American Values, Global Transformations: Democracy and Human Rights in the Obama Administration

The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, Washington D.C. Lawyers' Chapter

Thank you, Leonard, for that kind introduction. I also want to commend you for your outstanding service since 2007 on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. For the past several years, it has been my privilege to work with you as chairman and to benefit from your leadership and dedication to the cause of religious freedom, a cause we share. As you complete your term, I want you to know how much I personally appreciate the collaborative spirit in which we have worked together, and the many ways in which your strong, principled advocacy has made a difference – in Egypt, China, Nigeria, Pakistan, and so many other places. I also want to thank you and the DC Lawyers’ Chapter of the Federalist Society for organizing today’s event and for inviting me to participate in what I predict will be a lively conversation.

Leonard, under your leadership and that of Eugene Myers, the Federalist Society continues to live up to its name as an organization dedicated to the rule of law and committed to honest debate, and one where a variety of viewpoints are encouraged and dissent is welcomed.

Today I want to outline three basic premises on which I think we do agree. These are areas that transcend our political differences and help guide the U.S. foreign policy stance in these tumultuous times.

The first is our shared commitment to individual liberty and human rights, including the rights guaranteed by our First Amendment. This commitment continues to shape our domestic laws and our foreign policy on everything from free speech to church-state relations, from due process to Internet freedom, from the Arab uprisings to our new engagement with Burma, from China to Russia and beyond.

The second premise is that we lead best when we lead by example. Americans have long worked hard to apply our principles in practice, often with great difficulty and significant internal divisions. We have made the strides and the sacrifices. That is why we are effective at leading by example, especially when we do so without apology. It has been a source of pride across multiple administrations of every political stripe that we are still striving to perfect our union– and always will be.

More than 115 countries have become independent since 1945, and scores of them have looked to our Constitution and Bill of Rights as a template. The newest country is South Sudan, where I visited last summer. I did an interview at a radio station in Juba two weeks after independence, and the host asked me to explain what a human right was, because most people there really didn’t know. This year, the South Sudanese are drafting new laws and a new constitution, and it’s critical that these protect the universal rights of citizens to freedom of expression, assembly and association.

Still, the growth of NGOs on every continent — even in a new country like South Sudan — is an unsung triumph for liberty. If Alexis de Tocqueville were alive today, he could now describe many other democracies as “nations of joiners.”

The Internet, text messaging and other new connective technologies have quickly turned this into an “age of participation,” even in places where for centuries, only the views of elites have mattered. Over time, the ability of citizens to air their views, and put forward their own proposals for change is inherently democratizing – and repressive regimes know it. That is why closed societies so often target civil society groups. And when these NGOs get in trouble, the United States responds.

Even as global power becomes more diffuse, as Secretary Clinton noted, the United States remains the chief mobilizer of international action — and often of international public opinion, as well on human rights. Our moral stature matters. As Ronald Reagan said so memorably, “After 200 years . . . [America is] still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

We remain that beacon because we continue to scrutinize ourselves and to improve what we find wanting. That is why, in 2010, we took seriously our responsibility to submit a report to the United Nations on the U.S. human rights record, under what is called the Universal Periodic Review. We held meetings with citizens and groups all over the country and submitted our findings from a position of strength and self-confidence.

Our goal was not only to report proudly on our record, but to demonstrate to others how to engage in this process. By doing so, we put ourselves in a stronger position from which to criticize others with far more problematic records than ours. Now, this is an election year, so we can expect continuing and partisan debates. That’s another American tradition. But let’s keep those disagreements in perspective. We must be mindful of the powerful example we present to the world, including in the open way we express and debate our differences.

And this brings me to my third premise. I submit that we share a common vision of the United States as the indispensable nation when it comes to global leadership on human rights and freedoms. Over my three decades of human rights work, at the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights (now Human Rights First), I marveled at the incredible power this country has when it seeks to persuade others to respect human rights. Now inside government, I have seen the commitment of the United States as it played a pivotal role in last year’s NATO intervention in Libya, in concert with the Arab League and our European allies, and mobilized international support for the democratic transitions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.

Other nations also devote considerable time and attention to human rights issues, which is a very good thing. But the people of other nations look to the United States when it comes to standing for human rights in the hard places.

Let me talk about three issues that occupy a great deal of my time these days: Internet freedom, Egypt, and Burma.

This administration has been focused on Internet freedom, which we believe is fundamentally a global litmus test for freedom. All over the world in 2011, people used technology as a battering ram against the walls of fear and isolation that repressive regimes erected to keep their populations quiescent. In country after country where governments controlled nearly every aspect of life, people demanded openness and accountability, as well as jobs and opportunity, using old and new ways to make themselves heard. They did it online, and by risking life and limb on the streets; they did it in song and text message, and in videos smuggled across borders when the Internet was turned off. It turns out that two billion networked users are nearly impossible to silence.

In my world, the world of human rights, this new capacity for instant communication and participation has created an unprecedented dynamic. Human rights violations can’t slide under the radar when they’re captured on video. The bloodshed in Syria is one example. Last week, anyone with an Internet connection could watch horrific footage on YouTube of wounded protestors in Syria who appeared to be dying on camera. And frankly, the images emanating from social media are helpful when we are asking other countries to help enforce strict sanctions against the Assad regime.

