Obama, Rousseff, and the crucible of human rights

Editor’s Note: In the run-up to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s visit to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama, Ted Piccone addresses an issue that likely won’t get much attention: the global human rights crisis. Piccone argues that with both Obama and Rousseff seeking to use their second terms to protect their historic legacies, this may be their best chance to put chilly relations behind them and find more common ground for change. This piece was originally published by Latin America Goes Global.

When Presidents Barack Obama and Dilma Rousseff, the leaders of the two most important countries in the Americas, gather next week in Washington, one topic is unlikely to get much attention: the roiling crisis of human rights around the world. That’s unfortunate, because Brazil and the United States share much in common as two of the world’s largest democracies. But despite their shared political and even racial histories, the two countries hold starkly different views when it comes to national interest and international activism in defense of human rights.

Both countries’ respective trajectories from slave-holding states with deep histories of racism and poverty to more pluralist and free societies speak volumes about their shared values of liberal constitutionalism and human progress. And while both countries have long roads to travel toward full protection and respect for a range of human rights, each has huge assets: checks and balances, competitive politics, fair elections, organized civil society and robust, independent media, all of which help to check abuses of power and hold leaders accountable. These characteristics allowed their citizens to elect two unlikely figures to the presidency: a former female armed rebel once tortured by a military dictatorship, and a biracial son of an immigrant father whose principal job experience before entering politics was as a community organizer.

One would think that at both a policy and personal level, Presidents Obama and Rousseff could find a way to forge common positions that draw from their countries’ common histories and their own narratives as agents of change. And indeed since Brazil transitioned from military rule toward representative democracy thirty years ago, it has served an important role as both a practitioner of liberal values and a quiet (if ambivalent) supporter of democracy and human rights around the world. During the turbulent years of Latin America’s transition from military regimes and civil wars, Brazil was a force for democratic stability and peace, and it continues to play a leading role in stabilizing Haiti. At the UN’s Human Rights Council, Brazil under Rousseff has voted regularly for critical scrutiny of such grave situations as Syria, Iran, Belarus, and Sri Lanka. Last year, it voted in favor of referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. It also led efforts recently to bring LBGTI rights back on the Council’s agenda. On these matters and others, like the Open Government Partnership, Brazil and the United States are closely aligned.

Divergences and shortfalls

The predominant strain today in Brazilian foreign policy, however, runs counter to Washington’s traditional vision of leading a liberal international order in which the United States remains primus inter pares. Brazil’s aspiration to lead the Global South toward a more multipolar system, that gained predominance under President Luis Inâcio Lula da Silva, is evident across a wide range of issues. From its increasingly close alignment with Russia and China in the BRICS group to its drive to create multiple regional organizations that exclude the U.S., Brazil is charting its own course of strategic autonomy that is often designed to counterbalance U.S. leadership in the world.

While Brazil has little in the way of hard power to directly challenge Washington, its soft power diplomacy, economic development record and pro-poor rhetoric give it some moral suasion on the international stage as it demands a better seat at the global power table. As part of that leadership, Brazil has dramatically stepped up its diplomatic, trade, development and security assistance to sub-Saharan Africa.

Unfortunately, human rights get caught in the crossfire of this mismatch between the two countries’ core values as democracies and their incompatible definitions of national interest.

Examples of divergence abound: Brazil countered U.S. and NATO’s tragic mishandling of the responsibility to protect doctrine in Libya with its own proposal that effectively would tie the hands of any party that sought to use armed force to stop crimes against humanity. Since then it has made it clear that it would not authorize any UN intervention in the bloodbath in Syria. It has also sided with Russia in its grab of Crimea by standing on the sidelines despite Moscow’s gross violation of international law, a principle Brazil holds dear.   And it has said little about the ongoing human rights abuses in ideologically allied countries like Venezuela and Cuba or economic partners like China.

The United States, for sure, has its own contradictory record to defend. Its failure to muster the leadership required to stanch the bleeding in Syria, its lack of accountability for the use of torture and cruel treatment of its terrorism detainees, its abuse of powerful surveillance capabilities to spy on others, including President Rousseff, remain blemishes on the U.S.’s record of respect for human rights and its claim for leadership in the world.

Convergences and opportunities

So, both countries share common values alongside a long list of worrisome imperfections. But should that stop either country from finding common purpose in a liberal international order that would tilt the balance toward justice and the rule of law?

Brazil’s constitution requires it to give prevalence to human rights in its international relations, and every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter has proclaimed it to be in America’s interest to do so as well. And both for good reason—democracies are better at delivering public goods that matter and less likely to create instability.

Rousseff and Obama could, with some political will, emerge from their meetings with at least two or three priorities for bilateral cooperation in this field.

The first of those should be ensuring digital freedom and privacy rights in a hyper-connected world would be one area where the two sides are already increasingly aligned, despite the bilateral crisis over the Snowden affair.

A second productive point of consensus should be supporting Cuba’s people in their efforts to establish greater independence from the state is another, particularly since Obama’s historic overture to Havana, a gesture long sought by the Brazilians.

A third should be a joint U.S.-Brazil effort to help Venezuela navigate its way back toward democratic stability would unify the region behind a renewed effort to reverse democratic backsliding.

With both Obama and Rousseff seeking to use their second terms to protect their historic legacies, this may be their best chance to put chilly relations behind them and find more common ground for change.