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Human Rights Promotion as a U.S. Policy Priority

Robert Berschinski

Robert Berschinski at PDAA lunch program, 12 February 2018 (A. Kotok)

(14 February 2018) Editor’s note. The following essay is drawn from remarks prepared by Robert Berschinski at the PDAA lunch program on Monday, 12 February 2018. Berschinski is Senior Vice President of Human Rights First, where he oversees the organization’s work advancing a U.S. foreign policy rooted in a strong commitment to human rights, universal values, and American ideals. More details about his background and the program itself are found on the program’s web page.

Thank you Ambassador Efird and Ambassador Morris, and all the members of PDAA for having me here with you today.

Frank is a very tough act to follow, but I’ll give it a shot.

Greta, your prompt for the session included the question “Should promoting human rights and democracy be an important part of U.S. foreign policy?”

My response is that, based on American history, our self-conception as a nation, and frankly our interests within the international system, there is simply no way that this issue cannot be included as an important component of our foreign policy.

I would add that my experience as a diplomat demonstrated quite clearly that standing up for individual rights and the rule of law—and being seen as doing so—pays the United States significant dividends as a matter of U.S. national interest.

To a certain extent it sounds trite, but I think there’s no doubt that America benefits from being seen as representing a set of ideals as much as a territory, and that we do well for ourselves when we’re seen to be acting in ways that go beyond our immediate, narrowly-defined self-interest.

It’s not news that human rights and liberal democracy are under strain right now.  According to Freedom House, we’re in our 12th consecutive year of a global rollback of liberal democracy, including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law. And that includes here at home.

Populism and ethno-nationalism seem on the march. Far-right populists gained votes and parliamentary seats in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria last year.

Promising democratic success stories from Hungary to Turkey to Venezuela to the Philippines have turned or are turning in a very different direction.  And of course with the possible exception of Tunisia, the early hopes of reformers in the Arab Spring have been crushed.

Russia, meanwhile, continues to violate international norms from invading its neighbors to meddling in foreign elections, and is empowered to do so in no small part because of the systematic, often brutal elimination of political opposition, and dominance that the Kremlin holds over the Russian media landscape.

And China is quickly translating its economic power into a means to export the control it exerts over its population at home into a new set of rules abroad that are explicitly hostile to individual freedom.

Perhaps most disturbingly, there’s a definite sense that consolidated democracies clearly aren’t delivering. According to various polls, this is leading many young people in consolidated liberal democracies, including here in the United States, to question whether democracy is the optimal form of governance.

Given all this, the question remains, should the United States continue to promote human rights?

My response is an unequivocal yes.

The data on the benefits of rights respecting democracies are pretty clear. Governments that don’t repress or steal from their citizens tend to be more stable, safer, and more prosperous. They tend not to breed or harbor extremists. They make better treaty partners and are less likely to violate international norms. Those that empower women reap significant economic benefits. And consolidated democracies are overwhelmingly less likely to go to war with one another.

I don’t want to come across as naïve. One of the prompts for this session spoke of trade-offs in U.S. foreign policy.  And of course our interests are not always going to align.

That said, my take from my time as a diplomat is that, at least in the long-run, standing up for human rights and our economic and security interests are pretty well aligned.  Where disputes and trade-offs arise is often more in terms of short-term decision-making that all policy makers have to grapple with.

In many ways, this is the story of the last 15 years or so of counter-terrorism policy, in which we know that the policies of some of our closest security partners are in part are driving the radicalization that we seek to end, but much more often than not we choose not to make a fundamental break in policy concerning these countries, because those same partners are also seen as necessary bulwarks against instability, at least in the near term.

Certainly, when we don’t live up to our own human rights commitments, as when we’ve engaged in torture, or made arguments for indefinite detention without trial of terrorism suspects, we can imperil vital partnerships outside of the human rights lane, like intelligence and law enforcement sharing.

Similarly, I would argue that when we decline to raise human rights concerns, or reduce foreign assistance for democracy, rights, and governance funding, we not only undercut our image and goodwill with foreign audiences, we also lose important diplomatic leverage.

What my time in government also demonstrated to me is that what authoritarians crave, more than anything, is legitimacy. There’s a reason that both Russia and Egypt are holding elections in the coming months, even though the outcomes in both instances are foreordained.

There’s also a reason that what many leaders from many middle-tier authoritarian states crave from the United States is simply an invitation to the White House, or a smiling picture with the U.S. president. What they want is to be able to splash that picture all over the media at home, in the hope that it confers an otherwise lacking legitimacy.

