Shadow Government

Clinton on human rights: digging out of a hole

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her speech on Monday at Georgetown University on “The Human Rights Agenda for the 21st Century,” finally grabbed a shovel and started digging out of the hole she had placed herself in on this very issue. With some exceptions, her speech sounded familiar: Many of the passages could ...

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WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 14: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses students and faculty members at Georgetown University December 14, 2009 in Washington, DC. Clinton spoke about linking human rights to democracy and economic development, and taking an approach of "principled pragmatism". (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her speech on Monday at Georgetown University on “The Human Rights Agenda for the 21st Century,” finally grabbed a shovel and started digging out of the hole she had placed herself in on this very issue. With some exceptions, her speech sounded familiar: Many of the passages could just as easily have been delivered by a senior Bush administration official.

That is because promotion of democracy and human rights has been an issue with strong bipartisan support for decades. For many in the Obama administration, however, President Bush discredited democracy promotion and the freedom agenda through the torture at Abu Ghraib and the detentions without trial at Guantanamo Bay, and by forcing democracy on other countries through military means. The Obama team wanted to strike a contrast with the Bush Administration on human rights and democracy issues — and in the process, created a real mess for themselves.

Clinton’s problems started her first day on the job. Given her 1995 speech in Beijing as first lady, which highlighted the importance of human rights, and her track record while serving in the U.S. Senate, many expected Clinton would be a strong proponent of human rights and democracy. Instead, however, she turned into a major disappointment. At her arrival ceremony at the State Department, she said, “There are three legs to the stool of American foreign policy: defense, diplomacy, and development.” No mention of democracy.

Clinton dug a deeper hole during her first overseas trip to Asia in February when, on her way to China, she told reporters, “We pretty much know what they [the Chinese government] are going to say” on human rights issues, such as greater freedoms for Tibet. “We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere” with other crucial topics, such as climate change, the economy, and North Korea.

The reaction among non-governmental groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch was swift and harsh, and deservedly so. Clinton, alas, dug even deeper. During a visit to Egypt in early March, she seemed to downplay the importance of human rights concerns in that country. President Obama bears his share of the blame, too, for declining to meet with the Dalai Lama before his trip to China in November and for not meeting with anyone in China outside official channels (his forum in Shanghai involved a group pre-approved and screened by the Communist Party). The president, at least, has given decent speeches on human rights in places like Moscow, Accra, and Cairo, and then most recently in Oslo. But Clinton has been relatively silent on the subject.

Her recovery began in mid-October in Moscow, when she spoke out forcefully on the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia, met with human rights and civil society activists, and gave an interview to the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy. Her speech on Monday at Georgetown brought her support for human rights even closer to the surface.

Despite arguing in her speech that raising human rights concerns with Russia and China is best done behind closed doors, Clinton proceeded to list abuses committed by the Chinese, including the outrageous arrests of signatories of the pro-democracy manifesto Charter 2008. Regarding Russia, she said, “we deplore the murders of journalists and activists and support the courageous individuals who advocate at great peril for democracy.” Where she was on weaker ground was when she defended the administration’s outreach to the authoritarian regime in Burma and the decision to return to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Had it not been for the President’s extemporizing on Iran in his Oslo speech last week in which he said of the protesters that “they have us on their side,” she would not have been able to say much on Iran.

She rightly rejected the false choice that “we must either pursue human rights or our ‘national interests.'” Advocating on behalf of human rights is in our national interests. She did not dwell on the problems associated with the Bush administration (a welcome change from speeches she and President Obama have given in the past). She did emphasize developmental rights more than the Bush administration had, stressing that people “must also be free from the oppression of want — want of food, want of health, want of education, and want of equality in law and in fact.”

All in all, a good speech. It’s a shame it took Clinton so long to make it and that she had some created such a hole for herself beforehand. Combined with the president’s remarks in Oslo last week, Clinton’s speech allays some concerns raised by the Obama administration’s earlier actions and rhetoric. Now, observers and human rights activists need to make sure that what we heard at Georgetown the other day was not a “check-the-box” kind of exercise. These speeches must be followed up by real actions — and a great place to start would be to schedule a meeting between the President and the Dalai Lama early in the new year.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

David J. Kramer is a senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Green School of International and Public Affairs and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.

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