Redefining human rights

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

THE OBAMA administration's commitment to the traditional American cause of promoting democracy and human rights has been widely questioned, and not without reason. So some rights advocates were pleased by an address that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered at Georgetown University, in which she laid out "the Obama administration's human rights agenda for the 21st century." We're not so happy.

Ms. Clinton said that the administration, "like others before us, will promote, support and defend democracy." She pledged that it would publicly denounce abuses by other governments and support dissidents and civil society groups. While saying that "principled pragmatism" would govern human rights discussions with "key countries like China and Russia," Ms. Clinton went on to spell out specific U.S. concerns with those nations, including Beijing's persecution of peaceful reformers and the murders of journalists in Russia.

As Ms. Clinton herself suggested, such pledges have been the common currency of American governments. But she did not limit herself to past principles. She offered an innovation: The Obama administration, she said, would "see human rights in a broad context," in which "oppression of want -- want of food, want of health, want of education, and want of equality in law and in fact" -- would be addressed alongside the oppression of tyranny and torture. "That is why," Ms. Clinton said, "the cornerstones of our 21st-century human rights agenda" would be "supporting democracy" and "fostering development."

This is indeed an important change in U.S. human rights policy -- but the idea behind it is pure 20th century. Ms. Clinton's lumping of economic and social "rights" with political and personal freedom was a standard doctrine of the Soviet Bloc, which used to argue at every East-West conference that human rights in Czechoslovakia were superior to those in the United States, because one provided government health care that the other lacked. In fact, as U.S. diplomats used to tirelessly respond, rights of liberty -- for free expression and religion, for example -- are unique in that they are both natural and universal; they will exist so long as governments do not suppress them. Health care, shelter and education are desirable social services, but they depend on resources that governments may or may not possess. These are fundamentally different goods, and one cannot substitute for another.

Ms. Clinton said that in adding "human development" to human rights and democracy, "we have to tackle all three simultaneously." But there are two dangers in her approach. One is that non-democratic regimes will seize on the economic aspect of her policy as an substitute for political reform -- as dictators have been doing for decades. Another is that the Obama administration will itself, in working with friendly but unfree countries, choose the easy route of focusing on development, while downplaying democracy.

Judging from Ms. Clinton's own rhetoric, that is the approach the State Department is headed toward in the Arab Middle East. In a major speech last month in Morocco, she said that U.S. engagement with Islamic countries would henceforth focus on education, science and technology, and "entrepreneurship" -- all foundations of "development." She made no mention of democracy. If the Obama administration believes that liberty is urgently needed in the homelands of al-Qaeda, Ms. Clinton still has offered no sign of it.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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