It says a lot about one’s government when ordinary citizens petition the United Nations stop human torture by their government’s leaders. Yet that is exactly what a number of Montanans have done.
On Oct. 9, 149 ordinary Montana citizens sent their letter to the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights. The letter asks her “to take immediate action against the United States of America and our President Donald J. Trump’s Administration under the Dec. 10, 1948, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article V.” This article states: “No one shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.”
And the reason? The letter continues: “[B]ecause the policies of our government and the Trump Administration, violate the rights of persons seeking asylum at our southern border. These violations, cause permanent physical and emotional trauma to the individuals, families, and, most importantly, to the children, who are victims of these policies. These policies are cruel, inhumane, degrading and amount to the torture of vulnerable, defenseless human beings.”
Like most grassroots revolts, this letter was conceived in the utter disgust and frustration of an on-going human tragedy: ordinary people, representing every profession and background, who were repulsed by what they witnessed on the news; horrible wrongdoings perpetrated by President Trump and the border and immigration agencies, facilitated by a weak, uncaring and partisan Congress.
But, to give credit where it is due, this campaign started in the spring of 2019 with three Helena residents, Rick and Beth Cottingham and Ronnie Whitaker. These folks traveled to sparsely attended rallies around the state dealing with the refugee crisis. They called U.S. Sen. Steve Daines' office, but he was solidly with the president. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester was sympathetic, but wasn’t able to offer effective assistance.
Finally, the ad hoc committee of three grew, adding new members Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, Ellie Parker and Patricia Bik. This committee determined to approach the UN and, to that end, researched, drafted and honed a letter. Once circulated, numerous others who read the letter wanted to sign it, as well.
The three-and-one-half page, footnoted letter details the shameful history of the Trump administration’s inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment and internment of immigrant children and their families at the U.S. southern border — naming this treatment for what it is: torture.
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Citing Article V of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Inviolable Human Dignity provision of Montana’s Constitution the letter condemns the Trump administration’s treatment of refugees as “standing in blatant disregard” of both documents and, as well, the international rule of law.
The more than six dozen signers of the letter affirm their belief that “the vast majority of Americans, demand that immigrants, asylum-seekers, and especially their children, must be treated fairly, compassionately, with dignity, and pursuant to the rule of law.”
The letter concludes: “with this sense of responsibility, we respectfully urge [the High Commissioner] ... to take appropriate action to enforce Declaration of Rights, Article V, against the United States and the Trump Administration.”
Reading this citizen letter seeking justice for refugees, one cannot help but be reminded: that we are all immigrants or are descendants of immigrants; that we the people — the vast majority of Americans, in general, and Montanans, in particular — respect the human dignity of all people regardless of their circumstances; and that no government, president, politician or magistrate has a right to subject any other human being to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.
And, even though our president and his Congress hold human dignity in contempt, the people — ordinary citizens, decent Montanans — do not abide such conduct.
Indeed, that these Montanans were forced seek justice for refugees from the United Nations, speaks volumes about our own government’s blatant disregard of human dignity. How tragic!
James C. Nelson of Helena is a retired Montana Supreme Court justice.