In 1776, representatives of the British territories in North America decided to declare their independence, and were cautious enough to write the reasons they had decided to break with the Crown in London and to proclaim themselves a Republic. The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America was also the birth certificate of the modern democratic state. In the text, it was declared as a self-evident truth that every human being was endowed with some inalienable rights and that the legitimacy of the authorities of the new State would come from guaranteeing to every citizen the effective enjoyment of these rights. Democracy means not only that the representatives are freely elected, but also that the rule of law is applied equally to everyone.
In spite of the Declaration, it took almost one century to abolish slavery. Another century would pass before the Supreme Court declared that racial segregation was not admissible.
In the international community, it was also an American who established a landmark in international justice and law. In the aftermath of WWII, Robert Jackson, Chief Prosecutor of Nazi leaders at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, said to the Court: “We should not impose on others any rule that we do not accept as equally applicable to ourselves.”
In all the American universities I have had the opportunity to teach or lecture, I have told the students: “You, Americans, founded the culture of the democratic rule of law, and for this you should be proud, because that culture is a lighthouse of hope for all mankind; but this heritage is also a heavy weight, because it is a heritage that you must care for, preserve, respect and get respected for.”
Nowadays, American supremacy is under scrutiny. Is the United States still the hegemonic power in the world? In my view, this supremacy will be ethical or will not be at all. It cannot be sustained with wrongdoings like Guantanamo, which denies the doctrine of due process established by the American Supreme Court decades ago. Nor will it be preserved with the doctrine of preemptive attacks unilaterally proclaimed by President G. W. Bush and applied subsequently in 2003 to the invasion of Iraq without the authorization of the UN Security Council and in contradiction with the doctrine of preventive use of force established by the US Secretary of State Daniel Webster more than one century ago. This doctrine was applied to the Nazi leaders in Nuremberg, and universally accepted.
Ethical ascendancy will not be preserved either by keeping millions of workers and their families as “illegal aliens” in American soil, paying taxes all their lives and receiving nothing in exchange, not even legal protection, always threatened of being deported anytime. To the best of my knowledge, nobody brought passports or green cards with them in the Mayflower, neither did they have to show them upon arrival to the new land.
The moral and political supremacy of the United States can be sustained only if the lighthouse is kept alight with the most powerful possible light: the light of democracy and the rule of law, domestic and internationally. “And you—I always say this to the students—are the lighthouse keepers. This is your heritage and your duty.”
I have communicated this message in Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and many other universities every time I have had the opportunity. Sometimes, I have received understanding and approval in response; other times, silence or skepticism. Of all the places where the message has been more positively received, I must mention CUNY, the public University of New York City. In March of 2014, I was invited to Queensborough Community College and I had a new opportunity to speak about the importance of international justice, universal jurisdiction and accountability for those responsible of egregious abuses of human rights, and explained some prosecutions in which I have taken part, such as that of General Pinochet from Chile and other perpetrators. Most of the QCC students that were listening to me were not precisely descendants of those migrants who arrived to America in the Mayflower. Rather, they were the descendants of those who were brought forcefully from Africa as slaves, or those who arrived from the South crossing the Rio Grande and the desert, looking for a dignified life they could not enjoy in their homeland, perhaps following the light that shines, now and then, from the lighthouse of freedom. They received the message with attention, with hope; some of them, with enthusiasm. And then I told myself: “These are going to be good lighthouse keepers.”
Carlos Castresana, Public Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Spain, is the author of the first lawsuit against Pinochet.