Human rights essential to U.S. policy, Clinton says

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at Georgetown University.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at Georgetown University. (Gerald Herbert - AP)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that human rights and democracy promotion are central to U.S. foreign policy, in a major speech after months of criticism that the Obama administration was being too timid about denouncing abuses of basic freedoms abroad.

Clinton emphasized that the U.S. government could demand other countries observe human rights only if it got its own house in order, a reference to President Obama's moves to end torture and close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center.

She also put new focus on expanding the human rights discussion to include freedom from hunger and disease, an approach often emphasized by Third World countries.

But perhaps the most notable aspect of Clinton's speech was that she gave it at all, said activists and other experts on human rights. Her talk, and one last week by Obama at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, appeared to respond to concerns that the administration has not been forceful enough about abuses in places such as China.

"I think she went a long way in addressing what had become a kind of an issue that started to dog the Obama administration -- where do human rights and democracy fit with them?" said Sarah Mendelson, director of the human rights and security initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In her speech at Georgetown University, Clinton outlined several elements of the administration's approach. First, she said, every country would be held accountable for hewing to universal human rights standards -- "including ourselves."

Second, Clinton said, the administration would be pragmatic. She cited, for example, the decision to begin "measured engagement" with Burma after determining that isolating the regime was not helping.

Third, the administration plans to work with grass-roots groups as well as governments. Finally, Clinton said, human rights should be viewed as a broad category that includes issues such as women's rights and development.

Clinton was assailed early in the administration for appearing to play down human rights problems in China and the Middle East. On a recent trip to Russia, however, she denounced attacks on human rights promoters in a local radio interview and at a reception with pro-democracy activists and journalists.

David J. Kramer, an assistant secretary of state for human rights and democracy during the Bush administration, praised Clinton's speech for reflecting a bipartisan tradition of support for democracy and freedom.

He noted that Obama administration officials were initially reluctant to adopt some of the Bush administration's emphasis on promoting "freedom" and "ending tyranny." Critics had said Bush undermined that effort by inconsistently applying the ideas, especially in the Middle East.

"They wanted to distance themselves from it. But I think they made a mistake," Kramer said.

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