Speeches: Keynote Address at Human Rights First Summit

Elisa, thank you so much for having me, and for the work that Human Rights First does to make sure that the United States keeps fighting for and living by our values, something that we have reason to appreciate with particular force today.

I’ve had the privilege to serve in this job for a bit over half a year now. When old friends see me, they often ask, as they mentally scan the headlines from Syria and Iraq to Egypt to Russia to Hong Kong, “so, how’s it going?” “Oh, you know,” I reply. “We’re just tying up a few loose ends.”

Or sometimes, I tell my favorite joke from the fall of the Austro Hungarian empire. You know, the one where the empire is falling. And one official says to the other, “the situation is serious, but it’s not hopeless.” And the other responds, “Actually, the situation is hopeless — but it’s not serious.”

In all seriousness – it is hard to scan those headlines today and not feel, in the words of my first mentor in Washington, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that “the world just breaks your heart sometimes.”

I imagine that each of you has some reason to feel that. My own reasons are rooted in personal experience. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a trip I took to eastern Libya in April of 2011, just as the anti-Qaddafi uprising was getting under way. One day, we stopped in the seaside town of Derna, where the walls were covered with something I’d never before seen in my life — the graffiti of revolutionary moderation. “Extremism is Rejected,” one slogan read. “We want a country of institutions,” read another.

Earlier this year, a small group of extremists took over Derna. They have been killing decent people there, in Benghazi and in other parts of Libya who continue to fight for the rule of law against the rule of the gun – lawyers, judges, civil servants, human rights defenders. The extremists are a small minority, but violence married with the will to power is a hard thing to fight when the good guys have little but ideas and hopes on their side.

So let’s posit: there is plenty to be distressed about in the world today. I won’t diminish any of it. But I do want to try to offer some perspective, and to argue that the troubles we’re struggling to overcome are to some degree a product of historical progress, a flip side of trends that should give us hope about the future. I also want to talk about something we are doing to give the good guys a more powerful weapon in their fight, and to ask your help in doing it.

First, the perspective:

Last year, as a Christmas present for my Mom, I ordered a bound set of all the Newsweek magazines published in 1972, the first full year she and I spent in America after immigrating from Poland. Like all the best Christmas presents one gets for others, I monopolized it for myself. And one little article in particular caught my eye – a piece about Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic. It reported that Bokassa had gathered all the suspected criminals in his capital city to a soccer stadium whereupon, in front of a crowd of invited dignitaries and journalists, he ordered his soldiers to beat the helpless prisoners with clubs, until many were dead. Now, Newsweek in 1972 obviously assumed its readers would want to know of such things. But there was not the slightest implication in the article – or others about other distant atrocities unfolding at the time– that such events created any foreign policy dilemma for the United States, that we had any reason to do anything about them. The story was a curiosity, not a call to action.

Forty years later, the Central African Republic is still emerging from turmoil. It’s still not a place to which most Americans feel any personal ties. Yet we have a senior envoy at the State Department who is dedicated exclusively to addressing the problems of this country. We have led the UN Security Council in responding to the crisis there. We have supported a multidimensional UN peacekeeping mission of 10,000 troops and 1,800 police. These efforts haven’t solved the problem, but have saved lives. And they reflect a radical change in how we relate to the rest of the world. Put simply, we feel more connected to far away peoples and events, and a greater sense of responsibility to worry about and to right wrongs over which we would have lost no sleep a generation or two ago.

This, I would argue, is a very good thing.

And it is one reason why we feel the heartbreak we do today when people working for human rights around the world experience setbacks. But it doesn’t explain why there seem to have been so many more setbacks recently.

Here, let me suggest a few basic propositions:

First, there is a high stakes contest of ideas in the world today; in fact, it’s been underway for a long time.

As president Obama has said, “Throughout human history, societies have grappled with fundamental questions of how to organize themselves, the proper relationship between the individual and the state.” Some of us hold fast to “the belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding.”

“But those ideals,” the president added, “have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign.”

The contest, in other words, is, and always has been, between those who think that states exist to serve their citizens, and those who think that citizens exist to serve their states.

