The Obama Administration and Human Rights

Human Rights First Summit - Washington, D.C.

Thank you, Elisa. And thanks to all of you. This is a ridiculously serious group. Thank you for everything you do, every single day to try to improve the lives of individuals around the world who will never know your names, but will benefit from your tireless and often thankless efforts. Thank you also for honoring Chris Stevens later tonight. Chris was one of the most decent and able diplomats this country has ever produced. We miss him terribly. The Libyan people miss him terribly. Chris’ legacy reminds us of the difference it makes when an unabashed human rights diplomat is out in the world – Chris advanced U.S. interests, earned the people’s affection, and enhanced America’s stature wherever he went.

You have just experienced two days of impassioned discussions and important planning, and I would venture to guess there have been one or two critiques of the Administration I proudly serve. I have before me the task today of giving the last speech of your summit, and the honor of discussing several dimensions of President Obama’s approach to human rights promotion and protection. Today I would like to focus on four distinguishing features: leading by example, investing in democratic checks and balances, protecting people at risk, and strengthening multilateral effectiveness in combating human rights abuses.

First, this administration has sought to lead by example. President Obama recognizes that when we promote human rights and dignity at home, we send an invaluable message to other countries. That is why the President’s health care reform is itself a form of human rights leadership – not just saying that every person, whether rich or poor, should have the right to basic health care, but showing it, by investing the full weight of his presidency in securing health reform. And you would be amazed how closely other countries watched the long debate over health care, asked questions of our diplomats, and immersed themselves in the details of the final health reform package. President Obama recognizes, too, that by underscoring our commitment to the humane treatment of detainees, the United States strengthens its case in challenging abusive regimes abroad. He sees that every time we fight discrimination at home, we are, in effect, leading abroad. That is why our global effort to promote the rights of LGBT people is strengthened by President Obama’s commitment to LGBT equality in the United States— from his signing of historic hate crime legislation to his action to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It is why at the same time the administration has taken unprecedented strides to empower women abroad, the President has taken steps at home – appointing women to critical leadership positions, fighting for equal pay for equal work, and expanding women’s access to health care – steps that themselves help strengthen global norms.

And President Obama sees that, on occasions when the United States has developed domestic laws and practices that are the envy of the world, such as those we have protecting disability rights, the United States should use international instruments to promote those standards. That is why in 2009 he instructed Ambassador Rice to sign the Disabilities Convention, why he delivered the treaty to the Senate for advice and consent earlier this year, and why he joined a bipartisan coalition of Senators, including Senators Reid, Kerry, Lugar, and McCain – as well as former Senator Bob Dole, wounded Afghan and Iraq War veterans, disability advocacy groups, the business community, and persons with disabilities — in enthusiastically supporting ratification. It is also why he is deeply disappointed that the overwhelming majority of Senate Republicans blocked the treaty yesterday and made it harder for the United States to promote the rights of persons with disabilities, including our war wounded and other citizens who travel abroad. This was a mistake, and a missed opportunity to lead the world. We hope the Senate will reconsider this treaty early in the next Congress.

Second, the Obama Administration has invested in strengthening the checks and balances in undemocratic or partially democratic countries.

The best example of the kinds of checks and balances I’m talking about is right here in this room: you. Civil society, NGOs, lawyers, independent media, foundations, think tanks. You are the long game. In his Nobel speech President Obama returned to one of President Kennedy’s most memorable ideas: “Let us focus on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.” We have sought to invest in – and use our diplomacy to protect the space for – these human institutions, which are ultimately the best guarantor of sustainable human rights protection. Across the world, as you all well know, change comes from within societies, from the bottom up, and not because the United States simply wills it to come. This is why we train, support, and seek to defend and protect those we hope are the agents of change.

