Category Archives: Uncategorized

Tell The Truth About Human Rights

Recently several human rights groups have documented that the US State Department has upgraded the status of some countries, notably Malaysia and Cuba, regarding human trafficking in order to improve diplomatic relations with those countries. 1 Human trafficking, which is modern day slavery, is the illegal buying and selling of people, typically for forced labor or forced prostitution. According to Reuters, some diplomats privately say that human rights workers are naive “purists” and should recognize that diplomatic interests properly outweigh human rights interests.

I’m not an expert on the countries involved or on the State Department reports involved, but I write to say it is vitally important to tell the truth about human rights and not to falsify official reports about human rights in order to achieve diplomatic goals.

Human rights workers are rarely “purists.” They fight a lonely battle, often knowing there is little they can do in the offending country and knowing that “good” countries such as the US often will choose to elevate diplomatic goals over human rights goals. That is a fact of life. But when we make such choices, we must do so knowingly, with our eyes open, and not falsify reports or documents in order to sanitize our decisions.
Our official reports must have credibility. The whole point of preparing Trafficking In Persons (TIP) reports—or, for that matter, any human rights reports—is to provide a solid basis for analyzing the problem and identifying the countries involved: the countries who either turn a blind eye to trafficking or, worse, just refuse to do anything about it. Once the US is known to “cook the books” on the TIP reports, it loses its moral authority.

Moral authority is, after all, the primary focus in the world of human rights. President Obama, as well as prior presidents, has promised that the US will lead the fight against human rights violations. Yes, yes, we all know the US is not going to declare war on a country because of its terrible human rights record. The real power in human rights is the power to embarrass, to shame. Once TIP reports became known as being accurate, and once it became known that human rights would be a part of the US’s diplomatic calculations, countries tried to avoid being shamed. Two examples, according to Reuters, are that Switzerland closed legal loopholes allowing child prostitution and that the Dominican Republic began more aggressive prosecution of child trafficking, resulting in greatly increased numbers of convictions.

But the reverse is true as well. Once TIP reports are known as being fudged, they will lose their credibility, and thus their power to shame. Offender countries can simply deny the problem, saying the US TIP reports are known not to be credible.

The so-called “realists,” who say the US should attempt to achieve only its own interests and not try to fight human rights abuses in other countries, are flatly wrong. Trafficking in other countries does involve US interests. Child prostitutes and forced laborers are often smuggled into the US. Then, we not only have the duty to be concerned, we have the law enforcement imperative to prosecute the violators and the social imperative to help the victims.

In addition, most of us in the US have no idea how officials in other countries view with alarm the prospect of reports being written to US authorities. When I was a human rights worker in Peru, I asked our Peruvian attorney at my small human rights agency what I could really do. Yes, I was a lawyer in the US but of course I couldn’t practice law in Peru. He told me not only were there many things I could do, but also that my status often could be more important than being a Peruvian attorney. “If you are in a meeting with us and the military,” he said, “the very fact that you’re a North American” human rights worker “might have a restraining effect on” the military. “Even if you don’t ‘do’ anything.” Also, he said, the military and other authorities would be very concerned about any reports I might write. This prediction was later borne out when he himself was improperly charged by the Peruvian government with “aiding and abetting terrorism” for his lawful work as a human rights attorney. I led an international protest effort by human rights groups around the world and the government dropped the charges. Human rights leaders later said this stopped the Peruvian government in its tracks from going after human rights workers.

In the case of Cuba, the US has the goals of ending the embargo, opening the US embassy in Havana, re-establishing diplomatic relationships, and gradually improving trade relationships. I happen to support those goals. But we should not achieve these goals by “upgrading” Cuba’s notoriously horrific human rights record. We may say we will improve relations but we must emphasize we are doing so despite Cuba’s human rights record—and not say we may do so because it’s human rights record has “improved.”

In the case of Malaysia, where dozens of mass graves of migrants have been discovered just this year and where forced labor is common, the US wants to facilitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Malaysia and eleven other countries in Southeast Asia. In this case, I’m not sure I support the TPP. I admit I just don’t know enough about it. But even if we decide to improve relations with Malaysia for the TPP, we should not do so at the expense of accurately reporting—and denouncing—its human rights record. We must tell the truth about human rights.