Second – and here is the hopeful part – in this contest, ordinary citizens are more empowered today than at any previous point in history.

They are more empowered because the human rights movement has succeeded in establishing, as an international norm, that everyone really does have a right to speak, associate, and worship freely and to choose their leaders in free elections. In other words, it can no longer be said that it is normal to deny these rights, and no leader who does so can be considered legitimate, in any country, in any culture.

Citizens are more empowered because nations have established institutions and policies – however imperfect — to enforce these human rights norms. If you flout them, you will be condemned. You may be sanctioned. You may one day even be prosecuted.

Citizens are more empowered because they are more connected to each other. Civil society in one country helps civil society in every other country – and it’s not just civil society in the US and Western Europe doing the helping. If you are learning civil resistance to dictatorship, you are probably being taught by a former dissident from Serbia or Georgia. If you are mapping outbreaks of violence in a crisis-torn country, you may well be using software tools invented by activists from Kenya.

Citizens are also more empowered because information and ideas can no longer be contained. Because cheap software can defeat the most expensive firewall. Because almost everyone in every part of the world knows how people live everywhere else, enough to see through the lies dictators tell to convince their subjects to be happy. Thus, a democracy movement in Tunisia can raise expectations throughout the Arab world. Ukrainians confronting abuse of power can inspire Russians fed up with the same thing – as Vladimir Putin clearly understands. People in China can see Burmese and Indonesians and Taiwanese electing their leaders and ask, “why not us?”

This can happen anywhere. Even in North Korea, smart phones are appearing as status symbols, and all people need is a data card or flash drive to hold in their hands an encyclopedia of knowledge about the world, with some South Korean soap operas thrown in for good measure. “Why can’t we live like that,” people say, and now, for the very first time, the North Korean regime appears sensitive to human rights criticism from the outside world.

This leads me to my third point: it is precisely because their citizens are more empowered today that some dictatorships are pushing back so ruthlessly, especially against civil society groups and their connections to the outside world. They are doing so not because they are more emboldened, but because they are more threatened.

I’m not trying to put a positive spin on this problem. In the short run, it is very dangerous. It has led some authoritarian powers not just to crush internal dissent, but to intervene outside their borders to stop the example of democracy from spreading. As their old conception of power loses legitimacy, some have also sought refuge in another old idea, nationalism and territorial expansion. So it has gone in Russia. We are doing everything in our power to ensure the same thing never happens in East Asia, through principled engagement with China, including on human rights, and strengthening our alliances in the region.

But in the longer run, people fighting for human rights and human dignity around the world still have tremendous advantages, especially if we continue to stand with them. And we will. We will do so in part because of what National Security Adviser Susan Rice said to this summit a year ago: because it reinforces every core national security interest we have, even in the toughest cases.

At bottom, human rights are a set of rules that define the relationship between people and their governments in a way that squares with the natural demands of human dignity. When those rules break down, we know the result is almost always conflict and crisis that threatens our interests. Look at Syria – a dictator tries to crush a movement for democratic freedoms, creating a gateway for extremists alongside a pile of corpses. Look at Russia – an increasingly authoritarian government is threatened by a democracy movement at home, then sees another rise next door, and launches the first land grab in Europe since World War II.

International order depends not just on the balance of power between states but the balance within them. That’s one reason why we have a stake in that contest of ideas I mentioned a few moments ago.

And so we will continue our support for civil society wherever it is threatened. We will stand up for imprisoned activists around the world. We will oppose laws that restrict freedom of expression, association and assembly, or that target vulnerable ethnic, religious or sexual minorities. We’ll employ all the traditional tools in our arsenal, from private and public diplomacy to leveraging our assistance to targeted sanctions.

As I mentioned at the start, we will also look for new ways to give the bad guys pause, and the good guys an edge. The Obama administration believes that one way to do this is to step up the global fight against corruption.

I do not need to tell this audience that in many countries, corruption and human rights are the same issue. Corruption is the reason many authoritarian leaders seize and cling to power. It then becomes the glue that holds their regimes together, giving them spoils to distribute, while turning their cronies into criminals who could be exposed and punished if they turn disloyal.

