Hopes for the Human Rights Summit

It must be a strange feeling for many of the participants in the 2010 Washington Human Rights Summit to be coming to the capital of the United States where the government seems unable to decide whether upholding the rule of law and respecting human rights is a good idea or not. The summit participants are representatives of human rights movements that have struggled for decades, often at great personal cost, to end torture, detention without charge or trial and unfair trials in their own countries. What are they to make of a country where Congress is threatening to withhold funding for efforts to close the Guantanamo detention center, or where the former Vice-President goes on national television and proudly boasts of his role in authorizing torture?

People in Egypt do not need to be told that having a government with exceptional powers to detain indefinitely and to try people in special courts with few legal safeguards has a detrimental impact on the basic freedoms of everyone in the society. With few legal safeguards, official abuses flourish, so Egypt is today infamous for torture and for a climate of impunity that means members of the security forces are rarely brought to account for their abuses.

Russian human rights defenders know that a climate of lawlessness, or what Russia's President Dmitri Medvedev has called a culture of legal nihilism, is not conducive to social peace, as they have watched their colleagues gunned down in a series of unsolved murders.

Activists from Indonesia and Peru know what it is to live under tyranny and dictatorship. They are building a new culture of democracy and human rights in their countries one day at a time.

The last thing these activists need is for the United States and other leading democracies to waiver in their commitment to basic principles that have been the bedrock of the remarkable advances in human well being in these societies since the end of the Second World War.

As they address the Summit participants will speak about threats to basic freedoms of expression and association in their countries and regions, and call for more effective support from the United States and the international community. These basic freedoms are like oxygen for human rights activists; without them people cannot organize to demand basic rights from their rulers. Increasing respect for basic freedoms promotes a climate in which human rights activists can advance transparency and accountability, thereby improving the lives of everyone.

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.

One way for the U.S. government to safeguard this vital national interest is for it to state clearly that it stands with human rights and democracy advocates when they are threatened or attacked, and to implement programs though a variety of government agencies that provide practical support to activists, and advance basic freedoms essential for activists to function.

The Plan of Action that will emerge from the Summit will include recommendations for the U.S. government, other governments and for international organizations designed to turn the tide in the global attack on basic freedoms that we have seen in recent years. Autocratic governments are becoming more sophisticated and coordinated in resisting international pressure to advance human rights, and in obstructing and repressing local human rights activists. The Internet and other new communications technologies provide opportunities for activists to organize in new ways. Twitter and Facebook have become tools of protest in Iran and other repressive countries, but governments are moving quickly to control these technologies and to restrict activism. At the Summit, activists from China, Iran and Belarus will be demanding that the United States government takes concrete steps to put into practice its commitment to protect Internet freedom.

Human rights activists gathered in Washington this week will welcome this support, but they will also be urging U.S. policy makers to stay true to their own values. The world needs an America that does not torture, that does not hold detainees indefinitely without charge or trial and that has faith in the independence and strength of its judicial institutions to uphold the rule of law. As co-organizers of the 2010 Human Rights Summit we hope the event will contribute to human rights progress at home and abroad in the months and years ahead.