THE BLOG

A Human Rights Activist's Hopes for the State of the Union

03/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Neil Hicks International Policy Adviser for Human Rights First

From podiums around the globe, President Obama has eloquently articulated his commitment to advancing human rights and securing global peace and prosperity by protecting the inherent rights and dignity of all people. On his second day in office, he put his words into action as he unequivocally renounced torture and set about the symbolically important task of closing the Guantanamo detention center. The world welcomed these important steps and the Obama Administration began its efforts to restore America's status as an international human rights leader.

Even so, one year later, human rights conditions in many parts of the world are deteriorating, including in a number countries that are viewed as important strategic partners of the United States. For example, in Russia, the North Caucasus threatens to explode and human rights defenders continue to be murdered with impunity. China is sentencing prominent dissidents to jail terms and extending its Great Internet Firewall. On Iran, even if rhetorical restraint by the U.S. may have been prudent, it left beleaguered Iranians struggling for their basic rights worried about American commitment to that cause. In other global problem areas like Africa and the Middle East, there is still no clearly stated U.S. human rights agenda.

What can the President and his administration do to arrest this disturbing global trend? Here are four things that the President could say in his State of the Union Address that would demonstrate how his Administration intends to advance human rights and democracy around the world:

  • The President should send an unequivocal message that human rights promotion will be raised consistently in bi-lateral relationships with key strategic partners with human rights problems, including China, Pakistan, Russia, Colombia and Egypt. He should reiterate that he will assess his Administration's strategy on the basis of concrete progress and results that are achieved in these and other places confronting human rights challenges.

  • The President should state clearly that he stands behind human rights and democracy advocates when they are threatened or attacked by governments and others who want to silence and put them out of business. He should direct administration officials at all levels to support change from within societies by doing the same. He should state the importance of freedom on the Internet and his intention to stand with technology companies that defend free expression and privacy.

  • The President should articulate a commitment to create opportunities for human rights advocates by providing financial and other support to non-governmental organizations and regional institutions in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. This support would empower multilateral efforts to advance rights at the regional level. The President should also direct his aid agencies to develop and implement a long-term strategy to strengthen regional human rights institutions, while ensuring that U.S. security and other assistance is not facilitating human rights abuses.

  • The President should demonstrate his resolve to advance reform at the UN Human Rights Council by upgrading the U.S. diplomatic presence in Geneva and adding cooperation at the Human Rights Council to the mix of bi-lateral issues raised with all allies, especially those in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Promoting human rights and democracy around the world is challenging; it requires patience, sustained attention and consistency in the face of pushback and hostility. In today's interconnected world, America's national security and the peace of the world is fundamentally interwoven with the advancement of human rights and democracy everywhere. This does not mean that the United States has an obligation to create fully-functioning democracies everywhere - Afghanistan is not Switzerland, and will not become so in the term of this administration. Nonetheless, human rights promotion is central to a more stable Afghanistan; just as it is to a less threatening Iran or North Korea; or to a Middle East and Africa that creates hope for their people.

Tonight, as President Obama stands behind yet another podium and speaks to the world, he has an opportunity to advance the understanding that, amidst the many challenge we face at home, the well-being of Americans is inextricably tied up with the progress of freedom abroad. He should use this opportunity to reiterate the message that advancing human rights remains a cornerstone of his Administration's foreign policy and that America will not tolerate the silencing of dissidents through oppression and violence. He must not remain silent about these important issues. The world is listening.

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