  1. Annie Kelly, “US Human Trafficking Report Under Fire as Cuba and Malaysia are Upgraded, The Guardian (July 27 2015, 10.24 EDT); Jason Szep and Matt Spetalnick, “Special Report—US State Department Watered Down Human Trafficking Report,” Reuters, (Aug. 3, 2015, 21:19 CET)


I can’t believe there are no protests against the currently running Geico Insurance TV “torture” ad, which treats torture as normal, as acceptable business as usual. We don’t see torture because the theme of the ad is that all workers, even torturers, will play instead of “work” when the boss isn’t around. But the ad clearly treats torture as something acceptable. As such, it is an outrage.

The Ad Itself

In a medieval torture chamber, we see the boss of a group of tough-looking supposed torturers. The torturers have a prisoner tied to a large table. The boss asks what progress they are making with the prisoner and the torturers reply that the prisoner will soon tell them everything. They display vicious-looking weapons. But once the boss and his flunkies leave, the torturers turn the table over and we see the table is actually a ping-pong table, with the prisoner tied in the middle as a net. The theme of the ad is that goofing off at work, even work as torturing, is “what you do” and somehow you should decide to switch to Geico if you want to save money.

Ha! Ha! Ha! Torturers who goof off. How funny!

What’s Going On In The Ad?

Forget whether Geico is a good insurance company or whether you’ll really save the amount Geico claims you’ll save. I have no idea and no opinion.

What’s happening in our society when a major company decides it will be good for business to have a commercial portraying torture as normal, as a usual and customary part of society, as something to be accepted? Sure, we don’t really see torture in the ad. I can imagine the ad managers pitching the ad to Geico said something like, “See, when we say, ‘it’s what you do,’ why this even applies to people we usually don’t have a high opinion of. Who could be worse than torturers. So, this is satire, get it? The ad says even the worst people will goof off when their boss isn’t around because ‘it’s what you do’ and we want people to think getting Geico insurance ‘is what you do.’”

But the hidden message is, had the scene with the boss had the ad gone on a few seconds more with the boss present, the torturers would indeed have started torturing their prisoner. After all, that was their job. And doing your job is “what you do” when the boss is present.

Suppose we change the scene to Dachau or Auschwitz. The boss comes by and the workers say, “Yes, we’re definitely making progress with the prisoners.” Then the boss leaves and the workers take Jews off an incoming train to be spectators while they play soccer. No mistreatment of anybody. The workers are goofing off. Still so funny? How long could this go on before the workers decided they’d better get some work done and get going with their job of funneling the Jews into the “shower” rooms? Sure, we wouldn’t actually see any Jews being killed but wouldn’t that be the implied premise of the ad.

Not only does the Geico ad treat torture as a normal and acceptable part of society but it comes at a time in our country when we are engaged in a major and consequential debate about what actions our country, a democratic republic with a constitution that explicitly prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” may engage in against “suspected terrorists.” I write this shortly after the first, raucous, Republican debate of 2016, in which more than one candidate made it clear they believed the country could do anything the military wanted to against suspected terrorists. We are supposed to be a country of “rule of law,” but no candidate raised our Constitution (or anything else) as a protection against torture.

In my opinion, the ad is clearly not neutral on this issue—it expresses no moral disapproval whatsoever. The ad comes down squarely on the side of the argument that human rights are irrelevant—“we should do whatever the military decides is necessary to suspected terrorists.” And who is a “suspected terrorist?” It’s always vague and it’s usually people we don’t like.

Why No Protests?

Is this what our society has come to? Making fun of prisoners being tortured? Suppose we brought Abu Ghraib into the scenario. “Hey, let’s goof off from putting the prisoners in humiliating sexual positions and threatening them with dogs for a little while once the boss leaves.” Still funny?

I searched on Google and could find no protests of this ad. I can’t believe it. Well, I protest. Shame on you Geico!









I recently opened the latest issue of Opera News and was shocked to read that Margaret Juntwait had died. What? She was in the prime of her life (58). How could that have happened? (Alas, it happened because of ovarian cancer, which we must find a way to cure.)

