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Remarks to Human Rights Convocation

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, Senior Director for Strategic Planning and External Affairs
Manchester Community College, Connecticut
April 20, 2007

Thank you for your kind introduction Dr. Woodward. I appreciate the opportunity to speak at today’s convocation. And I want to thank UConn Tri Campus, the Connecticut Community Colleges, and UNESCO Chair’s Office for putting this event on, and for Manchester Community College for hosting us.

This conference is a great service to the cause of human rights, which needs the continued support of students, the academic community, the non-governmental and private sectors, as well as governments and multilateral institutions such as UNESCO. The speakers’ posters upstairs are a testament to the strong commitment, passion, and creativity this group has. It is great to see that human rights remain a key concern on campus, and that so many people are working to promote human rights here at home and abroad.

Human rights are a key component of America’s focus on spreading freedom abroad. I will talk about both human rights and democracy today because human rights and freedom are intrinsically linked. Open, democratic forms of government – when functioning properly – are the best political system for guaranteeing respect for human rights. Likewise, when human rights are truly respected– as we have seen in our own country’s civil rights movement – there is greater participation in democratic governance.

Looking back on U.S. history, the protection of human rights and the struggle for democracy have been foundational to American society, and have been a cornerstone of our foreign policy in Administrations of both parties. This has been most evident in recent times – from the Carter Administration through the current Bush Administration.

I’d like to provide an overview of our democracy and human rights policy, and why we advance these issues as a cornerstone of American foreign policy.

When I meet with people, the question I get asked most often is why human rights and democracy are part of our foreign policy at all. This question typically comes from one of two points of view. The first are those who think human rights should be omitted from our foreign policy, arguing instead that we should focus only on economic and security goals. The second group takes the opposite approach – they think human rights and democracy should be our only focus.

In fact, neither camp can prevail. Human rights and democracy cannot be omitted; they must stand on equal footing with our security and economic interests. We pursue these goals as a critical element of our foreign policy for both moral and strategic reasons. Neither is more important. And both will ensure that human rights and democracy remain central to American foreign policy in the future.

Morally, protecting human rights and promoting democracy is simply the right thing to do. The values that we promote are universal values, desired by people in every country. I’m sure some of you have studied the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And these values are central to who we are as Americans. We are in a position to help those whose human rights are violated daily in the cruelest of ways, and we have a responsibility to act on that.

Secondly, it is also strategically imperative that human rights be part of our foreign policy. We recognize that our security and economic goals are intrinsically linked to the protection of human rights and the freedom of others around the globe.

Democratic societies provide an outlet for expressing views that repressive societies do not. The freedoms we value – worship, assembly and expression – provide vehicles for people to convey their opinions and choose democratic avenues rather than radical ones.

As Secretary Rice said on her trip to Egypt in 2005: “For 60 years, … the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

We recognize that the protection of human rights and the promotion of democratic values are integral to foreign policy. They can neither be the sole driving force of U.S. foreign policy, but neither can they be overlooked.

As many of you know, we recently released the annual human rights reports, which catalogue the human rights violations and progress around the world. We release them at a time when our own record here in the U.S. is being questioned. Some might ask – and some here may have the same question – what business the U.S. has in releasing reports on human rights when we are being criticized here at home and abroad.

As Secretary Rice noted in when she released the reports – the strength of democracy is not that it is infallible, but that it is accountable. We promote democracy and the protection of human rights not because we are always right, but because it is the right thing to do.

Indeed, looking back at our own history, the U.S. founders were concerned more with tyranny than freedom per se, because they understood that freedom’s greatest threat comes from unaccountable, undemocratic and unchecked power. That’s why we have checks and balances.

The self correcting mechanisms which we see daily at work in the United States is the primary strength underpinning our democracy and our democracy promotion message. Our drive to continue to promote these rights is based on their universality and our belief in the importance of fulfilling our responsibility to help others. And it’s why we need to support the basic rights of others around the world, and to support those who defend these rights.

You’ve heard from a broad range of speakers today, covering many of the facets of human rights, from trafficking in persons to the status of women. You’ve heard from some key NGOs, and the work they do on the front lines. So let me provide some insight into how the U.S. government promotes human rights policy, and how we see the status of this effort.

Let me start with a set of guidelines of human rights and democracy promotion. These guidelines are ‘lessons learned’ and wisdom passed on to us from past practitioners.

First, this work is a multi-generational effort. It won’t be done overnight. This doesn’t lessen the urgency by which we pursue our work, – in fact, it makes our work all the more critical. This is why we raise individual human rights cases today, but also push for institutional changes that we know will take decades.

Second, democracy promotion is not linear. There will be setbacks, and we should expect them, and when they come, we should work to overcome them.

Third, democracy is not chemistry. We can’t add one part elections, two parts legislative training, with a dash of women’s empowerment and out pops liberal democracy. We don’t take a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Instead, we have to be cognizant of the culture, the history, and the situation in each country, allow the essential ingredients of democracy to flourish in this context, and work to support the good trends, and counter the push-back.

Finally, democracy cannot be imposed by outsiders. But it can be nurtured. That’s why we always seek first and foremost to support local voices and human rights defenders rather than try to focus on our unique form of democracy.

Now, when people think of democracy promotion, they often think of elections. This is natural because elections are tangible – we see images on TV of citizens of the former Soviet Union voting, or South Africans who were suppressed under apartheid, and we like to think that because they have elections, they are part of a democratic society.

In fact, elections are only part of what’s needed. They are necessary but not sufficient in creating a sustainable democratic system of governance, and ensuring that democracy delivers.

