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Advancing Human Rights and Democracy as a Foreign Policy Priority

Barry F. Lowenkron, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Remarks to the Commonwealth Club
San Francisco, CA
March 26, 2007

As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Skip. I appreciate the opportunity to share with the members and guests of the Commonwealth Club some insights on President Bush's Freedom Agenda, and why the advancement of human rights and democracy makes practical sense as a foreign policy priority in today's world.

A little more than two decades ago, my then boss, Secretary of State George Shultz, chose the Commonwealth Club as the venue for delivering his signature address on what became known as the Reagan Doctrine. I know that speech very well. I was a member of Secretary Shultz's Policy Planning staff at the time. I remember the intense debates both within the administration and outside it as to whether we should make freedom the hallmark of our foreign policy. Secretary Shultz helped settle that debate. He argued that it was in keeping with America's history, our moral duty and our national security interests to support the global democratic trends that were unfolding.

The phenomenon that Secretary Shultz described with his legendary foresight was not a passing one. In the decades since, freedom continued to spread across the world, communist dictatorships collapsed and new democracies arose. I would argue that the chilling advent of the age of global terrorism makes the rationale for our promotion of democracy stronger still. In today's post-September 11 world, as President Bush puts it: "What every terrorist fears most is human freedom…Free people are not drawn to violent and malignant ideologies…So we advance our own security interests by helping moderates and reformers and brave voices for democracy."

The worldwide terrorist threat has given new urgency to our human rights and democracy promotion efforts. But these efforts did not begin on September 12, 2001, nor when Secretary Shultz appeared before this club over two decades ago. America's activism under successive Administrations throughout our history has made the Freedom Agenda, in one form or another, part of the international landscape.

What have we learned in this? The American people will not support, and the U.S. Government cannot sustain, policies that contradict democratic principles. Indeed, the idealist in all of us believes that America should advance these principles beyond its shores. Yet, the realist in all of us believes that America should deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. This is a tension inherent in our democracy and our history.

It is not easy to reaffirm this fundamental point at a time when we struggle over Iraq. Indeed elements on both sides of American politics today criticize the Bush Administration's Freedom Agenda. Some argue that it is patently unrealistic. They want us to focus on our core security interests, deal with countries as we find them, and regard how they govern and treat their citizens as an internal matter. Others argue that the war on terror has so corroded our own credibility that we cannot effectively advance democracy and human rights overseas.

Giving in to either of these sentiments would be a tragic mistake. How others are governed matters greatly. It matters greatly whether the Taliban or a democratically elected government is in charge in Afghanistan. By the same token, succumbing to the criticism that we no longer have the credibility to press for human rights and democracy would mean breaking faith with countless human rights defenders worldwide who still regard us as the world's greatest champion of freedom and look to us for hope and validation that they are not alone.

And so the tension between realism and idealism will continue. But I am comforted that our efforts to promote and defend human rights and democratic principles also will continue to enjoy broad-based bipartisan backing and the strong support of the American people.

Earlier this month I joined Secretary Rice as she announced the publication of the 2006 Reports on Human Rights Practices. The reports are mandated by Congress. They describe the performance of governments worldwide in putting into practice internationally adopted commitments on human rights. For three decades, the reports have served as a foundation for our diplomacy and for our cooperative action with other governments, organizations and individuals seeking to end abuses and strengthen the capacity of countries to protect the fundamental rights of all.

We do not issue these reports because we think ourselves perfect, but rather because we know ourselves to be imperfect--like all human beings. As Secretary Rice said, "Our democratic system of governance is accountable, but it is not infallible."

Advances in human rights and democracy always are hard won. They do not happen overnight or according to an American timetable--let alone our election cycle. And even when democratic systems of government have been established, they take time to deliver on the promise they hold of a better life for ordinary citizens. Democratic systems with shallow institutional roots or scarce resources can fall short of meeting their commitments to citizens, including human rights commitments. Democratic transitions can be tumultuous and wrenching. Unbridled corruption can retard democratic development, distort judicial processes and destroy public trust. Progress is challenging to sustain and seldom is linear. Insecurity due to internal or cross-border conflict can threaten gains in human rights and democratic government, as we are seeing so painfully in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are all sobering realities.

