviet Union. As the United States pursues liberty for all, the nation's leaders should heed the words of the French writer Albert Camus, who fought both the Nazis and the communists in his lifetime: “There is no freedom without justice and no justice without freedom.”

© 2005 United Press International

David Aaron is director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the nonprofit RAND Corporation and a former U.S. diplomat.

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