Human Rights Defenders at the White House

By Elisa Massimino

Human Rights activists from more than 25 countries gathered in Washington last week for a meeting designed to mobilize greater support for those struggling to advance respect for basic freedoms in fragile new democracies and repressive authoritarian states. They had a packed agenda, including a meeting with President Obama and senior National Security Council staff at the White House.

Participants in last Thursday’s meeting at the White House were pleased to meet a president who expressed support and solidarity with their concerns, rather than trying to ban their activities, throw them in prison, or worse. For many of the human rights activists participating in the Human Rights Summit, a sympathetic ear, offers of support and a candid exchange of views are the last things they expect from their own governments. Many of them remarked on this contrast: at home, they are pushed away, obstructed, insulted and sometimes attacked by their governments; but here in the United States they were welcomed to the White House and listened to. They will leave having been encouraged and inspired by their warm reception, and it will give them strength and, in some cases, much-needed protection as they return to their work in countries like Russia, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Belarus where repression is mounting and basic freedoms are under attack.

Activists from Indonesia who attended were especially appreciative of the opportunity to brief President Obama before his visit there next month, and they were able to make plans for the President to meet with representatives of independent civil society organizations while he is there, a key component of the administration’s strategy for engaging with human rights activists around the world.

All of the participants I have spoken with since the meeting were appreciative of the President’s sincerity and the seriousness with which he and his staff engaged with the challenging issues of upholding basic freedoms in a world where principles like freedom of expression are under threat from authoritarian states and a variety of non-state actors. They came away reassured that they have friends in the White House.

As a U.S.-based human rights organization, Human Rights First sees pressing the U.S. government to exercise global leadership on human rights as one of our main jobs. That’s what we did at the White House last week. The fact that the President met with our group and spent so much time with us is an indication of the priority he places on these issues.

The President and other senior administration officials have said many times that they wish to be judged not by their rhetoric, but by their results. We heard this same pledge in our meeting with the President. and we think it is the right thing for our government to say. It is certainly the expectation of Summit participants that the President’s words will be backed by actions that will help to improve human rights conditions in their countries. That is why we have been working on producing a Plan of Action, part of which will include direct recommendations to the U.S. government as a product of the Human Rights Summit. We and all the participants will be ready to work in partnership with the U.S. government, other governments and international organizations to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms worldwide. That way, in the future, we will have positive results to celebrate together.


Published on February 22, 2010


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