Yet, in every region of the world, increasing numbers of men and women are pressing for their rights to be respected and their governments to be responsive, for their voices to be heard and their votes to count, for just laws and equal justice.

Not surprisingly, in every region of the globe, there are governments that respond to the growing demands for democratic freedoms not by accepting their obligations to their people, but by oppressing those who advocate peacefully for democratic change.

We live in what I would call "The Time of Push-back." Push-back comes with a variety of rationalizations and takes a variety of forms. Many have to do with redefining or reinterpreting democracy.

I must confess that I have always been leery of those who insert adjectives before the word "democracy." They modify it to the point of meaninglessness--or worse. For decades the communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe were called "People's Democracies", but the regimes neither respected democratic practices nor represented the will of the people over whom they ruled. To this day, North Korea calls itself a "Democratic People's Republic."

In Russia, President Putin's advisors talk about "sovereign" or "managed" democracy. Whatever they call it, it is characterized by the Kremlin's tightened controls on political processes, its grip on the media, and constraints on the work of non-governmental organizations. As a result, the Russian government today is less and less accountable to the people and the environment surrounding the 2007-2008 Duma and presidential elections is increasingly daunting for those with opposing views.

In the People's Republic of China under President Hu Jintao, the Chinese have freedoms today unimaginable three decades ago. But that freedom is based on what we call the Tiananmen bargain: We give you the tools to compete economically, but you must remain quiet politically. The current goal is to nurture a "Harmonious Society"--one where the government demonstrates its willingness to hear grievances, allows citizens greater personal scope in how they live their private lives and works to spread China's new wealth farther into the countryside. But citizens who press for full exercise of freedoms of expression, religion and assembly and a meaningful say in how they are governed are viewed as "disrupting harmony" and must be silenced.

Then there's Venezuela's so-called "participatory" democracy--that's another adjective. Populist pandering is as old as politics, but it does not a democracy make. The Chavez government continues to consolidate power in the executive branch, harass the opposition and NGOs, restrict press freedom and weaken judicial independence. In December, President Chavez won a second term. At his request, the National Assembly, where his parties control all 167 seats, granted him the power to rule by executive decree for 18 months. Here's a democratically elected leader who does not govern democratically.

How do we respond? The challenges for human rights and democracy obviously vary from country to country, region to region, and we tailor our support accordingly. Where democracies are fragile, we seek to strengthen them. Where democratic institutions and democracy defenders are under siege, we seek to defend them. And where fundamental freedoms are non-existent--we speak out for the repressed and the persecuted.

In the Western Hemisphere, the principal challenge is democratic development--a challenge highlighted by President Bush during his recent trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. Here we are committed to helping democracies improve their capacity to deliver benefits to their citizens.

The challenges for human rights and democracy across Asia are as diverse as the countries in that vast expanse. For example, in Indonesia, which is on a positive democratic trajectory, we seek to help address issues of governance to deepen the progress being made. In repressive Burma, we work within the United Nations and with like-minded nations in the region to press for political reforms, spotlight abuses and address humanitarian calamities caused by the junta's misrule.

In the broader Middle East, we are responding to the growing demand for political, economic and educational reform through innovative efforts such as the Forum for the Future, created in 2004. The Forum brings together government officials and civil society representatives from the region, along with our G-8 partners. I accompanied Secretary Rice to the third annual meeting of the Forum last December at the Dead Sea in Jordan. Fifty civil society leaders representing hundreds of organizations from 16 countries of the region participated in discussions on the rule of law, transparency and women's and youth empowerment. These are local voices, demanding change from within. Though the hardest part lies ahead--adopting and implementing recommendations put forward by civil society--the Forum is helping to open political space that did not exist before in the region.

For many countries in Africa, ending violence remains central to improving human rights conditions and advancing governmental reforms. No where is this more grimly apparent than in Sudan, especially in the province of Darfur.