We view democracy as sitting on three legs of a stool. First, we need free and fair elections. You can’t have free and fair elections if you don’t allow all citizens to exercise the right to vote, and allow a broad range of candidates to run, or if candidates are harassed or unable to get their message out.

Second, democratically elected governments need to govern democratically. They need rule of law, not rule by law. There needs to be a real separation of powers, and respect for the role of the judiciary. The legislative branch needs to be separate, and executive powers shouldn’t be used for the benefit of a few. There should be checks and balances that ensure democratic governance, protect human rights and serve citizens.

Third, you need a vibrant civil society. Civil society includes the NGOs we heard from this morning, who support minority rights, protect children from being forced into combat as soldiers and provide relief to those in need. We also need trade unions, professional societies and a vibrant free press. The private sector can play a role too in socially responsive policies for its workers, and ensuring that they contribute to the communities in which they work.

Civil society is a pillar for democracy and the key to advancing human rights, and it works as a two-way street. First, civil society keeps government honest. They act as a check on the work government does, or fails to do. Whether its an organization speaking out for the protection of religious minorities, or bar associations that ensure fair trails, or an enterprising reporter who finds government corruption, without civil society, government won’t be accountable.

But civil society also acts as a partner to government in its role in meeting the needs of its citizens. Think for a minute about our own communities. When there is a family in need, or a woman fleeing an abusive spouse, they need the protections of the government, but they also need a helping hand. Government can support that helping hand, but the actual work is best done by supporting a local organization that works right in our own community. That’s the promise of civil society in developing countries. And countries that ignore this role are excluding a major partner in addressing the needs of their people.

These three pillars – elections, democratic governance, and a vibrant civil society – are all equally important. As we look for opportunities to protect human rights and promote democracy, we work closely with human rights activists on the ground and with reformers to see where the United States political and financial strength can be brought to bear. In every country, the window for opportunity will differ.

In some countries, like Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Belarus, we are working on the ground daily to show strong support for courageous reformers who are facing repression every day. We are pushing for the most basic of rights, and to stop repression.

In other countries that have made strides toward democracy, like Liberia, we are working with reform-minded governments to build the basic institutions of democracy and ensure the checks and balances that will protect people’s rights.

In countries that have been working toward democracy for several years or more, like Ukraine or Indonesia, we work closely to help them consolidate their democratic institutions, ensure protection of human rights, and the growth of a democratic society.

When we look around the world, we still see many challenges, but we also see tremendous progress over the last several decades. Let’s think for a moment about the unprecedented wave of democratization and human rights progress we have seen in recent decades. Progress has been made in almost all of Latin America during the 80s-90s; in large portions of Africa and Asia in 80s-90s, and even today; in Central and Eastern Europe in late 80s, early 90s; and we have seen the growth of democracy movements in Middle East.

What this represents is heartening – it shows that people everywhere, from different cultures, religions and countries – are working to have a voice in their government, to ensure their rights are respected, and that they can have a say in their future. But we have to recognize these positive changes are unsettling to those dictators who have to loosen their grip on power, and it isn’t a given they will be sustained in the future.

We are facing two important challenges to democracy promotion which we must address. First, there is the backlash by repressive governments. Regimes feel threatened by the growing tide of democracy movements and the tremendous impact of human rights activists. And they are taking it out on NGOs and human rights activists using everything from administrative and regulatory tactics to physical abuse to stop democratization. We called 2006 the year of the pushback, with the NGO crackdown in Russia, the severe treatment of regime opponents in Zimbabwe, the consolidation of power in Venezuela, and the continued lack of freedom in places like Syria, Burma, and Cuba.

The second key challenge is a growing concern that democracy does not deliver on economic needs. In Latin America, we have elections, but we see some countries struggling with democratic governance and with serious rates of poverty, which has given rise to populism. This has an important economic dimension, and that’s why President Bush recently visited Latin American countries.

Its also why the Administration launched the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which makes aid money conditional on a set of benchmarks on political and civil rights, good governance, transparency and accountability. With those benchmarks right, the aid will be more effective, and the country can be better prepared to ‘plug into the global system’.

Countering the backlash against human rights activists is a priority for Secretary Rice. Last December on human rights day Secretary Rice announced two key initiatives to ‘Defend the Defenders’.

First, she released ten core principles to guide states in the way they treat NGOs. Recognizing the vital role NGOs play, we felt it was necessary to issue guidelines that others can point to when defending the role that NGOs play in defending basic human rights around the world. These guidelines are distilled from lengthier documents the UN and others have developed.

Second, we announced a new emergency fund for human rights defenders. This fund will provide emergency assistance to a human rights defender in need. If a human rights NGO has its offices ransacked, or if a website host has his equipment stolen due to work on human rights, the fund will replace the equipment so the defender can continue their work.

These efforts focus on supporting the voices speaking out for human rights around the world. We don’t support them because we recognize them as our own, but because doing so empowers people, communities and nations to achieve their true potential. This in turn promotes stability and peace, and enhances hope and opportunity for those living in without freedom.

As we all continue our work on this mission, let me conclude with a note of optimism. Despite the many setbacks and challenges to protecting human rights and promoting freedom around the world, we need to recognize a hopeful trend in this area. Democracy and human rights – as this convocation attests – is now part of the daily discourse on the international stage.

No longer is the issue whether human rights and democracy will be raised, but rather how, when and what will be said. This fact is a great sign for those of us committed to human rights and democracy promotion.

So, on that note, let me close. Thank you for your attention and I look forward to taking a few questions.

Released on April 24, 2007

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