As Secretary Clinton put it memorably in her speech in Krakow, there are “three essential elements of a free nation — representative government, a well-functioning market, and civil society,” which “work like three legs of a stool.” Americans know this better than most because of our history. Again, to quote the Secretary, “It was civil society, after all, that gave us the abolitionists who fought the evils of slavery, the suffragettes who campaigned for women’s rights, the freedom marchers who demanded racial equality, the unions that championed the rights of labor, the conservationists who worked to protect our planet and climate.”
What does this appreciation for the institutional checks and balances mean for U.S. policy in practice? For starters, it means that this administration has practiced dual track engagement. All senior USG officials who travel abroad are encouraged to seek meetings with political party opposition leaders, bloggers, women’s groups, and human rights defenders. I just had the privilege of accompanying the President on his trip to Burma, and though the trip was very short, he insisted on meeting with a cross section of civil society – released political prisoners, religious leaders, ethnic leaders, and other activists. Secretary Clinton has created a precedent for future Secretaries of State, as she has so regularized meetings with civil society that meetings that were once the exception for senior U.S. officials on foreign travel are now the rule. We know these meetings often get under the skin of host governments, but they are essential sources of information and policy advice, they can show solidarity with vulnerable dissenters in repressive societies, and they show governments that commit abuses that the causes these groups champion are the same causes that the United States champions.

Of course, we also invest resources in strengthening the checks and balances. The United States is the largest and longest-standing provider of assistance for democracy, rights, and governance in the world. This year’s (FY 12) USAID budget in this sphere included nearly $600 million for civil society, and nearly $2 billion for rule of law/human rights and good governance assistance. The State Department, through DRL, MEPI, and other funds, supports similar efforts, and it has established a new fund to provide legal representation to human rights defenders who have been unjustly imprisoned.

We of course don’t seek to advertise this funding in many countries, as our chief priority is protecting the independence and safety of our partners. We have all seen governments that crack down on civil society portraying U.S. funds as “imperialistic.” In addition to contesting these false and self-serving claims, we have also worked to strengthen multilateral capacity to bolster civil society. Working within the Human Rights Council, we joined with several untraditional partners to respond to the growing global crackdown on civil society by creating the first-ever special rapporteur to monitor curbs on freedom of association and assembly. Many of you have worked with Maina Kiai, and we can see the potential his office has to make a real difference, contesting the disturbing proliferation of copycat NGO restrictions. In Cambodia, the State Department has worked with local NGOs whose pressure thus far has convinced the government to put a very restrictive NGO law back on the shelf. In Burma, Ambassador Derek Mitchell is in regular conversation with the Burmese Government about how restrictions and registration requirements for NGOs limit the scope of meaningful political reform.

In addition to stressing the importance of space for civil society, President Obama has laid out a fresh agenda on open government and open society, seeking to strengthen international norms against corruption and empower citizens. US officials have worked within the UN, the G20, OECD and international financial institutions, to promote the recognition that corruption is itself a violation of human rights and an affront to human dignity. It is also a severe impediment to development and security. We have worked with governments and civil society organizations to bring greater transparency to government budgets, expenditures and the assets of public officials. We are institutionalizing transparent practices in international aid flows, international banking and tax policy, and private sector engagement around natural resources to make it harder for officials to steal and to strengthen the efforts of citizens to hold their governments accountable.

And of course the most modern check and balance that we support is a free internet, which Secretary Clinton has done landmark work promoting. This administration recognizes that one of the most potent enabling rights is the right to connect and to access information. “To seek, receive, and impart information by any medium and regardless of frontiers” as Article 19 put it long ago. And recognizing that new technologies are fueling people-powered movements around the world and shining a spotlight on human rights abuses, USG programs are supporting the dissemination of technologies that help promote these goals. We do so well-aware that technology can be misused to commit human rights abuses. That is why President Obama last spring issued a new “Ghravity” Executive Order that targets for economic sanctions those companies that are providing technology used to abet gross violations of human rights in Syria and Iran.

In looking beyond governments, we are also working with our partners to develop standards for our businesses, which can help us set an example for companies around the world. We have joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which calls for businesses to increase the transparency of their investments in the oil and mining sector. While we have eased sanctions on Burma in recognition of its reforms to date, we know that the country has a long way to go, and businesses – both Burmese and foreign – have an important role to play in ensuring the Burmese people see a return on reform. Consequently, we have limited U.S. investment in those Burmese firms most associated with human rights abuses and placed unprecedented reporting requirements on US companies that do business there. Public reporting should help give civil society and the Burmese people the information they need to help secure responsible and inclusive investment.

