I do not really feel like arguing on this last Sunday of the year, but given the mission of the Department of Homegirl Security, I feel I must respond to the editorial in today’s Washington Post, Redefining human rights, addressing Secretary Clinton’s seminal address on the issue of human rights and the Obama Administration’s agenda for the 21st century, delivered at Georgetown University on December 14. (All emphasis below is mine.)
…she did not limit herself to past principles. She offered an innovation: The Obama administration, she said, would “see human rights in a broad context,” in which “oppression of want — want of food, want of health, want of education, and want of equality in law and in fact” — would be addressed alongside the oppression of tyranny and torture. “That is why,” Ms. Clinton said, “the cornerstones of our 21st-century human rights agenda” would be “supporting democracy” and “fostering development.”
Without meaning to insert a chicken/egg question here, I wonder to what degree democracy can emerge and thrive without development. I appreciated her use of the word “supporting” above since it indicates a clear division from eight years of Bush-Cheney democracy building a secondary or tertiary excuse upon which we were in Iraq. I believe Secretary Clinton was saying that we will not impose by force our system upon others, but we will encourage democratic principles where we see them practiced. If the argument we have heard so often post 9/11, that others hate us for our wealth, has any credibility, an effort to aid in development should be a welcome about-face from our cold, hard imposition of our principles by force.
Ms. Clinton said that in adding “human development” to human rights and democracy, “we have to tackle all three simultaneously.” But there are two dangers in her approach. One is that non-democratic regimes will seize on the economic aspect of her policy as an substitute for political reform — as dictators have been doing for decades. Another is that the Obama administration will itself, in working with friendly but unfree countries, choose the easy route of focusing on development, while downplaying democracy.
Change carries risk. This country voted for change, I understand. I doubt that we will see this administration downplaying democracy. That is a pretty strong word. We probably will see focus on development. No matter what you think of our Afghanistan policy, that the Afghan troops need all kinds of development is undeniable. It is bad enough that women and girls in that country are prevented from attaining an education in Taliban-controlled regions, but even military recruits are woefully undereducated. Many are illiterate, and those in command have cited that as a primary reason why these troops fail at carrying out their missions. I fail to see how supporting education, or getting one while nourished and healthy, short-changes anybody in the developing world. (And before anybody says it, of course this implies that our own youngsters have access to the same advantages).
Judging from Ms. Clinton’s own rhetoric, that is the approach the State Department is headed toward in the Arab Middle East. In a major speech last month in Morocco, she said that U.S. engagement with Islamic countries would henceforth focus on education, science and technology, and “entrepreneurship” — all foundations of “development.” She made no mention of democracy. If the Obama administration believes that liberty is urgently needed in the homelands of al-Qaeda, Ms. Clinton still has offered no sign of it.
If these are not the 21st century tools that can greatly assist in establishing democratic ideals, I would like to know what are. I personally think the Secretary of State made a measured, balanced, wise speech that day.