Obama’s Human Rights Policy Combines Rules and Flexibility

In a pair of speeches that bookended the largely neglected International Human Rights Day on December 10, President Obama and Secretary Clinton set forth a sophisticated, nuanced and, most importantly, pragmatic message on democracy and human rights. In a nutshell, the policy is: “remain true to core American principles of human freedom and dignity, restore U.S. credibility on human rights, demand that rules be followed, but above all, stay flexible in how to apply these values to realities on the ground.”

As a former Clinton administration policy advisor on democracy and human rights, I can certainly appreciate the fine line policymakers need to walk in this domain of foreign policy. As we saw during the years of the last Bush administration, a brash approach to democracy promotion can backfire, particularly when our government’s own record on protecting human rights falls so blatantly short of the standards to which we hold others. And as we saw in the first several months of this administration, a timid or ambiguous approach can embolden autocrats to dig their heels in further; it also has encouraged critics to attack the White House for abandoning human rights dissidents and for engaging in shameful exercises of self-flagellation, allegedly weakening our moral standing around the world.

The president’s lofty yet hard-headed rhetoric at the Nobel Peace award ceremony in Oslo, combined with Secretary Clinton’s workmanlike speech at Georgetown to honor Human Rights Week, together have righted the balance between these two approaches while preserving all options for maximum flexibility. They may just have threaded the needle between, on the one hand, reassuring democracy and human rights advocates on both sides of the aisle that these issues will remain a top priority for U.S. foreign policy, and on the other, protecting the pro-engagement and “principled pragmatism” plank.

As pragmatic politicians who know that it usually takes compromises to get things done in Washington, Obama and Clinton want to preserve their ability to maneuver through human rights minefields on the world stage without being held hostage to inflated rhetoric that could expose them to charges of hypocrisy. At the same time, they have laid down an important marker that they will treat these issues not as isolated causes but as part of an integrated, interdependent whole. There are no Manichean lines in the Obama/Clinton world, no false choices. “The assumption that we must either pursue human rights or our ‘national interests’ is wrong,” Hillary Clinton explained to an audience of Georgetown University students on December 14. “We do not want to be in an either/or position: Are we going to pursue nonproliferation with Iran or are we going to support the demonstrators inside Iran? We’re going to do both to the best of our ability to get a result that will further the cause we are seeking to support.”

Similarly, President Obama in Oslo said: “There has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists — a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world. I reject these choices.” What unifies them both is a dogged focus on attaining a better rules-based global system, one which sets forth clear standards based on universal values, then holds violators accountable when the rules are broken. As lawyers well-trained in the American legal tradition, this approach to the world should come as no surprise. But it has some important implications.

First, it assumes there really is global consensus on the universality of human rights norms. If we look at the long train of international human rights treaties, this is a safe assumption, even if the United States curiously has not ratified many of them. But a large and, at times, seemingly unbreachable gap between law and practice constantly calls that consensus into doubt. I, for one, believe that the focus is rightly placed on implementation of human rights norms already adopted, rather than tackling new topics that, under current political dynamics at the United Nations, may not deliver outcomes you want. Our diplomats, however, will need to work twice as hard to build coalitions with like-minded countries to hold outliers’ feet to the fire, including tough, targeted sanctions.

Second, it suggests that solutions to the inevitable conflicts between human rights principles and hard national security interests will be hatched on a case-by-case basis, with an open willingness to try new approaches when old tactics fall short. This is wise, given that the political context in each country is unique and requires tailored strategies. This means our diplomats in embassies around the world really need to do their homework and get out of their secure compounds and cocktail receptions. It also means a much more well-resourced development policy with a fortified battery of analysts, practitioners and aid experts who can sustain the long-term work of investing in legal reforms and strengthening civil society.

In sum, we now have a much clearer and reasonable exposition of this administration’s democracy and human rights agenda, one that blends both the Carter and Clinton approaches. Both Obama and Clinton, however, took steps toward but did not fully embrace the great unfinished human rights agenda of the 21st century: the demand for economic and social rights. Both encouragingly spoke of the need to tackle “freedom from want” – food, shelter, health and education – and placed these basic issues of human development as part of the U.S. human rights agenda. But both avoided characterizing these needs as “rights,” describing them instead as necesssary elements for citizens to exercise their political and civil rights. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that in a recent White House message to the Senate prioritizing treaty ratifications, the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights did not make the cut.