I felt like I literally “heard” Margaret grow up on the radio—doing the Saturday morning (at least for those of us in California it began in the morning) Live From the Met broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City since 2004. At first, I was not enthralled. When she took over from Peter Allen, it seemed to me she was just reading a script. I found it a little uncomfortable to listen to. But then an amazing transformation began. After the first season or so, little by little, week by week, she seemed to develop her own voice. I’m sure she still had a script, or at least an outline, but more and more it sounded like she was sitting there, in a wonderful seat at the Met, talking with (not, “to”) us, her listener friends, not pontificating but helping us notice interesting aspects of that week’s opera. Just sharing her thoughts, no big deal.

It got to the point where her voice and her comments seemed completely fluid, knowledgeable, and spontaneous. Luckily, as time went on, I had cars that came with SIRIUS radio and I was able to hear her Met broadcasts on some weekday evenings, while driving home from work, in addition to the regular Saturday performances. That was always an extra treat. Over time, she seemed to be a friend sharing her knowledgeable thoughts in an amiable, relaxed manner.

At the same time as Margaret was “growing up” (to me at least) on the radio, I had become a fan of Richard Wagner’s four-part “Ring Cycle” and had begun traveling in the US and Europe for opera in general and especially to see various Ring performances. In early 2013, I was in Frankfurt, where it was bitter cold, attending that city’s opera company’s innovative Ring production. During one of the intermissions, I found myself in the food area next to a vivacious and interesting woman. We began chatting about the production. We each first made it clear we were married so there was no hidden agenda—it was just a wonderful conversation about Wagner in general, the Frankfurt production, and a bit about our lives. We conversed about a range of issues and finally we talked about what we each did. From her knowledge of opera, I expected her to say she had some affiliation with an opera or arts association but I was blown away when she told me her name. Here she was, “the” Margaret Juntwait, whom I felt I gotten to know via the radio, talking with me. I almost fell over. And not only was I talking with her but she seemed to be enjoying our talk and learning about my work (healthcare law) as well as hearing my unlettered opinions! I expected that, at any moment, someone from the Met would come and take her to meet someone more interesting but it never happened.

Although vivacious and beautiful, she was not arrogant or patronizing. She was so friendly and so approachable. She told me she was here with her husband and her Met team and, when I asked, she told me a bit about her work-a-day world preparing her shows. She was nothing like the divas I’ve heard about or the “operaistas” I’ve met in various Wagner Societies who let you know they’re doing you a favor by even saying “hello.” To the contrary, Margaret seemed a friendly, knowledgeable, expert interested in talking about anything: yes, opera of course, but also life in general. I became tongue-tied as soon as she said her name but she quickly had me talking again, asking about my work and my family. Of course she was a professional interviewer by now, but at no time did I feel that she was “doing her interview thing” to get through a long intermission with this guy she happened to get stuck next to.

I told her how I thought she’d developed more and more confidence each year and how I so looked forward to each show. And I couldn’t believe that she actually seemed interested in whatever I was babbling about. Maybe she was just being nice. But I remember how she seemed so genuine, friendly, and down-to-earth.

After that, sometimes when I heard her on the radio, I thought: I should send her an email about how I liked this or that show, and why. (Not that I had her email address.) But I never did, thinking, oh, sure, she was nice to me during an intermission but she wouldn’t be interested in hearing from the likes of me about her show. Or, I thought, she’d think I wanted something. Maybe so but who knows? I’m glad I had those few moments with her. I’m glad I told her how much I’d come to appreciate her shows. But I’m sorry I never sent her an email now and again when I felt something she said had truly moved me. I didn’t want to be a bother but maybe she would have liked to know how her work affected at least this fan.

It’s cliché but it’s true: death don’t have no mercy. Soon the Met will be starting a new season. Margaret Juntwait should be there, helping all of us appreciate it better. But she won’t. I’ll treasure the few minutes I had with her.



Why Give Up Everything?

In the middle of my career as a lawyer–a career i enjoyed very much–I decided to “give up everything” to do human rights work in violence-ridden Peru, a country being ripped to shreds by two terrorist groups and by “counter-terrorism” violence from the security and police forces. Whatever led me to do this?

Recently I came across copies of my newsletter of that time to friends and family: ¿Quien Sabe? (Who Knows?)–John Wagner’s Newsletter From Peru, the first issue of which addressed that question. I remember writing that newsletter, pre-internet, on a beat up manual typewriter and sending it to a friend in Sacramento who kindly made copies and mailed them for me. The following summarizes my thoughts at the time.

