Promoting human rights abroad when they’re being trampled at home

People demonstrate in commemoration of George Floyd near the American embassy at Pariser Platz in Berlin, Germany, May 31, 2020. About 200 people gathered in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the German capital to protest against police brutality racism and hate. 46-year-old African-American, George Floyd died on May 25, 2020 after a Minneapolis police officer was kneeling on his neck for several minutes during his arrest. The controversial act of police brutality sparked violent demonstrations throughout the U.S with reports of riots in Minnesota, California, New-York and more. Reports also mention that Derek Chauvin, one of the police officers allegedly involved in the incident was arrested and will be charged with Third-degree murder. (Photo by: Omer Messinger)No Use UK. No Use Germany.

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, and the widespread public protests and demands for systemic change that have followed, are being watched closely around the world. Closely observed, too, are President Trump’s statements labeling protesters as thugs and threatening to send military forces into American cities if their elected leaders don’t get them “under control.” The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported over 125 violations of press freedom in just three days of protests this weekend.

From this sorry chronology flowed an inevitable cascade, from inside and outside the country, decrying U.S. hypocrisy on human rights: Shameless dictatorships took opportunity attacks on the United States, condemning its racism and injustice; and the “woke” commentariat proclaimed that the United States had no standing to criticize rights abuses elsewhere as long as we failed to address systemic racism at home.

Hypocrisy, of course, is a charge so prevalent in political affairs as to have little real force left. Hypocrisy in foreign policy is nearly inevitable, since every policy choice involves opportunity costs and trade-offs among a complex mix of U.S. interests and values. Even were that not true, the most alert, adroit, and well-staffed government would be challenged trying to speak evenly to every abuse of rights, everywhere, at every moment.

More substantive is the concern expressed by many (mostly on the American political left) that the United States cannot effectively speak to human rights abroad when it fails to uphold them at home. Indeed, for U.S. diplomats abroad, rights abuses by the U.S. government or by state and local authorities present a real challenge for their mandate to support human rights protections in their host countries. But that it is challenging does not mean it is impossible, and it most certainly does not mean that U.S. rights advocacy is undesirable or immoral.

The moral foundation for American advocacy of human rights does not lie in our status as a paragon of international virtue. From years spent in this work, I can tell you that insisting we have it figured out, and demanding that others emulate us, is the least effective way I have seen for Americans to make the case for other countries to respect human rights. The most effective advocacy begins from the acknowledgement that human rights are both universal and inherent, not dependent on one’s form of government. But there is a difference between governments that acknowledge universal, inherent human rights, and that write respect for rights into their structure and functions, and governments that treat human rights as a boon granted only by the authority of the state.

There is also a difference between democracies and autocracies in citizens’ ability to protect and advance their rights and hold authorities accountable for abuse. Our democracy has never performed according to its promise — a fact communities of color in this country know all too well. We are frustrated at our country’s shortcomings, and fearful for the health of our politics and constitution and elections. Still, we have tools to address those fears, and we are using them. Tens of millions of Americans have mobilized to march, to register voters, to file lawsuits, to advocate for justice reforms, to fund bail fees, to elect better leaders, and to run for office themselves. We have the space to do all that to advance and protect our rights. Others do not have that space, but deserve to. Should we be silent on their demands for democratic freedoms, because we are dissatisfied with the performance of our own?

Our moral foundation for human rights advocacy is thus not — and in reality, has never been — our own perfect adherence to those ideals. Our moral foundation comes from our commitment, shared with others all around the world, to the rights inherent in every human being, and to the commitment to strive constantly to better realize those rights. It comes from solidarity. And the highest-impact component of American rights advocacy abroad is not necessarily our demarches to rights-abusing governments, but our visible engagement with citizens pressing those governments for change. Any U.S. ambassador who’s served in an autocratic country will tell you that they were likely to earn far more ire from their host government for meeting with local activists than for a public tongue-lashing statement.

To insist that we must first “get our house in order” before speaking to others’ oppression…would itself be an act of moral abdication.

This honest, humble rights promotion — rooted in the principles at the heart of America’s civic creed, but fully cognizant that they’re not fully realized — is the kind of advocacy American diplomats practice every day, and the approach manifested in the letter published this week from U.S. Ambassador Brian Nichols to the people of Zimbabwe. This kind of rights advocacy links our own struggle to others’, and theirs to ours. It opens the opportunity for a two-way dialogue about democracy and rights protections, and for solidarity across national borders. Importantly, this kind of rights advocacy demands the active engagement of voices from outside government: the civic activists and advocates who do the work of pushing governments to make rights protections more meaningful and more concrete.

By contrast, to insist that we must first “get our house in order” before speaking to others’ oppression, to be so ashamed by our own shortcomings that we refrain from calling out abuses abroad, and thus to withhold our solidarity from the abused, would itself be an act of moral abdication. As my friend Adham Sahloul wrote this weekend: “The people in the Hong Kong’s and Idlib’s of the world don’t have time for our spiritual reclamation sessions.” Sahloul calls for a “Yes, and” approach to American rights advocacy abroad, something that American diplomats of color, like Ambassador Nichols in Harare, already practice. Yes, we have important work to do at home. So do we all. Let’s continue reaching our hands across our borders in solidarity, and get to work.