The President in September signed an Executive Order strengthening protections against human trafficking in U.S. government contracts, and working with Congress — here I commend Senator Richard Blumenthal for his leadership — the United States is stepping up its vigilance against a crime that we’re committed to ending at home and abroad. And we have worked with partners to develop a new code of conduct for private military contractors.

Third, while the long game of strengthening indigenous checks and balances is key U.S. foreign policy must also seek to help protect people facing immediate threat.

This is the cause that keeps so many of us up at night because it is the cause that cannot wait. This emphasis on protecting people has included a major Presidential initiative on combatting trafficking in persons; reforming our refugee program so that those who face a well founded fear of persecution can get a fair review and make it out of harm’s way expeditiously; preventing sexual violence against women in conflict and working to strengthen the mandates and the quality of UN peacekeepers; developing a new national strategy to address gender-based violence globally; launching a government-wide effort to promote LGBT rights, fight criminalization of LGBT status and combat violence against LGBT abroad; and, last but not least, preventing and responding to mass atrocities, which I will discuss here in greater detail.

I think it is fair to say that President Obama has prioritized this issue like nobody before him. He created the first-ever White House position exclusively dedicated to the cause of atrocity prevention and response. He issued the first-ever presidential directive on mass atrocities, which stated that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” In so doing, he stressed that this did not mean that we would intervene militarily every time there was an injustice in the world, but it meant that we had an obligation, when innocents were threatened with mass atrocity, to examine at the highest levels of government all of the tools in our arsenal to see whether their use could make a meaningful difference, and to make sure that senior government officials were presented with the full range of viable options before the window for meaningful action had closed. This means diplomatic and political tools, economic and financial, intelligence and law enforcement. As he put it in his speech at the Holocaust Museum in April, “This is not an afterthought. This is not a sideline in our foreign policy…we need to be doing everything we can to prevent and respond to these kinds of atrocities — because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people.” In other words, all of the creativity and nimbleness that reveals itself in other policy areas needs to be brought to bear to this one.

The President also added new tools to the toolbox. In addition to introducing the “Ghravity” sanctions against human rights abusers who used or provided technology to target civilians, he explicitly barred entry into the United States of those responsible for crimes against humanity. He tasked the intelligence community to prepare the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on the risk of mass atrocities and genocide. DOD has developed a doctrine on mass atrocity prevention and response and is integrating these issues into its training and planning; across the government there are now “alert channels” to help ensure that information about unfolding crises — and dissenting opinions –quickly reaches decision-makers, including the President himself. USAID has challenged people and high-tech companies to help create new technologies to quickly expose violations of human rights (the proposals have begun pouring in, and USAID is reviewing them as we speak). And President Obama created a new Atrocities Prevention Board, to bring together senior officials from across the US government to focus on this critical mission.

Now much of this change is structural, and the Atrocity Prevention Board, or APB, is not an Atrocities Panacea Board. We are trying to significantly strengthen our ability to act preventively and to respond in a timely way, but we do not delude ourselves that these changes are sufficient to rid the world of its horrors. And therefore, we know that the best measure of this administration’s commitment comes in specific places. When the referendum in South Sudan was way behind schedule, it threatened to reignite a conflict that had killed two million people. However, with determined diplomacy, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation, and the U.S. continues to invest in bringing peace to – and preventing and ending ongoing atrocities in — Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. When the incumbent in Côte D’Ivoire lost an election but refused to give up power, it threatened to unleash untold ethnic and religious killings. But with the backing of this administration, thanks to regional and international diplomacy combined with U.N. peacekeepers who stood their ground and protected civilians, President Gbagbo is now in The Hague, and Côte D’Ivoire is governed by its rightful leader. Of course, when the Libyan people demanded their rights and Muammar Qaddafi’s forces bore down on Benghazi, a city of 700,000, and threatened to hunt down its people like rats, President Obama mobilized a coalition that stopped his troops in their tracks, and ultimately made possible an election this year that brought to power a moderate coalition. And when the Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony continued its atrocities in Central Africa, the President ordered a small number of American advisors to assist Uganda and its neighbors in their pursuit of the LRA. This is part of our comprehensive, multi-faceted regional strategy to protect civilians, end the scourge that is the LRA, and help realize a future where no African child is stolen from his family and no girl is raped and no boy is turned into a child soldier.