I knew i couldn’t act as an official “lawyer” in Peru but I hoped to act as an informal advocate and to assist persons and families who’d suffered human rights violations. To use a religious cliché, just as St. Paul had an epiphany in which he was knocked off his horse, I took a study tour of Peru that caused me to question every aspect of my life. I came into direct contact with the poverty of the Third World and I also came into contact with people doing very meaningful things to help those people.

I felt the most important thing was not on any “results” I might obtain but that I wanted to strip myself of the trap of possessions, running for success, materialism, workaholism, and then rewarding myself for those things by, yes, more possessions–the endless cycle of self-ism as Buddhists might say.

I interviewed with several well-known human rights agencies but, in a surprise to my nicely-developed ego, they weren’t interested in successful lawyers in mid-career seeking to change their lives. They were suspicious of people they hadn’t trained and most human rights jobs went to prior interns at those agencies.

I had been a Catholic, although not active, and sought out Catholic organizations having overseas placements. It took a while but I finally  found a progressive Catholic order that promised me a human rights job in Peru. I was worried that I might not be Catholic enough for the order but to my surprise, it was focused not pushing any given doctrine but focused on accompanying poor and oppressed persons in the third world. I wrote in my newsletter:

I view a religion as a community in which members not only have the right but the responsibility to express their views and engage in dialogue with each other. But I realize that: (a) there are still many problems within the Church, including hierarchy, sexism, paternalism, etc., and (b) no religion has a corner on “the” truth, all religions are not merely dealing with “inner” beliefs but are political and institutional forces replete with bureaucracies, turf-battles, organizational dynamics, etc.

Little did I know how prophetic those words would be. I also wrote:

The biggest question, of course, is why go overseas when there are so many problems right here in the US? If I want to work with the poor, why not work for a Legal Services program here where I already know the language and can utilize my skills? There’s no easy answer as that is what i would have sought had this program not worked out. There are many terrific people doing wonderful work in such programs. But to some extent what I want is the “stripping away” effect and the transformational effect of coming to grips with a new language and culture. In some ways it’s actually easier to seek a transformation by changing cultures at the same time. Corny as it sounds, I guess it boils down to my feeling on the Peru study tour that, “Why are you not here?”

Looking back on it, i really nailed the issues. In some ways, I got exactly what I was seeking in my placement in Peru and in other ways, my efforts completely failed.

John Wagner’s memoir is, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House), coming out in the fall, 2015.

“Missionary” versus “Missioner”

Advance readers of my memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, have asked a question about word usage: the difference between “missionary” and “missioner.”

There’s a great world of difference, although dictionaries tend to equate the two words as synonyms of each other. In one sense, the words are synonyms: they refer to members of religious communities in the US who go to work overseas. But that’s where the similarity ends.

To modern “missioners,” the word “missionary” is old-fashioned, referring to members of a religious group seeking to proselytize, to convert others, typically in underdeveloped countries,  to the “missionary’s” faith. Old-school “missionaries” spoke of “converting the heathens” and of “bringing” the unchurched to God. There are still many religions attempting to do this.

More contemporary views of mission, on the other hand, use the word “missioner” in deliberate contrast to the word, “missionary.” Holders of these views believe the people they work with and for are already with God, as they believe all people are, and don’t need to be “brought” anywhere. Rather than seeing their role as converting the unchurched, they see their role as “accompanying” those in need, typically, the poor, the marginated and the victims of oppression and repression. Rather than seeing themselves on a “higher” spiritual level than those they are working with, they see themselves as equal and as using their skills and talents to help the victims of injustice.

The use of the word, “missionary” connotes imposition–forcing or “persuading” people to change beliefs and religions in the quest for a better life after death. The use of the word, “missioner” connotes servant leadership–working with victimized persons to help them develop skills and abilities to live better lives in this life, on this earth.

So far, the nuanced differences between these similar words haven’t made it to the dictionaries or even Wikipedia. But ask any “missioner,” and you’ll get a lengthy and detailed discussion!


John Wagner’s memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting for Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights In Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House) will be coming out fall, 2015.