Christian Caryl

The Rights Stuff

On the occasion of Human Rights Day, a conversation with a key U.S. State Department official on democracy and human rights.

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What do Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Arab dictators have in common? They’re afraid of their own people.

That, at least, is the argument of Tom Malinowski, the U.S. State Department’s lead official on democracy and human rights. And let me just say up front that I happen to think he’s right.

Today is Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights back in 1948. Personally, I tend to be a bit skeptical about anniversaries like this. But since the Declaration is a document that’s all too often honored in the breach, I decided it might be worth taking moment to consider how its principles are faring in a world where the autocrats sometimes seem to be making a comeback.

The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor is a good place to start. Chances are that you’ve never heard of it — since these issues get little of the coverage devoted to, say, the Department of Defense. Yet DRL (as insiders refer to it) plays an important role in formulating fundamental principles of U.S. foreign policy.

That’s why I decided to ask Malinowski, the Bureau’s current director, to share his views on some of the big democracy-related issues of the day. Does he agree, for example, with the widespread notion that democracy is currently in retreat around the world?

The short answer is “no.” He conceded that autocrats around the world are pushing back hard against their own citizens’ demands for greater participation and accountability, and that this is making the sense of conflict with the world’s democratic nations “particularly acute.” Why are the dictators so intransigent? The reason “is that they feel genuinely threatened by the strength of their domestic civil societies and by the increasing acceptance of those international norms.”

In Russia, he argues, Putin is reacting to the citizens and civil society groups who called for free and fair elections in mass demonstrations back in 2011 — not to mention the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine last year, when protesters in the center of Kiev overthrew the government of President Viktor Yanukovych. That revolutionary change confronted Putin with the possibility “of a potentially successful model of democratic change in a neighboring country that many Russians look to as similar to their own,” said Malinowski, “combined with the fear of what looks to the Kremlin like a global conspiracy by civil society and democratic governments to promote color revolutions.”

Meanwhile, says Malinowski, the current government crackdown on dissent in China “is in many ways a reaction to the growing availability of information to which hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese citizens have access through the Internet and to the successful efforts of lawyers, activists, and bloggers to expose and challenge abusive state policies.” Arab autocrats, he said, are still unnerved by the legacy of the Arab Spring, which served notice that many people across the Middle East and North Africa want to be treated as citizens, not subjects.

Yet Malinowski doesn’t agree with the widely held notion that democracy around the world is in retreat. One could easily dismiss this as professionally mandated optimism, given his job description. But Malinowski is not your usual civil servant. For thirteen years he ran the Washington office of Human Rights Watch, a leading activist group, and you can feel how the experience has informed his approach. Read this speech on democracy in Tunisia, for example, and it’s hard to come away with the sense that he’s merely mouthing diplomatic niceties.

In our conversation, Malinowski conspicuously departed from the norm by criticizing fellow U.S. officials for their overreliance on information from intelligence sources, noting that human rights activists in various countries can offer equally valuable takes on what’s happening on the ground. “I think one would be foolish to inherently value one over the other.”

I’ve met U.S. officials who simply dodged tough questions about U.S. friendships with unsavory regimes. Malinowski didn’t. In our conversation, he had tough words for United States’ allies in the Persian Gulf. He criticized Saudi Arabia for its arrest of dissidents, the imposition of “egregious punishments like flogging,” and the conduct of its current military campaign against rebels in Yemen. He called on Bahrain “to release prisoners and reform the political system and pursue national reconciliation,” and noted that the U.S. has restricted military sales to the country and withheld support to its interior ministry in order to get the message across. “It’s entirely possible to defend and promote human rights and democracy in a country while continuing to work with its government on other issues,” he insists.

Not everyone will agree with that, of course. Yet I think Malinowski makes a valuable point when he notes that much of the criticism of America’s policies on human rights are rooted in the widespread perception that the U.S. still ascribes to standards that many other countries don’t.

When I asked him whether the catastrophic failure of Washington’s democratization efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq had discredited U.S. democracy promotion in general, he begged to differ. “I talk to a lot of people around the world in my job,” he said. “And I have yet to meet somebody living in a country experiencing significant human rights abuses or conflict who could use help from the United States but has said to me, ‘You’re just too discredited. I’d rather you stay away or that you maybe ask some other country to act in your stead…’ But when it comes to the places where people are in distress — it has been striking to me just how much, and with how much intensity, ordinary people still look to the United States as the country that can and should stand by them.”

Above all else, Malinowski argues strongly that the imperatives of national security and attention to good governance shouldn’t be considered mutually exclusive. The Islamic State, he notes, emerged from a “governance vacuum” in Syria and Iraq fueled by the human rights abuses of the Assad regime and the Baghdad government’s mistreatment of its Sunni minority. While there’s no easy fix for such failures, Malinowski concedes, they do highlight the point that military planners can’t win these conflicts simply by applying more force. It was this realization that prompted his department to create a new Office of Security and Human Rights two years ago that provides guidance to the Pentagon on minimizing civilian casualties and preventing human rights abuses.

In short: we may not be perfect. But at least we still care. And that must count for something.

In the photo, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski speaks during a press conference on April 30, 2015 in Bujumbura, Burundi.

Photo credit: SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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