In 2005, the UN endorsed--on behalf of all of its members--a simple yet powerful message: that the international community had a "Responsibility to Protect." We do not need to look back on the grainy black and white images of the death camps in World War II to remember what genocide looks like. We have witnessed other versions: Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and now Darfur.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Sudan to assess first hand the appalling situation in Darfur.

Fear and anxiety permeate the region. The fear was palpable in a camp for Internally Displaced People that I visited. It is one of the largest--harboring a population of over 90,000 people. The desperate Darfurians who fled into the camps want to go home, but they cannot. They know that the overwhelmed African Union peacekeepers cannot protect them all. Several days before I visited the Kalma camp, fighting broke out inside the camp, near a health clinic for malnourished children. Surrounding the tents housing these children were sandbags to provide an extra, albeit feeble, measure of security.

The humanitarian organizations and other NGOs trying to help the people in the camps are besieged. There have been brutal attacks on NGO convoys. Equally disturbing, the Sudanese government continues to erect bureaucratic roadblocks in order to frustrate the efforts of aid workers: delays in transit of needed medicine, extra administrative burdens, exorbitant fees for renewal of visas, and other forms of harassment.

Yet in this hell I also saw determination among young Darfurians who organized themselves into a legal aid society right in the camp. And I saw it in a group of remarkable women in South Darfur who were working to educate the young and empower the citizens of Darfur to defend their rights. These individuals shared more than determination. They also shared the belief that, as one put it, "America cares."

My message to Sudanese government officials in Khartoum was this: you must stop the massive abuses of human rights; you must allow the UN and AU to deploy their forces together to rebuild security; you must support the UN and AU envoys in their efforts to hammer out a political solution to restore peace; and you must allow the humanitarian organizations to perform their lifesaving work unfettered. We can accept nothing less.

The challenge of protecting and advancing human rights and democratic principles worldwide requires us to be innovative in our approaches. Last December, on International Human Rights Day, Secretary Rice created a Human Rights Defenders Fund. This fund, to be administered by the State Department, will enable us to quickly disburse small grants to human rights defenders facing extraordinary needs as a result of government repression. This funding could go to cover legal defense or emergency medical costs, or short-term support to meet the pressing needs of activists' families.

The Secretary also announced 10 guiding principles regarding the treatment by governments of NGOs. Our own government will abide by the principles and we will take them into account in our bilateral relations with other governments. These core principles are meant to serve as a handy resource for governments, international organizations, civil society groups, and journalists. The principles already have been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Persian, French, Russian and Spanish.

In light of the increasing restrictions that governments across the globe are placing on the Internet, Secretary Rice has established the Global Internet Freedom Taskforce, or GIFT. Through GIFT, we are working with industry, human rights groups, Congress and foreign governments to maximize Internet Freedom, to minimize the success of repressive regimes in censoring information and to promote access to information and ideas over the Internet.

GIFT is just one of the many ways we are working with the business community to foster human dignity, the rule of law and good governance. Just this morning, I met here in San Francisco with an organization called Business for Social Responsibility, which fosters good labor practices and human rights abroad. And next month, to cite another example, we will bring together at the State Department corporate representatives from the chocolate industry, the governments of Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, and NGOs in a joint effort to eliminate the worst forms of child labor in the cocoa sector in West Africa.

Many of you may have been in the audience when Secretary Rice addressed the Commonwealth Club in May 2005. She began her address with a salute to Secretary Shultz and his speech on democracy two decades before. The reference was not coincidental. I had a small hand in her speech, too--I had returned to the scene of the crime, this time to serve as Deputy Director of the Policy Planning Staff.

Secretary Rice noted that: "Trying to label our policies as either realistic or idealistic…is a false choice. It is both. Freedom and democracy are the only way for diverse societies to resolve their disputes justly and to live together without oppression and war. Our challenge today is to create conditions of openness around states that encourage and nurture democratic reform within states."

Ladies and Gentlemen: That same challenge stands before us now, and it will confront many future administrations of whatever political stripe. For when we support the efforts of men and women in countries across the globe to shape their own destinies in freedom, we help to build a safer, more prosperous world for all.

Thank you.

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