But corruption can also become their greatest political vulnerability. Authoritarian leaders may be able to muster excuses for shooting demonstrators, arresting political enemies, or censoring the Internet, but no cultural, patriotic, or national security argument can justify thievery. It is often harder for them to push back when we confront their corruption than it is when we confront other aspects of their misrule. One reason why I think our sanctions against Russia will prove effective is that they target, among other things, a group of oligarchs whose corruption is seen as pernicious even by Russians who for now support what their government is doing in Ukraine. Our recent decision to put corrupt Hungarian officials on a visa ban list is another good example of this approach. It has intensified the debate in that country about the costs of their government’s self-described illiberal democracy.

Disgust with corruption also can help bridge the false divisions that repressive regimes and extremist groups try to sow among their people – it’s a point of agreement among Ukrainians from every part of their country, southern and northern Nigerians, Buddhists and Muslims in Burma, Shia and Sunni across the Middle East.

All that said: We can’t fight corruption abroad if we don’t stop its proceeds from flowing through our own companies and banks. We’ve already worked hard to return illicitly acquired assets to their countries after the leaders who stole them have left office. But we don’t just want a departure tax for falling autocrats – we must work harder to deny safe haven to such funds while such leaders are still in power. One way to do that is to stop the registration of anonymous shell companies on our shores.

Right now, if you’re a dictator stealing money from your people, you can have one of your corrupt cronies register a company in the U.S., use it to open a bank account on an off-shore island, and pour your wealth into it in complete anonymity. You could create a web of 50 anonymous entities overnight, simply by calling a state company registration office, or even purchase “shelf” companies registered a decade ago. Law abiding American companies that pay their taxes don’t benefit from this loophole. Criminals and kleptocrats do. We ought to close it.

To that end, President Obama has proposed legislation that would require companies to identify their “beneficial ownership” — the actual human being who owns or controls them — and make that information available to law enforcement. Every member of Congress dedicated to promoting liberty around the world should support this proposal, to ensure that our legal system is not used to hide corruption and facilitate human rights abuses overseas.

Civil society can also do more to help this effort, by documenting the connections between corruption and abuse of power around the world. Human rights groups have gotten very good at collecting evidence of atrocities – from documents to videos to satellite imagery – in the hope that the perpetrators can someday be prosecuted in a court of law. I hope you will get better at a different kind of forensics – the tracing of assets and financial transactions – to help identify a related set of crimes that will often be easier to crack down on.

All of this is to say that we have strong tools in the fight for more decent and accountable governance around the world that can be made even stronger. If we do that, progress still will be slow. There still will be set backs and heartbreaks. But that’s been true for every worthwhile goal American foreign policy has sought to achieve.

Think about the decades of American leadership from World War II to the Cold War to the present period. What has worked best for us? I’d say we have succeeded when we have patiently tried to do the right thing. When we have stood up with persistence and firmness for our values and the friends who share them, promoting global norms based on those values, building institutions and alliances to enforce them, and confronting, where necessary, those who threaten them. This strategy takes time and perseverance, but it has worked, from our half-century struggle to build a Europe whole and free, to our generation-long effort to promote democracy in Burma. We have stumbled when we’ve lost faith in it. In those cases, we’ve either erred on the side of rash actions inconsistent with our principles – from the Bay of Pigs to Vietnam to Iraq — or simply given up on our ability to do anything, adapting ourselves to the world as it has been rather than trying patiently to change it.

It is never a mistake to align ourselves with people who struggle for the kind of world we want to live in. The mistake we sometimes make is to imagine that helping them win can be the work of a few news cycles, or even a single presidential administration. Or to forget that some of the goals we promote, which seem so benign to us, like promoting civil society and transparency and open government, can be deadly threatening to entrenched structures of power in some parts of the world. Of course, when such power is threatened it will fight back, causing conflict and sometimes presenting us with tough short-term choices.

But when tyrants and kleptocrats push back against something, perhaps we should consider that something is probably worth supporting. It is probably something that can work if we stick with it. And that knowledge ought to give us something that we very much need, and which will be the final word I want to leave you with. It should give us confidence.