Interview with President Jimmy Carter: Human Rights

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Female Speaker 1: In celebration of the reopening of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum and the former president's 85th birthday, we sat down with Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter to talk about the highlights of his presidency and his hopes for the Carter Center.

Female Speaker 2: Do you think the United States does a good job protecting human rights?

President Carter: Sometimes. In general, we do. In the days before I became president, there was a policy of America to go to bed with all the dictators and to stamp out any sort of demand by oppressed people for freedom and equality and democracy because our major American corporations would have contracts with the owners of the copper mines and the iron mines and the banana plantations and so forth, so they could make more profits on those things and pineapple and all, and they didn't want to see the economic benefits endangered by the dictators friendly to us being overthrown. A lot of those dictators - military - were educated at West Point or Annapolis, where I went. So they knew American customs, and they spoke English well, and so it was just natural for our country to protect them and not let them be overthrown by radical people who demanded human rights. They were called communists and so forth. If the dictator was sometimes endangered because the people became too strong, the United States would send in Marines into that country to protect the dictators. I thought that was a mistake! We began to promote human rights, particularly the right of people to demand the ability choose their own leaders, which leads to democracy. When I became president, most of the countries in Latin America and South America and Central America were dictators. Now, there's not a single dictatorship in South America or Central America because human rights were protected by America, and we encouraged the people to express themselves through free elections to choose their own governments, although those democracies are not what we'd define as democracy. They don't measure up to our particular standards. The fact is that they're all democracies now. So that's one definition of human rights that we have not in the past protected. I hope we will continue to in the future. And in the last administration, we had horrible violations of human rights, say in Abu Ghraib prison and in Guantanamo, where we had people arrested, taken to prison, never given a chance to have a lawyer, never being informed about what the charges were against them and never being able to have their families visit them in prison, never having any hope of ultimately going to trial. That, to some degree, is still going on. I hope that President Obama will be able to do away with that, and I believe he will. At the same time, we've seen great restraints placed inside the United States on the freedom of American people to be not endangered by intrusion on privacy. People listening in on our telephone conversations or American citizens being arrested and accused of certain crimes under the Patriot Act, within which they can be deprived of legal counsel or to confront their accusers or to even know what the crimes are that are raised against them, these accusations, and held in isolation from their own families. We've even done that to a few American families. The judicial system - the high courts, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, have been correcting those mistakes perpetrated under the administration of President George W. Bush. I think that President Obama is trying to undo those mistakes, but America has a chance or a temptation sometimes to slip in its commitment to human rights when it's convenient or when security, so called, is threatened or under terrorist threats, but almost invariably that's proven to be a mistake. One of the great things about our democracy is that we have an ability to correct our own mistakes with changes in leaders and also with the stability provided by the judicial system of our country having the ultimate voice when there is a dispute between the executive branch that is the president and the congress. So that is now correcting fairly rapidly the mistakes that we've made in the recent past.

Announcer: Be sure to tune in every Wednesday in September for more of our interview with President Carter. To learn more about the Carter Center and its mission of waging peace, fighting disease and building hope, visit And as always, for more on this and thousands of other topics, visit