Off the Cuff: Eric Stover, law professor and faculty director of the Berkeley Human Rights Center

Eric Stover, who spoke about human rights issues on Thursday

Eric Stover, who spoke about human rights issues on Thursday

Elizabeth Dobbins, News Editor

University of California, Berkeley Adjunct Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Humans Rights Center Eric Stover presented the talk “The Long Game: Forced Disappearances, Land Mines and Child Soldiers” this Thursday. Stover has used forensic anthropology and other methods to investigate human rights issues around the world. He is the author of six books and helped to launch the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. Stover sat down with the Review to discuss empirical approaches to human rights and postwar recovery.

When did you first become interested in exploring human rights issues?

I happened to be traveling in Argentina in March of 1976, when the military coup took place, and I was in a town in northern Argentina, and I was arrested. I was taken to a prison and jailed with other men — I [was] 22, 23 at the time — and they were Argentines, and some of them had been beaten up and tortured. I spent one night in jail, but because I had an American passport I was released and exported to Bolivia. I looked suspicious, I guess. I was so affected by the fact that I survived, and these other guys — we had all taken care of each other — probably just disappeared. So that set the course of my life.

You use empirical research methods to explore these issues. Why do you think it’s important to take that sort of approach?

History often dictates need. What had happened was, after the Nuremberg trials and the post-World War II trials in Asia and Europe, international criminal justice went into the deep freeze of the Cold War. It wasn’t until the 1980s and the thawing of the Cold War that many local organizations or victims organizations across the Philippines or Arab countries or Latin America started demanding justice and accountability for the abuses that had taken place. The first trials took place in Argentina in 1985, and at that point, as in any criminal investigation, the prosecutor is looking for testimonial, documentary and physical evidence. What happened in Argentina was there were trials that had started there, and there were families that were looking for their disappeared loved ones. They needed to have the graves exhumed because there were unmarked graves. So I took a forensic team down and we began the process. … This was really the beginning of applying scientific methods to these investigations.

It [has] extended beyond that. If you look at the problem of landmines — mines that are left behind and don’t self-destruct — one of the ways to document their effects is to do studies focusing on the social and medical and economic consequences. In Cambodia, certain parts of the country had a public health system that wasn’t able to respond to this problem, because a child of 12 years old may step on a landmine and survive but would probably have to have three or four prosthetics throughout his or her life, which is expensive. It took empirical methods to go in and look at hospital logs and see how many people were injured by mines, what capacity the hospitals had to deal with it, and, in that way, making the case that these landmines needed to be banned. And in a way, that helped lead the way for the formation of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

It also involves going out and doing population-based surveys. I believe, and my colleagues believe, that it’s important to ask the people themselves. Ask them what they would like to see — whether it’s a truth commission, or either way. It’s data that you collect that you can honestly say reflects the community themselves, not the political leaders that run those communities.

So are you using this information to make cases to those political leaders or to make cases to the general public?

To the political leaders themselves, to the United Nations, really to anyone who will listen. To human rights activists who make radical claims, who say that we’re going to have trials, and that victims will experience catharsis, and that this will be a panacea for the problemsof the past, and that’s absolutely not true. We know that. There’s a kind of tendency to want quick solutions to problems. But that doesn’t happen in post-war societies. For societies to reconstruct and come back to normalcy, it takes quite a bit of work. Our message is that you need to have an ecological approach — you need to work with schools; you might need to have trials [and] truth commissions, you might need to use traditional justice mechanisms; you need to engage all sectors of society. It’s the long game, because violence as we’ve seen in Bosnia and Rwanda can tear societies apart so terribly and takes so long to rebuild.

You’ve worked all around the world, in Rwanda, Yemen, South America — do you feel there’s any similarities between human rights violations around the world? Or are there universal factors?

I think there are unique factors, but they’re also very culturally determined as well. For example, in the area of people who go missing or the families who are looking for loved ones that have gone missing, that’s fairly universal no matter where you are. Look at post-9/11, or any plane in this country, when people are waiting for the bodies to be identified. Or take South Korea and the ferry that sunk there. So that’s fairly universal. The need to be able to actually have the remains and [give] them a proper burial is very important. But how societies rebuild themselves will be very much determined by the cultures that they come from. Also, what was the regime before the war? In former Yugoslavia it was a communist regime, or a soft communist regime, and there were factors there that are still influencing the country, and it’ll repair itself in a different way than, say, Rwanda, where you didn’t have those influences, or, say, in Guatemala. So you have to take in all of these factors. Nothing simple.

How has the nature of human rights violations changed since you’ve started working on these issues?

Generally I think that the human rights movement in the ’70s had a very narrow approach — focused on individual prisoners, stopping torture and ending the death penalty. I think what’s interesting here in the United States is the extent to which we’ve gone through the war on terror, and the establishment of Guantanamo, and the fact that it was unquestionable that we deliberately used torture on suspects that the government picked up in the war on terror, and that this country hasn’t had a discussion about what that meant and whether there are those who need to be held accountable. That is a big gap in American history. We need to have that discussion. And it’s something that, as time passes, we’re all forgetting about, but we have not in our own history dealt with what has happened and what is happening in Guantanamo. Hopefully sometime we’ll get the report that the Senate has been working on for many years released. I personally hope that we follow the evidence, and that if there are those responsible they should be brought to justice, just like we’ve worked on in other countries around the world.