So all of this is to say that by being seen as a net exporter of legitimacy, if you will, my experience is that the USG maintains a fair amount of leverage in diplomatic discussions that go beyond human rights narrowly understood.

Conversely, those with no positive story to tell about the benefits of rights-respecting good governance are at a natural disadvantage.  Vladimir Putin’s strategy is clear. Unlike during the Cold War, Russia isn’t trying to advance an ideological alternative to capitalism undergirded by liberal democracy. He’s instead trying to advance the idea that there is no objective truth, or right or wrong, and the idea that the United States and European countries are no different than Russia – that we’re all simply in it for ourselves, and that ideas like adhering to the rule of law, and upholding human rights are just cynical talking points.

Rather than playing into these tactics, which, unfortunately, is happening a lot right now, we should be rejecting them. In an environment of increased strategic and ideological competition, we should be:

  • investing in strong diplomacy, including with respect to human rights,
  • making the case on the Hill for why we need to be investing in democracy and governance assistance, and supporting NGOs and independent journalists who are under increasing stress,
  • raising human rights and rule of law concerns in meetings with competitors and allies alike,
  • and doing little things, like making sure that when our senior leaders travel abroad, they make time to meet with human rights defenders.

Of course, little of this seems to be happening. The State and USAID budget requests seek to decimate DRG accounts, and more than a year into the administration, key positions related to human rights don’t even have nominees. U/S for human rights and civilian security, A/S for DRL, PDAS for DRL.

All of that said, I wanted to close by discussing one way in which the new administration has shown leadership on promoting human rights and fighting corruption, which has been its implementation of the so-called Global Magnitsky Act.

To briefly recap the legislative history of the law, it grew out of the 2009 death in custody of a Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky, who helped uncover a tax fraud committed by members of the Russian government against a financial firm owned by a man named Bill Browder. In order to cover up the fraud, Russia officials accused Magnitsky of the crime itself, held him for many months in pre-trial detention, beat him, and denied him medical care.

Following Magnitsky’s killing, in 2012 the Congress passed a version of the Magnitsky law that provided the USG authority to sanction human rights abusers in Russia. Those that are designated are denied visas and subject to having their assets frozen.

In December 2016 Congress expanded the law to include both human rights violators and corrupt actors, and globalized its application.

On December 21st, the Trump administration issued the first tranche of designations under the Global Magnitsky Act, which it applied to 15 individuals and 37 entities.  It also released an executive order that lowered the law’s evidentiary bar and made a few other changes that greatly increased the potential scope of the law.  While there’s plenty to quibble with in terms of the strength of the sanctions that were levied, overall it’s fair to say that the administration did an admirable job in signaling that it is taking the law seriously, and sees value in using this cutting edge tool for accountability.  Among other individuals, it sanctioned:

  • A Burmese military commander linked to recent atrocities against the Rohingya;
  • The son of Russia’s prosecutor general, who has been linked to grand corruption; and
  • A Beijing police chief involved in the death of a Chinese human rights defender.

And part of what makes Global Magnitsky interesting as a foreign policy tool is that while its uses as a means to fight impunity are clear, it’s also targeted in a way that can allow the USG to isolate certain bad actors without putting at risk the entirety of the bilateral relationship.

My organization, Human Rights First, has taken a leading role in working with dozens of other human rights NGOs around the world to build case files on human rights abusers and corrupt actors that we can hand to the U.S. government in the hope that it will act to impose sanctions under Global Magnitsky.

I can tell you that expectations among human rights defenders around the world that the United States will use the tool to impose accountability are sky high.

We’re really in an environment in which activists feel like space for civil society is shrinking, and repressive governments and kleptocrats are able to act with more and more impunity.

And that fact brings me back to today’s topic. Various polls from Gallop and Pew demonstrate that views of the United States are at near-historic lows. The current administration is seen as walking away from norms and institutions, including those that relate to human rights and democratic governance, that we in large part created.

All of that said, I think it’s very fair to say that the United States is still often looked at by people living under repressive regimes as their best hope for holding their governments accountable.

Each year when I served at the State Department I set up a roundtable with the Secretary of State and human rights activists from the OSCE region – Europe and the former Soviet Union. Each year activists from countries like Russia and Ukraine and Azerbaijan and the Central Asian were able to speak to advise the Secretary on ways the United States could assist in the face of often severe repression.

What these activists unfailing requested was that the United States

  • continue to register its concern in bilateral meetings over acts of repression,
  • speak publicly about human rights issues, and
  • fund civil society.

Do their governments like this? No, often they don’t, and sometimes that results in tension within the relationship. But I would argue that what we know about what repression drives in terms of instability and radicalism is worse, and so these tough discussions are well worth the price.

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