But Syria is not having a Facebook revolution or a Twitter revolt or a YouTube winter. Syria is having a mass outbreak of courage.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators know they risk arrest, torture and death if they take to the streets. But they’re doing it anyway. Day after day. Their courage does not emanate from any digital device. It comes from knowing that they are not alone.

So yes, the Internet is empowering. Yet we agree with Vint Cerf, who wrote in an op-ed last month that Internet access is not itself a human right. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are human rights. Technology can enable those rights. Technology is not a substitute for political organizing or advocacy or persuasion. The Internet does not bring people into the street. Grievances do. The Internet did not spark the Arab Spring. Injustice did. It’s worth noting that the Arab Spring did not start because of Twitter. It started because of the heartbreaking decision by one vegetable vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, to set himself ablaze. But I believe history will judge us by whether we are able to defend the promise of the Internet as a global platform for the free exchange of ideas, a new medium for the enduring freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

The Arab uprisings have been like a rolling geopolitical earthquake sending aftershocks rumbling around the world. It was almost exactly a year ago, on January 15, that Tunisian president Ben Ali boarded a plane in Tunis with his family and departed for Saudi Arabia. Next week, the Egyptians will mark the anniversary of their revolution. Moammar Gaddafi is gone. He has been replaced by an interim government that has articulated a clear and inclusive path for Libya’s democratic future.

The year 2011 brought excitement about the possibilities of tomorrow in a region where dreams were too often stifled. It put us all in uncharted territory but opened great possibilities for U.S. foreign policy. As Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said in November, this is “a moment when homegrown, people-driven protests have repudiated al-Qaeda’s false narrative that change can only come through violence and extremism.”

President Obama stated unequivocally last May that “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy.” We have a lot riding on the long-term success of these democratic transitions. The challenge for us now is to hold our nerve. Yes, the hard work of building democratic institutions is only just beginning, and yes, we must help while pursuing our other strategic and economic interests in the region. As the Secretary said, the U.S. has complex interests and will always have to walk and chew gum at the same time. So we will continue to sustain a global presence, deter our adversaries, fulfill our security commitments and invest in critical alliances and partnerships. And in the long run, I believe that our support for democratic transitions will bolster our other interests.

In the short run, though, many Americans, including perhaps some in this room, are worried, skeptical, or fearful that the Arab uprisings are not in this country’s best interests. Egypt has been a U.S. friend and ally for decades. We share many common interests, and as Egypt’s lower house of parliament prepares to be seated next week, we continue to support the Egyptian people in this time of transition as they prepare to draft a new constitution and elect a president.

At the same time, we have seen concerning developments – the raiding of the offices of democracy and human rights NGOs, both Egyptian and international; the October 9th violence against Coptic Christians in the Maspiro area of Cairo; and the lack of action by the Egyptian military in lifting the country’s state of emergency. But we have also witnessed the freest parliamentary elections in generations —a commendable achievement in these transitions. Some people are alarmed by the strong showing of Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia. I agree with Secretary Clinton when she said, “What political parties call themselves is less important than what they do.” And we expect the region’s political parties to continue supporting democratic institutions as well as universal human rights.

The final judge of the emerging political parties, and the new and the continuing governments, is their increasingly networked and empowered populace. They will be looking to see how free and fair the next elections will be; how well the new governments provide jobs and opportunity; and yes, by how well they protect the human rights and freedoms of their own citizens, including women and religious minorities. If they are not satisfied, I submit that these increasingly sophisticated and network citizens will again prove hard to silence.

But we must remember: The Arab uprisings are not about us. Egyptians and Tunisians and Libyans are shaping their countries with their own hands and their own votes. Only they can determine their futures. The U.S. role is to amplify the voices of democratic actors in these countries, to provide technical help to those who pledge to play by the rules of the democratic process, and to support those who are persecuted for their peaceful participation.

That is why the Secretary has, since her speech in Krakow in 2010, elevated U.S. engagement with civil society as a pillar of U.S. diplomacy. To put muscle behind that policy, we have launched Lifeline, a global fund with 14 other international donors, to give assistance to embattled NGOs. It can provide civil society organizations with advocacy support and small grants for medical, legal, humanitarian and other emergencies.

It’s nimble enough to respond to crises in real time. But it’s also symbolic of our larger commitment to supporting change from within by supporting the universal principles we hold dear. And finally, let me talk about one more place where freedom is at a tipping point: Burma.

In the last several months, I have been deeply involved in pressing for the release of political prisoners in Burma, and urging other governments to join us in this endeavor. I have travelled to Burma twice, most recently last month with Secretary Clinton. Though many factors have contributed to the significant changes now occurring in Burma, the Secretary’s strong and principled engagement on human rights has helped to encourage the progress we are witnessing, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners last week.

We must not take Burma for granted. It will be a long and difficult journey. We will continue to press for the release of hundreds of political prisoners who remain in detention, for broad political reforms and for an end to the ethnic conflicts. We are committed to working with the Burmese Government on the road to reform and will stand with the Burmese people as they try to create a more open, peaceful and prosperous future.

Now, I’ve come here as much to listen to you as to speak to you, so I will stop here. I look forward to a continuing conversation. And I’ll be happy to take your questions.

Thank you.

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