In the wake of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and the Bush Administration’s lack of clarity on practices such as ‘water-boarding’, considered by many to be torture, the United States has been widely criticised on human rights issues. The US has become regarded by many as somewhat hypocritical – and for the most strident anti-Americans, the US is talked of as a human rights abuser far more frequently than North Korea, Burma or Sudan.
Such criticisms, however, represent an extraordinary loss of perspective. While incidents such as Abu Ghraib are abhorrent, and rendition and torture in the war on terror raise serious questions, no country has done more, overall, to promote democracy and human rights around the world than the United States. Alongside abuses that both 2008 presidential candidates are pledged to end, America’s role in overthrowing evil regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq – and safeguarding Kosovo – have to be placed in the credit column.
Moreover, unlike most non-democratic regimes, the human rights abuses are exceptional rather than systematic, and in fact the United States has within its very system the means of ending abuses that do occur. The United States can be criticised for inconsistency, given its past support for some dictatorships, and condemned for hypocrisy, but dissidents and human rights activists will struggle to find a more helpful, pro-active champion than America. In its rhetoric, policies, programmes, legislation and government structures, democracy and human rights promotion is a central feature of US foreign policy. Even if it does not always live up to its ideals, it is streets ahead of most European countries in this field. The record of the Czechs, Dutch and Scandinavians are good, but they lack the clout of the USA.
From its founding fathers through to the current Administration, the US has spoken of liberty far more clearly and frequently than most other nations
Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence those crucial words describing all men as equal and endowed with “inalienable” rights long before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was conceived. The Constitution’s first amendment, introduced by James Madison and effective from 1791, states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Virtually every US President has made speeches promoting freedom, far more boldly than European leaders. It is in their “DNA”. Some have made human rights a more particular focus than others, notably Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. In 1982 President Reagan told the British Parliament: “We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.” He continued by paying tribute to Britain for its contribution to advancing “individual liberty, representative government and the rule of law” but then added a challenge. He said: “I have often wondered about the shyness of some of us in the West about standing for these ideals that have done so much to ease the plight of man and the hardships of our imperfect world …. Let us ask ourselves: what kind of people do we think we are? And let us answer: free people, worthy of freedom, and determined not only to remain so but to help others gain their freedom as well …. Let us now begin a major effort to secure the best – a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generation. For the sake of peace and justice, let us move toward a world in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny.”
And the current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, although schooled in the “realist” approach to foreign policy, said in 2005: “We have a great opportunity to spread freedom and democracy as an antidote to this ideology of terror”.
But what of Presidential actions?
President Reagan placed human rights firmly at the centre of his Helsinki talks with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. And in Berlin in 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate, in what was still West Germany, towards the end of the ‘Cold War’ against the Soviet Union, he said: “… we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Within a couple of years the Soviet bloc crumbled.
President Bush has shown a remarkable desire – more than any other contemporary world leader – to meet with dissidents from countries under oppression. It has been widely reported that one of the most influential books in his thinking has been former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy. In his eight years in office, he has met several times with Chinese human rights and religious freedom activists, North Korean defectors and former prisoners, and Burmese campaigners. The First Lady, Laura Bush, has especially gone out of her way to champion Burma, making statements, chairing meetings, placing calls to the UN Secretary-General and visiting the Thai-Burmese border refugee camps.
Human rights issues are hardwired into US Government structures
Within the US State Department, there is an Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, who has responsibility for human rights – overseeing the work of the Bureau of Democracy, Labour and Human Rights, headed by an Assistant Secretary of State. These structures were established by President Jimmy Carter. Critics argue that “DRL” as it is known is buried within the State Department apparatus, and does not have enough input into decisions made by the main power-brokers, the country desks and regional bureaus. Critics argue that human rights promotion has not yet been fully integrated into the mainstream of the State Department. That may be so, but even in having such a bureau the US is rare compared with other governments. The State Department produces annual reports on human rights, religious freedom and trafficking in persons, a report on advancing freedom and democracy, and has various special offices and representatives, such as the Office of International Religious Freedom, headed by an Ambassador-at-Large, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, also led by an Ambassador-at-Large, and similar mandates for war crimes and women’s issues. Once again, critics claim these do not wield the influence they should – but compared with other governments, the fact that such sections even exist, and are as well-staffed as they are, puts the US way ahead of others.
Congress also has powers to promote human rights and freedom
The US is unusual in having legislative power over foreign policy. In most parliamentary systems, the legislature can raise questions, write letters and seek to influence foreign policy, but in the US Congress has the power to pass foreign policy laws with which the State Department may disagree. The International Religious Freedom Act, for example, was passed unanimously by Congress in 1998, creating the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department, and a watch-dog body, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, to monitor the State Department’s performance in promoting religious liberty around the world. Numerous bills on specific countries, such as Sudan, North Korea and Burma, are passed by Congress, imposing sanctions and mandating the Administration to take particular actions to promote human rights. Congress has a good number of members who consistently champion human rights, and travel to places of oppression and persecution – men such as Senators Sam Brownback or John McCain or Congressmen Frank Wolf, Christopher Smith, Joseph Pitts and the recently deceased Tom Lantos.
In addition to the administration and legislature, the US has many government-funded democracy-promotion programmes. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is perhaps the most significant , but the two major political parties have their own international democracy-promotion arms – the International Republican Institute (currently chaired by Senator John McCain) and the National Democratic Institute.
Outside government, the US has given birth to some of the world’s best human rights Non-Governmental Organisations
Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Human Rights First and International Justice Mission are just four names to mention. Washington, DC and New York house numerous human rights organisations, ranging from specialist campaigns on country-specific issues, such as North Korea, China, Tibet, Burma or Sudan, to thematic organisations focused on themes such as religious freedom, human trafficking or freedom of expression. The Carter Institute, founded by former President Jimmy Carter, does valuable work promoting democracy and human rights, and monitoring elections. And unlike British think tanks, most of which focus on a specific area of policy – either economic or social – almost all the major American think-tanks include a significant focus on foreign policy, and within that the promotion of liberty. Their leanings may vary, but the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute and the Brookings Institute all publish pamphlets and lectures on human rights in foreign policy.
On a less tangible, more personal level, Americans – in and out of government – tend, generally, to show more interest, and more desire to help, in international human rights issues than any other nation. Of course that is a generalisation, and there are plenty of exceptions: disinterested and unhelpful Americans, and helpful, committed Europeans. Nevertheless, on average the responsiveness – and pro-activeness – of American officials in the State Department, staffers and elected representatives in Congress, think-tank policy advisers, media and members of the public, is far greater than in any other country. Americans, in general, think – and act – on human rights because liberty is their foundational value and they have an instinctive hatred of oppression.
US Department of State
US Department of State - Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
US Department of State - Human Rights
US Department of State - Religious Freedom
House Committee on Foreign Affairs - US House of Representatives
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
National Endowment for Democracy (NED)
National Democratic Institute (NDI)
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights First
International Justice Mission
Thomas Farr, World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security (Oxford University Press, 2008)
Mark Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil (Roman & Littlefield, 2003)
Natan Sharansky, The Case for Democracy (Public Affairs, 2004)