Letter from Christian B. Anfinsen to Carol Rittner
Included with this brief letter to Rittner at the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity is a short speech by Anfinsen on human
rights that he delivered at the Foundation's Paris Conference earlier that year.
Enclosed are my "trigger" remarks for the conference in Paris. See you there.
I have been asked to give a short "trigger" presentation on the general problem of human rights. The problem is so
vast and complex that it is almost an impertinence to attempt to arrive at any kind of generalization about this area of human
existence. In the best of all possible worlds, every human being should have a full stomach, an agreeable occupation, and
the freedom to select without coercion his representatives in the government under which he lives. The organizers of this
conference have emphasized the word "tolerance" at various points in the outline, and this, of course, is the kernel.
An international, totally accepted system of oversight and implementation would be the ideal answer. This kind of system
could be applied to a variety of situations that foster local acceptability of strong totalitarian state machineries; religious
persecution; suppression of freedom of speech: and forms of modern slavery that grow out of economic pressures, over-population,
and inadequate public health.
Slavery, as we usually think of it, still exists in small pockets of the world. On the other hand, poverty and overpopulation
induce a kind of large-scale slavery which we all know about. The pseudo-slavery brought about by poverty and overpopulation
exists in most countries, even those that are most highly developed in terms of democratic principles. What is needed here
is a selfless, enlightened altruism implanted in the genes of those who control our large industrial and bureaucratic institutions.
National ideologies are extremely common and widespread in our present-day world. As we all know, many political systems
have built into them laws or, at least, understandings about the illegality of religion or the proscribed legality of a particular
type of religion. For example, at the moment, the Middle East is undergoing a conflagration which makes sense, presumably,
to those who are participating but which is very difficult for many of the rest of us to comprehend since we are neither Sunnis
nor Shiites. The same can be said, of course, for Arabs and Jews and, for that matter, for the individuals who live in the
north and south of Ireland.
National ideologies become more severe and ambitious in those instances where there is a desire for power and control, and
for territorial possession. We are, at the moment, seeing a large number of conflagrations that involve this kind of hate
and drive. In some parts of the world, for example, enormous tensions abound allegedly related to the differences in ideology
that underlie communism on the one hand, and "democracy" on the other. The Phillippines, Central America, and numerous
areas of Africa are undergoing such troubles. It is not clear whether the problems underlying these conflicts are truly related
to the ideologies that are expressed or to -- what seems more likely -- the desire to "take over."
I have not touched some of the more extreme sequela such as torture, imprisonment, execution, and banishment. These are operations
that are, indeed, the most frightening, but at the same time, represent a set of behavior patterns growing out of the larger
problem of aggression and lack of tolerance.
To try to suggest ways and means to counteract in a massive and effective way some of the pains that mankind is now undergoing
would appear to me to be, as I mentioned above, impertinent. A United Nations organization and a World Court that really
worked would be marvelous solutions, but I sometimes think that mankind will cease its bickering and will stand shoulder-to-shoulder
in a united way only when the Martians are about to land on the earth. We can, however, do something about population and
nutrition, and possibly, religious conflict. I would like to try to help, and I think that that attitude is with us all at