The human rights advocate discusses the global issues most in need of attention today and his new television project, World on Trial.
Author/Host Prof. Randall Robinson
Tavis: Randall Robinson is no stranger to this program. He is, of course, the founder of TransAfrica and launched a 27-day hunger strike which helped to reverse U.S. policy regarding the maltreatment of Haitian refugees by the U.S. government back in 1994.
Prior to that, he was America’s moral leader in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Nelson Mandela routinely acknowledged his sacrifice and service upon his release from Robben Island. He’s the author of a recent novel called “Makeda” and is creator and host of a new television program called “World on Trial” airing in select PBS cities this summer.
Before we start our conversation, first, though, a look at a clip from “World on Trial” which examines the critical human rights issues of our time, a dialog that started at the end of World War II with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Take a look.
Tavis: You’ve taken on so many fights in your life, Randall, and won so many, so I dare not bet against you. What makes you believe, though, that the media is the appropriate place and, for that matter, a welcome space to dialog about human rights in our world today?
Randall Robinson: Millions of people in countries around the world now have for the first time in history human rights they didn’t have before, but they may not know that they have those rights.
These are rights that they can bring to court and win, that they have certain freedoms, freedoms of speech, of assembly, of association, the freedom to do what they want to do, to leave their country, to return to their country, to marry the person of their choice. And the principal and most elemental of all of the freedoms is the right to life.
This has been extended to billions of people now around the globe done in the wake of the Nazi holocaust. The world was horrified and so it saw a way to protect their citizens from their own governments. So the only way this can work is to bring human rights education to the global community.
And these trials give you a chance to examine both sides of the issue. You see the prosecution, you see the defense, the jury votes. Juries around the world watch the trial at the same time. A jury in South Africa, a jury in France, a jury in the United States, Turkey, all of these places, we have juries at law schools watching and voting.
And then we ask the public to vote. How do they see this and are more knowledgeable. Democracy doesn’t work, systems don’t work, justice doesn’t work unless you have education and knowledge of these kinds of things so that you can become a participant in the defense of your own rights. So that’s what we’re trying to do.
I saw the clip on France with the prohibition of the wearing of head scarves in French public schools. Did France violate the right to practice the religion of one’s choice?
Does Nigeria violate some important right when it does not distribute the money from oil income fairly, with a fair piece of that to the Ogoni people in the Delta region that’s been despoiled by its oil extraction? Does China violate these human rights when it represses the Uyghur people in Western China? Or the Tibetans in Tibet?
Just any range of things that we want to bring all nations to see if they are keeping the promises that they made. I do think the instrument of shaming countries onto the right path, much of which we did on the South African issue because corporations began to withdraw money from South Africa, so they changed course. And that can happen on other issues.
Tavis: Do you think shame is still a powerful enough force? That it is still pregnant with the kind of power to maybe be able to do things?
Robinson: It shouldn’t be the lone force. You don’t just shame the practitioner of these awful things, but you shame the countries that enable it, the corporations that ignore it. And when they begin to retreat, governments then know that they need to change course.
Tavis: In all the years you’ve been doing the work that you do on human rights in this country and around the globe, is the U.S. gaining or losing moral authority?
Robinson: I think it’s losing moral authority. The problem that the U.S. has and it’s almost understandable, but the U.S. has the largest military footprint in the world. And when you have a military footprint in over 90 countries, you’re going to do some things that would cause you to be called before in a national human rights court.
So in response to that, the U.S. which was a leader on human rights at the founding of the U.N. has not ratified many of the human rights treaties.
We haven’t ratified the covenant for the equality of women, equal rights for women. We haven’t ratified the covenant to protect the interest of the child. We haven’t ratified the disabilities convention that Bob Dole worked so hard to get Senate approval of. We haven’t ratified any number of them.
We don’t recognize any national, international, human rights court, none. And I think we are seen increasingly as a country that says, but does not do, because we don’t want any American to ever be pulled in before an international human rights court to defend themselves. Other countries, it’s fine, but for us, we don’t want that.
Tavis: What price are we going to pay to the extent you think that we are–I’m curious as to your take–what price are we going to pay down the road for this drone program on steroids?
Robinson: Horrible. It’s disturbing when people in a PlayStation way sit in studios in Nevada and Virginia and push buttons that kill people on the ground in other countries. It’s a kind of removal without risk and the people talk in these countries, in Yemen and Pakistan, in Afghanistan, of hearing the buzzing.
Can we exchange places with people and put ourselves in their place? What it must feel like with your family to hear this above your head? And many innocent civilians have been–noncombatants have been killed by these drones.
Tavis: Finally, because you’re using every tool at your disposal to talk about these issues, tell me quickly about this novel, “Makeda”.
Robinson: It’s a story of a Black, blind laundress who lives in Richmond, Virginia and has a special relationship with her grandson. She tells him secrets she has told to nobody else. She has lived lives before.
She has lived in Ethiopia 1,100 years after the birth of Christ. She has lived in Mali with the Dogon people where she was a Dogon girl of 14, and the Dogon know the mysteries of the heavens. They knew the star system. They knew stars that had not been seen by western astronomers. And she lived also 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt and she saw Pharaoh Narmer and Pharaoh Cheops, who built the Great Pyramid.
And she lived during that time and she knew and experienced Black people in their greatness. We’ve been cut off from that by slavery. We have no idea generally of our history before that time and it is rich, and history is important to the health of all peoples.
Tavis: This mind is so fertile. Has been ever since I’ve known him [laugh], and I’m honored to have him on this program, Randall Robinson. His daughter, my producer, Khalea Ross Robinson, who I am grateful that you have allowed to come work with us. Every day, we are blessed to have her on the staff, so thank you and Hazel very much…
Robinson: Well, it’s a joy. Thank you.
Tavis: For giving her to us.
Robinson: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: The novel is called “Makeda” by Randall Robinson. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Happy Father’s Day to Randall Robinson and all of you and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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