National Security Depends on Human Rights Promotion | The Center for Victims of Torture

National Security Depends on Human Rights Promotion

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Marie Soueid is CVT policy counsel.

Last year, Naima, an Iraqi client who had sought rehabilitative care at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) in Jordan, spoke to me about the disappearance of her young daughter. She described in painful detail every step she took to try to find her daughter. As she cried, she asked rhetorically, “Is it possible for a government to look and not find any clue for a year? What kind of government is that? Is it sleeping?” She then asked me if I could relay her story in the United States; she explained that sometimes western governments can show more compassion and thought that U.S. involvement may help push the Iraqi government to find her daughter. I wanted to believe that then, too.

The United States’ record on human rights both domestically and in its foreign policy is by no means spotless. However, in its foreign policy making, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have recognized that advancing U.S. interest necessarily means promoting human rights. Today, this appears to be changing. The Trump administration’s rhetoric and policy has left foreign policy experts sounding the alarm.

Secretary of State Tillerson’s claims that the United States would no longer be forcing its values on other countries and that human rights “creates obstacles” to relationship building abroad betrays a  fundamental misunderstanding of the conception of human rights and of their role in national security and the prevention of violence and mass atrocity. In a New York Times op-ed earlier this week, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) powerfully articulated why human rights must remain a core element of U.S. foreign policy-making in response to rhetoric to the contrary from the Trump administration. By articulating a vision for why human rights is so important to both national security and the dignity of individuals worldwide, Congress can push the United States to continue to lead on human rights promotion.

For many people in the United States the foundational document for human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, may be primarily associated with Eleanor Roosevelt, but its principal drafters were also from Canada, Lebanon, Chile, France and Taiwan. The fundamental values it encapsulates are by no means uniquely American conceptions. To state otherwise would be to discount the struggle of journalists who were imprisoned for their refusal to abandon press freedom in The Gambia or Syrians who demonstrated every day in March 2011 insisting on their right to free assembly.

The rights to life and liberty are fundamental to every individual’s dignity, regardless of their citizenship. To state that the prohibitions on torture, extrajudicial killing or arbitrary detention are uniquely American values resented by other countries is to reject the work and activism of millions around the world to fulfill even the most basic of these tenets Americans often take for granted. If they look outside of their countries for pressure on their governments to fulfill these freedoms, to discount this as the imposition of a foreign or American value is to capitulate to their oppressors.

In a Security Council first, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley chaired a meeting on the direct connection between human rights violations and the descent into conflict and mass atrocities. Haley followed it up with an op-ed rightly noting that preventing these violations is key to U.S. national security interest, because it may not be too long before systemic human rights violations become war crimes or crimes against humanity.  Security and governance vacuums created by war and widespread atrocities often challenge military and diplomacy and evoke threats outside of the area of conflict, including in the United States. Promoting human rights and human dignity is an imperative U.S. national security interest.

In this context, the importance of prevention cannot be overstated. Amid the administration’s seeming disdain for prevention when not in its economic interest, Congress has an important role to play. A letter sent by a bipartisan group of senators to the President on May 3, shows that Members of Congress intend to take that role seriously, describing the promotion of democracy and human rights as a “moral imperative” upon the United States. They further asked that promotion of democracy and human rights remain “front-and-center as a primary pillar of America’s approach abroad.”

To ensure that the administration continue to do this, Congress can take one further step by passing the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2017 (GAPA), to be introduced soon by Senator Cardin (D-MD), which mandates an interagency Mass Atrocities Task Force housed in the State Department, requires training on atrocity prevention and the factors that lead to atrocities for foreign service officers, and requires an annual congressional briefing by the Director of National Intelligence on “hot spots” around the world. This legislation would require the protection of human rights as one piece of atrocity prevention and would make the administration accountable to Congress in doing so.

In Secretary of State Tillerson’s hearing, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Corker (R-TN) stated his belief that the “world is at its best when America leads.” The GAPA would help ensure that the United States continues to lead the world towards stability and the preservation of human rights and dignity. Without further Congressional action, I’m afraid that the places Naima can look to for compassion outside of her country are shrinking rapidly. 


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