Clinton Speech Should Make Clear America’s Commitment To Human Rights

Washington, DC Today, Secretary Hilary Clinton is scheduled to make a major foreign policy address setting out the Obama Administration’s vision for U.S. global leadership in the 21st century. In anticipation of her remarks, Human Rights First is calling on Secretary Clinton to make clear America’s commitment to human rights. To date, the administration has consistently stressed its commitment to promoting human rights abroad and has emphasized that broader and better respect for human rights globally serves the national security interests of the United States. In talking about this approach, senior officials including President Obama and Secretary Clinton have talked about engagement with America’s rivals and adversaries, as well as with friends and allies. They have spoken of the mutual interests and mutual responsibilities of governments to uphold human rights, and they have termed their approach principled pragmatism. “Secretary Clinton has asked that America’s human rights record be judged not on rhetoric, but on results.  She is right that actions speak louder than words. But by clearly outlining the administration’s human rights objectives and priorities in today’s speech, Secretary Clinton can better make the case for how engagement is designed to achieve them,” said Elisa Massimino, Human Rights First’s President and CEO. Human Rights First notes that while it is true that many human rights problems are challenging and some may be beyond the capacity of U.S. foreign policy to remedy, given the importance that the Obama Administration attaches to human rights as a foundation of international peace and security, it is not unreasonable to expect credible, principled policy proposals that respond to pressing global human rights problems. Until now, it has been hard to point to successes for the Obama administration in this regard. Secretary Clinton’s speech is a time to address these concerns head on and to tell the world how the Obama Administration plans to address specific challenges, including:

  • Russia: The much-heralded reset of relations with Russia has not impacted the disturbing slide towards authoritarianism in that country.  Basic freedoms of expression and assembly are curtailed for the government’s non-violent critics.  Human rights defenders and independent journalists and threatened, assaulted and even killed with impunity.  Tomorrow, Secretary Clinton should make clear that the United States will no longer rely on the U.S-Russia bilateral commission as the primary mechanism for promoting human rights in that country. She should go beyond stating that the Obama administration disagrees with Russia on human rights and should say publicly that continued human rights violations will interfere with developing closer relations in other areas.
  • Iran: In Iran, U.S. diplomatic efforts have focused on building international support for efforts to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons capacity, not on ways to support protesters struggling for the right to choose their own leaders or for women and religious minorities seeking equal treatment.  As evidence of severe violations of human rights continues to mount such as activists in prison, peaceful protesters killed in the streets or subjected to torture and rape in prison, and human rights defenders forced to flee for their lives the absence of an urgent policy response from the United States has become a glaring omission.  Secretary Clinton should make clear that the State Department will build a substantial international effort with likeminded countries on human rights as part of the security issues that dominate the international agenda.
  • Egypt: Even in countries with which the U.S. government enjoys close bi-lateral relations, like Egypt, the lack of clear policies to address well-known and long-standing human rights problems is a concern.  For example, the U.S. government continues to call for Egypt to hold free and fair elections in forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for later this year and 2011.  U.S. officials continue to make these statements, even though they know that measures taken by the Egyptian government after the last round of elections in 2005 make it virtually impossible for opposition candidates to stand in the presidential election and have undermined domestic efforts to carry out independent election monitoring to minimize abuses.  Tomorrow, Secretary Clinton should lay out clear benchmarks identifying the reforms necessary for free and fair elections to take place and pledge to hold the administration’s Egyptian partners accountable for these commitments.
  • Sudan: It has been almost a year since the Obama administration unveiled a new Sudan policy.  In addition to being unevenly implemented, this policy has been ineffective in dealing with the government in Khartoum. It is now a matter of months before two critical referenda on that country’s future.  How the U.S. galvanizes international action to prepare for this moment and avoid a return to war in Sudan will be a major test of this administration’s global leadership. Tomorrow, Secretary Clinton should commit to providing strong U.S. leadership on Sudan and, more broadly, commit to taking action whenever atrocities are threatened by among other efforts addressing the role of third-party enablers who help sustain the world’s worst crimes.

Though it would be unfair to demand instant results from policies designed to promote human rights abroad, Human Rights First notes that leadership demands a candid appraisal of problems that exist. It also demands a willingness to confront violators with their responsibilities and, at the end of the day, to implement policies that set a course for tangible improvements in conditions on the ground.  A U.S. government that is seen as advancing human rights and freedom at home and around the world will make America stronger and contribute to improved global peace and security.


Published on September 8, 2010


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