Advocates point moral compass

With the student protesters gone from President Rodin’s office, the leading advocate for the human rights of sweatshop employees, Charles Kernaghan, is no persona non grata.

Kernaghan, the executive director of the National Labor Committee (NLC), was an honored speaker at the final event of the Penn Humanities Forum’s weeklong series, Human Nature—Human Rights, at WHYY’s radio studios March 25. He was sharing a podium with two other luminaries of human rights — Nadine Strossen, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); and William Schulz, director of Amnesty International-USA.

Provost Robert L. Barchi had kind words for the student protesters in his remarks opening the event. “Social change is by nature messy and unpredictable,” he said. He praised the “passion and devotion” of the students involved. He said he was proud to help lead an institution with students so committed to ferreting out human rights violations.

Kernaghan was the last of the three guest speakers, so his visual aids — including a Yale T-shirt (boo) and a plush Tinky Winky, the so-called “gay” Teletubby — were a welcome diversion from his depressing statistics about the inhumane conditions under which they were made. “We have a global economy with no moral compass,” he said, thanking the Penn students for waking up the rest of the country to sweatshop conditions around the world.

Here in the United States, human rights have advanced greatly since the ACLU’s founding in 1920, Strossen said — except in the “criminal injustice system.” Current ACLU efforts Strossen highlighted include fighting for student rights, under attack since the shootings in Columbine.

“Different does not mean dangerous,” she said, referring to school decisions around the country to ban signs of difference such as long black trench coats, stars of David, even T-shirts imprinted with the dangerous gang logo of the vegans.

Strossen said that true to her organization’s defense of free speech on the Internet, the group had its own Web site,, making it easy for citizens to contact its representatives about human rights issues.

And free speech was also what gave Amnesty its power to save political prisoners, Schulz said. “Sometimes, merely by telling the truth, those of us in Philadelphia can … make a difference for someone in Lahore.”


Originally published on April 6, 2000