On Syria, where atrocities are being perpetrated against innocent civilians as we sit together today, we have been awed by the bravery of the many opposition protesters who continue to seek a more just, inclusive, and democratic Syria , even as the regime assaults them. The ongoing brutality is heartbreaking, and the death toll now likely exceeds 40,000. The United States has employed a wide range of non-lethal measures to weaken the pillars of Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The results are not satisfying – not by a long shot – and you have heard the President just this week warn that the regime will be held accountable if it uses chemical weapons against its people. We keep up the pressure, helping unite and strengthen the opposition, cutting off Assad’s resources and remaining channels of foreign support, and backing an effort to document atrocities so perpetrators face justice. At the same time we will continue to surge humanitarian assistance to the millions of Syrians in need inside the country and those seeking refuge outside its borders. So long as the bloodshed continues, none of us will consider this to be sufficient. Nobody – not least the President – is satisfied. This issue receives constant attention at the highest levels of the U.S. government as we continue to try to bring about a stop to the violence against civilians, the end of Assad’s rule, and a political transition that respects the rights and dignity of all of the Syrian people regardless of sect or ethnicity.

Fourth, we are enlisting partners and allies, and strengthening our multilateral capacity to support human rights.

Syria underscores how much more challenging it can be to bring about an end to violence when the UN Security Council is divided. Nonetheless, it is also an example of where other multilateral institutions — such as the Arab League, the UN Human Rights Council, and newer, more ad hoc groupings likes the Friends of the Syrian People — have stepped forward to denounce the attacks on civilians and to lay a foundation for eventual accountability for the atrocities that are being committed.

Syria is not the only issue on which the Human Rights Council has played such a role. We are not blind to the flaws of the Council, which, like its predecessor the UN Human Rights Commission, has long given disproportionate attention to Israel. And over the years its proceedings often seem divorced from the suffering of the real world, as some of its members have been notorious violators of human rights. But President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Ambassador Rice felt strongly — in 2009, and in our recent reelection bid — that we would be better off trying to fix the Council from within than by lobbing criticisms from without. They argued that the United States did not have the luxury of writing off the UN’s main human rights body. They also recognized that, by serving on the Council and engaging in good faith — while also being unshy about speaking out about the problems that remain — we could buy ourselves good will that we could draw upon in other settings.

And we have in fact managed to work effectively in the Council to advance U.S. human rights aims and broader U.S. foreign policy aims. With our partners, we succeeded in creating a Special Rapporteur to monitor human rights abuses in Iran, the first-ever country- specific special rapporteur created by the Council. We created Commissions of Inquiry for Cote d’Ivoire and for Libya. Just last spring, prodded by the United States, the Council passed a resolution that called on the Government of Sri Lanka to take meaningful steps to ensure justice, equity, accountability, and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans, and to implement the positive recommendations of its national “Lessons Learned” report — all steps that must be taken to heal the wounds created by the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the recent civil war. Among the “yes” votes was India, which, like other emerging democracies, has shown some willingness to forswear its previous reluctance to pursue meaningful human rights action in international bodies.

