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Anti-government protesters in Bahrain getting tear-gassed on Nov. 4, 2011. (AP)

Getting to a more consistent U.S. approach to human rights promotion

ASK THIS | November 04, 2011

U.S. presidents are notoriously inconsistent when it comes to promoting human rights abroad, on the theory that our strategic goals come first. But one expert suggests that a more consistent approach would boost, not threaten, our national interests.

Mark Lagon, a Georgetown University expert on ethics in international relations, recently wrote a brief for the Council on Foreign Relations titled Promoting Human Rights: Is U.S. Consistency Desirable or Possible?

In it, he noted that presidents in the past have routinely sacrificed their commitment to promoting human rights in favor of other, ostensibly more strategically vital foreign policy objectives.

But Lagon advances the possibility that "more consistency in promoting human rights would in fact better serve U.S. credibility and national interests."

The Nieman Watchdog Project asked Lagon for some probing questions that journalists should be asking about the topic. Here are his suggestions:

Q. Presidencies have varied in how much they’ve emphasized human rights, how often deeds have matched words, and how consistent they are between one country and another. Wouldn’t more consistency actually advance U.S. interests, by enhancing credibility and soft power?

Q. Isn’t "values versus interests" a false dichotomy? Or are modern U.S. interests in such things as counter-terrorism, military basing, access to energy, and trade considerations more important and sometimes incompatible with promoting human rights?

Q. Does so-called "constructive engagement" with autocratic or illiberal governments lead them to evolve? Doesn't the failure of that approach with South Africa's apartheid government and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak settle that argument?

Q. When the U.S. does engage an autocratic or illiberal power with trade, aid, or military cooperation, shouldn’t we in practice use those ties for leverage to improve human rights?

Q. Thinking of Saudi Arabia and it oil, Bahrain giving the U.S. basing rights, and the U.S. reliance on Chinese goods and financing our debt, does our dependence on countries with rights-abusing governments make it more or less important for us to pressure them on human rights? Couldn't one argue that their repressive tactics threaten their stability -- and therefore us?

Q. Thinking of women in the Arab world or disadvantaged castes in India, can the U.S. convince nations through dialogue that they are squandering national assets when denying whole groups of people equal access to justice? Does mere talk work?

Q. U.S. policymakers have traditionally considered liberty and democracy to be out of reach of the citizens of Middle Eastern countries. Former president George W. Bush urged an end to this Middle East exception, and argued that democratization efforts there serve U.S. interests. But his actions – in Egypt and Pakistan, among other countries – did not match those words. Has the U.S. finally set aside this exception with the Arab Spring? Or when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other autocracies, does it still persist?

In his article for the CFR, Lagon outlines four possible guiding principles for a more consistent applicaiton of human rights promotion:

"First, despite how a human rights emphasis at times clashes with important priorities in bilateral relationships (e.g., trade, counterterrorism, and military bases), it is important not to assume that human rights always intrinsically contradict U.S. interests….

"Second, it is false to suggest that the greater a country's relative power, the less the U.S. can afford to confront its human rights failings…

"Third, governments that regularly deny a large category of their citizens equal access to justice are not only violating universal rights, but also squandering assets…valuable human capital…”

"Fourth, the Middle East should not be seen as an exception."


Mark P. Lagon is International Relations Chair, Master of Science in Foreign Service Program, at Georgetown University, as well as Adjunct Senior Fellow in Human Rights at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served 2007-2009 as U.S. Ambassador at Large directing the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department.



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