Upholding Human Rights Remains Challenging

As 2010 comes to a close and much of the free world concludes commemorations of the 62nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, shares his views in the following interview.

Q: What have been the biggest challenges to human rights around the world in the last year?

Posner: The greatest challenges remained unchanged. Sixty-two years since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there are still countries that restrict a person’s right to assembly, or to select his or her faith, or to freely express an opinion, or to take part in their own governance. Human rights is always a challenging issue. In the last year we have seen that even democracies have to wrestle with difficult questions about citizenship, freedom of travel or religious expression.

However, I am not discouraged. All across the globe there are vibrant civil society groups working tirelessly to improve the situation in their country. The United States is encouraging governments around the world to partner with civil society because human rights, economic development and state security are intrinsically linked.

As President Obama said when he accepted the Nobel Prize, “America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal. We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung San Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran.”

I would like to take this opportunity to honor Lui Xaobo, this year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Liu has been a consistent advocate for fundamental freedoms and human rights for his fellow citizens and for peaceful political reform. Mr. Liu’s work and his receipt of this honor highlight the fact that while China has made tremendous economic progress in the last three decades, political reform has lagged behind. The U.S. government has called for Liu Xiaobo’s immediate release from prison. We have also called for the release of his wife and supporters from house arrest.

Q: It seems that better communications via technical means and ease of travel should serve as a means to enhance human rights, but has it? Do you have any comment on Internet freedom, in light of the Wikileaks releases?

Posner: The U.S. remains steadfast in our commitment to maintaining the openness on the Internet as a platform for innovation, economic growth, ideas, and information. We have said that the release of classified data puts large numbers of people at risk and does not serve the public interest. We will continue to criticize that action. And we will also continue to support the principles found in our own Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — contrary to the suggestions of some, there is nothing inconsistent about criticizing misguided action by one person while upholding sacred principles.

Our established policy of supporting openness on the Internet will continue to face challenges from some quarters in the coming weeks and months. But democracy depends on individuals’ ability to express ideas, access independent information, and communicate with others. And in the age of the information economy, our shared prosperity rests on the reliable and secure flow of data on the global network. We cannot lose sight of these fundamental objectives, even as we respond to the illegal disclosure of classified information.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The Internet and mobile technology has made that possible. We saw how Twitter was used in Iran to organize rallies and get around a news blackout. Facebook was used to organize a multinational protest against the FARC, a Colombian narcoterrorist group.

Naturally, any tool is only as useful as the person wielding it. The United States believes it’s critical that users of the Internet are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, e-mails, social networks and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship.

Q: What impact does the annual U.S. Human Rights Report have? Have the findings in the report changed anything for the better over the years?

Posner: The Human Rights Report’s purpose is to inform; it can be used by civil society and other governments as a fact base of personal freedoms and civil liberties. For the many people who live in countries without a free press or civil society, it can be the only source of information they have on this issue. The Human Rights Report is also used by our Congress and the executive branch to help form our foreign policy.

I’m moved when people working for human rights abroad tell us that learning that their efforts have been documented in the Human Rights Report reminds them that they are not alone and gives them strength to carry on.

Each year we see the report cited in the press and by nongovernmental organizations. In some countries it helps open a debate about human rights.

Q: In what ways has the Obama administration strengthened U.S. commitment to human rights around the world?

Posner: Like others before it, this administration has a clear and consistent commitment to human rights and civil society. It was President Obama who stated that, as part of our national security strategy, the United States must support democracy, human rights, and development. The United States is working closely with citizens, communities, and political and civil society leaders to strengthen key institutions of democratic accountability — free and fair electoral processes, strong legislatures, civilian control of militaries, honest police forces, independent and fair judiciaries, a free and independent press, a vibrant private sector and a robust civil society.

Over the last year, our bureau engaged several countries including China, Egypt, Vietnam and Indonesia in human rights and religious freedom discussions. These are regular topics in all of our bilateral meetings. In addition, our bureau has a program office that funds programs to empower and enable human rights and civil society activists in developing democracies.

I would like to take a moment to reflect on a mentor and personal friend, Louis Henkin; he was chairman of the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University and is widely considered to be the father of modern human rights law. Lou famously observed that in the church of human rights, the United States is not a pillar, but a flying buttress — supportive, but only from the outside. He devoted himself to bringing us into that church. Today, 31 years after Lou urged the U.S. Senate to apply international standards to ourselves, the Obama administration is committed to advancing a single set of universal human rights principles, to apply them to ourselves and to lead by example. I think that speaks both to Lou’s principled stance and to the Obama administration’s commitment to human rights.

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. )

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