N.C. rights award winner: We're not the good guys | Religious Left | Indy Week

Columns » Religious Left

N.C. rights award winner: We're not the good guys


Graymon Ward on the front lines at this year's protests at the former U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.
  • Graymon Ward on the front lines at this year's protests at the former U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.

John Gibney always wished his son, Mark, would attend Sunday mass. While Mark lost interest in the Catholic ritual as he grew older, he didn't reject the core teachings of Christianity exemplified in the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan.

Mark Gibney, the Belk Distinguished Professor in Humanities at UNC-Asheville, went on to become an international human rights lawyer. His forthcoming book, Ending the Nightmare: How to Save the World in Four Easy Steps, was honored this month with the 2006 Human Rights Award presented by The Human Rights Coalition of North Carolina.

Gibney would often argue to his father that his interest in human rights and international ethics was "sort of a different kind of spirituality, but he never bought it. He wanted me to go to church."

While many Westerners perceive human rights violations as things that occur "someplace else by nasty individuals," Gibney, 54, says it's time for the West to stop ignoring the overwhelming role wealthy nations play in perpetuating the "most insidious" kinds of human rights violations.

While the phrase "human rights" often conjures up images of torture and political prisoners, Gibney says "the real human rights are economic rights" that are too often denied in a world where 50,000 people die each day of "preventable disease."

It's the West that enacts unjust trade barriers that lead to famine around the world, and it's the West that ships armaments to nations that misuse them, Gibney said at a Dec. 5 dinner in his honor at the N.C. State University Club.

The belief in the West that we're the "good guys is simply a premise I refuse to accept," Gibney says.

The 50,000 people dying daily from lack of food, lack of clean water and lack of shelter is "the crime of our age," Gibney says. "This is the stuff I swear grandchildren will get in your face 50 years from now and say, 'Were you alive when....'"

Americans may perceive their nation as a human rights champion. They're erroneous in that belief, Gibney says. While the United States deserves credit for leading the effort to establish the United Nations, that's where the good news ends for the most part.

"Time and time and time again I think the United States has come out on the side of those who violate human rights," Gibney says.

Gibney says he doesn't see the things he espouses "as being all that different from Christ's teachings. If [Jesus] were alive today, he'd be an international human rights lawyer, would he not?"Maybe John Gibney would agree.

Prison likely for SOA protester

Graymon Ward, 20, has already felt the heat from his decision to "cross the line" and get arrested with 15 others at last month's annual protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the U.S. Army School of the Americas, or SOA) at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.

Upon returning from Georgia, Ward's boss at a Raleigh fitness equipment company told him he was being let go at the height of the busy Christmas season. Ward suspects a coworker of tipping off the boss about his arrest.

Sometime this spring, following his Jan. 29 trial, Ward will likely be reporting to a federal prison to serve a 90-day to six-month prison sentence for trespassing. A federal magistrate in Columbus who has tried the SOA cases for the last few years has generally given active prison sentences and fines to all defendants, even those with unblemished records.

A lifelong member of West Raleigh Presbyterian Church, Ward traveled to Columbus with N.C. State's Presbyterian campus minister, the Rev. Allen Proctor, who brings a group of students to the SOA protest each fall.

Ward said he considered participating in the civil disobedience last year after hearing Raleigh's Gail Phares speak about the school, where scores of Latin American soldiers have been trained in counterinsurgency warfare. Many SOA graduates have been implicated in human rights abuses and murders in their native countries.

Phares, a former missionary and nationally recognized human rights activist, spent three months in federal prison this year stemming from her 2005 SOA arrest.

After hearing Phares, Ward told his mother, Virginia Ward, that he would spend a year thinking about crossing the line. When Graymon told his mother of his decision to risk arrest, she gave him her blessings and agreed to bail him out if necessary. Ward had the $500 for his bail, and he's very grateful to his mother, who plans to attend his trial.

"She actually described it as what she thought was the right thing to do, which helped me a lot," he says.

Virginia Ward said she's proud of her son, but she's hoping the magistrate just gives him community service.

"I think community service is almost out of the question," Graymon said. "Even if I get six months, that's still fine, that's a small sacrifice of time for a chance to save thousands of lives. It seems worth it to me....

"Even if the School of the Americas isn't closed as a result of this particular group crossing the line, I feel like me going to prison will still have served to educate the public about this and to also hopefully make people more aware of human rights violations."

Says Virginia: "Whatever he's called to do, he'll do it—absolutely."

Ward is the fourth person from the Triangle to cross the line in the last four years. In addition to Phares in 2005, Durham's Dan Schwankl was arrested at the SOA in 2004 and served a 90-day prison sentence, and Schwankl's wife, the Rev. Sarah Jobe, was arrested at the SOA in 2003, and received probation and a $1,500 fine.

Add a comment