How to Police Human Rights

Question: Can America balance human rights enforcement with economic development?

Tom Malinowski: Preserving economic interests requires trading and working with governments like, for example, China, that violate human rights. And there are some who would say, “Well, you can’t do both. You can’t go and talk to the Chinese about stabilizing the global economy and the steps that we want them to take to help us deal with obviously an existential economic crisis and at the same time lecture them about their treatment of dissidents for prisoners or the Falun Gong or Tibetans or what have you.” I don’t think that’s right, I think that the United States and countries like China work together on economic matters because it’s in their mutual interest to do so. I don’t think China or any other country works with us on those issues to do us a favor. They do it because it’s in their interest to do so as well. So I don’t think we damage ourselves diplomatically if we stand up for our principles so long as we do it in an intelligent way. And that’s the challenge of diplomacy; it’s doing more than one thing at one time. And any Secretary of State or any President who is up to the enormous challenge of those jobs should be able to do that.

I also think that it’s unrealistic to think that we can simply drop those issues. You can go in to the meeting with the Chinese and say, “You know what? We just can’t afford to raise the case of that dissident. We can’t afford to lecture them about the poor Tibetans, because we’ve got to save the global economy.” And then three months later, something awful is going to happen in Tibet. And guess what, the United States government is going to have something to say about it because it would be politically impossible not to. And then the Chinese having seen the pattern of silence, become even more upset. They’ll say, “Where does that come from? We thought you weren’t talking to us about that stuff anymore.” And then the diplomatic costs [are] even greater. So I think realistic diplomatic reasoning [is that it] is better just to be principled and consistent and send the message out to every country that we work with around the world. That’s just part doing business with the United States—we’re going to raise those issues, because it’s who we are, it’s what we believe.

Question: At what point do human rights abuses supersede a country’s right to self-determination?

Tom Malinowski: I don’t know about self-determination but sovereignty, state sovereignty, is often used as an argument against intervening to stop human rights abuses, and it’s a complicated set of arguments. But certainly, in cases where you have extreme violence against civilians, the threat or reality of mass killing, of genocide—I believe that, in fact, [the] United Nations has adopted a principle of responsibility to deal with those situations if a state is failing in its responsibility to protect its own people from those kinds of abuses, then the rest of the world has a responsibility to step in whatever way may be effective.

Now, what if we’re talking about less extreme violations of human rights? Torture, or newspapers being closed, and people being imprisoned because they’re expressing their views. I think very few people argue that those cases merit military intervention—invading a country to take down its government. But there are other tools that I think are appropriate to use to pressure countries to change their behavior. Partly because it’s the right thing to do, partly because there are legal obligations being violated when governments violate human rights in those ways, and partly because we have a self-interest as Americans in building a world in which governments treat their people better—there are a lot of reasons for that. So I don’t think that sovereignty is an absolute bar to one country or one group of people promoting human rights beyond their political borders.

Question: Can the U.S. justify defending rights while accused of violating rights itself?

Tom Malinowski: I think the United States can’t be an effective champion of human rights anywhere if it’s generally seen around the world as a violator of human rights. And so when the [George W.] Bush Administration was not just engaging but justifying practices like torture, and disappearing people in secret prisons and long term detention without charge, it was very difficult, not impossible, interestingly, but difficult for the United States to effectively urge other countries not to do those things.

I do think, although I’m critical of some the things that the Obama administration has done, that he has gone a long way towards not just eliminating those practices but convincing the world that they’re being eliminated. I think this is actually a moment, perhaps a rare moment when the United States government and particularly the President has a lot of moral credibility to go to the world and champion an end to torture, fair trials for everybody, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. That moment may not last, but we do have a moment like that now, and it’s important that it will be used effectively and wisely.

Question: Can technology facilitate human rights?

Tom Malinowski: Technology can be used to suppress human rights and to facilitate human rights. That’s always been the case. There’s never been one technology that is beneficial only to one side in that struggle. So governments like China and Iran can use the Internet to monitor their people’s communication, to try to identify dissidents and go after them individually; but of course campaigners for democracy and human rights can also use this technology as we saw in Iran—to get around government restrictions on speech. It’s a tag of war between the dark side of the Internet and the good side, and there’s a lot that the United States can do to help the good side win in that fight. For example, there are really interesting technologies being developed that allow people to communicate privately to defeat surveillance and to defeat censorship, programs that can be downloaded by folks in Iran, in China, in Burma, in Vietnam, and it’s something that we’ve asked the US government to fund and support.

There’s also a very interesting and ambiguous role played by American technology companies like Google and Yahoo and Cisco. These are the companies that developed these liberating technologies that dissidents in Iran and China use. But they’ve also sometimes partnered with the governments to give them the technology that is used to suppress dissent. They’ve censored their own contents sometimes, and so helping these companies figure out what their responsibilities are when they are operating in dictatorships and backing them up when they have to stand up to those governments is a really important challenge for the 21st century.

Recorded on:  July 29, 2009

Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski considers the diplomatic Catch-22’s of operating as a successful modern economic power that enforces global human rights.

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