President Obama has personally appealed to these countries to lead beyond their borders on these issues. In his UNGA 2010 speech, the President said, “I appeal to those nations who emerged from tyranny and inspired the world in the second half of the last century — from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to South America. Don’t stand idly by, don’t be silent, when dissidents elsewhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten. Recall your own history. Because part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.” Brazil and Indonesia took a leadership role in creating the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly, which, as mentioned earlier, is the first international mechanism to monitor the growing crackdown on civil society. Indonesia was a critical co-sponsor of this resolution from a very early stage, making it possible to bring other emerging democracies along, such that we were ultimately able to get the resolution passed by consensus. Brazil and others from Latin America also played key roles in pursuing in, March of 2011, a groundbreaking, cross regional statement signed by 85 countries calling for greater respect for the rights of LGBT persons, followed by the South African led resolution on the same topic in June of last year, and Brazil also agreed to seek the establishment of a Special Rapporteur on LGBT rights in the Inter-American system – the first-ever rapporteur on these issues.

We have not only tried to reinvigorate the institutions we found, but – where we identified the need — we have tried to build new ones. In September 2011, President Obama, Brazilian President Rousseff, seven other countries, and nine civil society organizations launched what is known as the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a fresh multilateral initiative designed to promote transparency, fight corruption, and empower citizens to hold their governments accountable. At the heart of OGP, which now counts 57 partner countries, are several important features. First, in urging other countries to make national commitments, the United States itself made a large number of commitments so that we could lead, above all, by example. We set out to learn from other countries, recognizing that no government had fully cured the problem of corruption or figured out how best to take advantage of citizen feedback and expertise. The initiative enlisted some of the most influential emerging democracies, including not only Brazil but Indonesia and South Africa, who had rich traditions of people-driven change from which to draw. Burma is just the latest country to announce its desire to become eligible to join OGP, and we believe the OGP network can offer essential advice as the government, parliament and civil society take steps to introduce freedom of information measures, promote budget transparency, and improve civil liberties.


Is there more to be done? Absolutely. And the President intends to use his second term to maximum effect, promoting human rights and strengthening our collective ability to think through the human consequences of policy choices. As we in his administration plow ahead, we do so guided by the direction that our human rights leadership abroad is vastly strengthened by our example at home; that we must continue to invest in both the long and short games – strengthening checks and balances so that over time governments will be held accountable by their own citizens; and deploying every tool in the toolbox to protect people while they are vulnerable and can not count on their governments’ shield. We will also continue to try to strengthen the multilateral system, recognizing that when we act on behalf of universal human rights, we usually get better results if we do so in a coalition, depriving abusers of the ability to play countries off one another.
None of this would be possible without you. And while I urge you to keep coming at us with new ideas, current frustrations, and fresh concerns, be sure that as you do so you do not sell short your own efforts. I urge you to reflect on a few of the issues that I briefly touched upon today, which your work helped put on the agenda — from our commitment to humane treatment to LGBT rights to democratic Libya to the structural reforms made in service of atrocity prevention and even to yesterday’s attempt to seek Senate advice and consent of the Disabilities Convention, which fell just five votes short.

Your work matters immensely. You matter immensely. We in the administration are often moved by your work and we are always informed by it. Given the human stakes of all of our shared concerns, it is a good thing that our best is never enough for you. However, before you head out tonight to honor a man who represented the best of American diplomacy, consider this: Chris was a career foreign service officer who joined the US government well before the human rights community had summits like this one, but that didn’t stop him from putting people and human rights first in his diplomacy. He understood that doing so was critical not only for the people in the countries he worked, but also for American security. And he was not alone – countless foreign service officers, civil servants, and other U.S. officials bring that same conviction with them to work every day. That, in and of itself, is progress.

I leave you with an image: a little over two weeks ago, an African-American man named Barack Obama visited a Burmese woman named Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Rangoon. The man, who a half-century ago couldn’t have sat at the front of a bus in the American South, occupies the most powerful office in the world. The woman, who two years ago and for the twenty years before that, could not leave her home or her country, even to visit her dying husband, is now the leader of the Burmese opposition. Aung San Suu Kyi and President Obama sat in her study, and, while they sipped tea, they didn’t make a big deal out of the fact of their meeting; they simply got down to work: two leaders talking politics and discussing all that is left to do.
The arc of history only bends toward justice when people make it bend. That is something these two individuals have done; it is something Chris Stevens did; and it is something you try to do each and every day….Thank you for that, and thank you for having me.

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