Obama Administration Takes “Holistic” Approach to Human Rights
Washington — The Obama administration is taking a “holistic” approach to human rights — viewing human rights, democracy and development as supportive of one another, says Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.
“Human rights reflect what a person needs in order to live a meaningful and dignified existence,” Posner said March 24 in a speech to the American Society of International Law, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization founded in 1906 that has some 4,000 members from nearly 100 nations.
“Human dignity has a political component and an economic component, and these are inexorably linked,” Posner said. He acknowledged that many Americans have been suspicious of the international focus on economic, social and cultural rights because of the misuse of these demands in earlier times.
“For decades, the Soviet states and the nonaligned movement critiqued the United States for a perceived failure to embrace economic and social rights,” Posner said. “They used the rhetoric of economic, social and cultural rights to distract from their human rights abuses. They claimed economic rights trumped political rights, while in fact failing to provide either. We have prioritized political and civil rights because governments that are transparent and respect free speech are stable, secure and sustainable — and do the most for their people.”
But “it is time to move forward,” Posner said. “The Obama administration takes a holistic approach to human rights, democracy and development. Human rights do not begin after breakfast. But without breakfast, few people have the energy to make full use of their rights. As [American civil rights leader] Martin Luther King once noted, an integrated lunch counter doesn’t help the person who can’t afford to eat there.”
The United States, he said, will work constructively to adopt “fair and well-reasoned” resolutions at the United Nations that speak to issues of economic, social and cultural rights and are consistent with U.S. laws and policies. “We will emphasize the interdependence of all rights and recognize the need for accountability and transparency in their implementation, through the democratic participation of the people,” Posner said.
“We will do this understanding that these goals must be achieved progressively, given the resources available to each government,” he said. “But we will also stress that nothing justifies a government’s indifference to its own people. And nothing justifies human oppression — not even spectacular economic growth.”
Posner added that the United States will “push back against the fallacy that countries may substitute human rights they like for human rights they dislike, by granting either economic or political rights. To assert that a population is not ‘ready’ for universal human rights is to misunderstand the inherent nature of these rights and the basic obligations of governments.”
Posner said the link between the liberty of a country’s citizens and their basic economic and social well-being can be seen today on the streets of Cairo, Tunis and other Arab cities.
“In the Middle East, the public understands the connection between corruption and impunity on one hand and lack of freedom and economic opportunity on the other. That is why the story of a Tunisian vegetable vendor, who was so humiliated by local authorities that he set himself ablaze, resonated around the region,” Posner said.
Posner, who accompanied Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when she visited Egypt the week of March 14, said the Egyptian activists and government leaders they spoke with view political and social rights, transparency and accountability, economic and social progress as inextricably linked.
“Egypt’s prime minister described his goals as promoting ‘freedom, democracy and social justice,’” Posner said. “Young activists told us the Tahrir Square Revolution was spurred by both the denial of basic political freedoms and the absence of jobs and economic opportunity.” Egypt’s new labor minister, Posner said, stressed his efforts to restore workers’ rights to free association, which he sees as a prerequisite to building a strong Egyptian economy. “And when we met with Coptic Christian leaders, they spoke of a desperate need for educational reforms to combat religious bigotry and sectarian violence. Egyptians see the intersections between these issues as obvious and uncontroversial.”
U.S. policy, Posner said, “aims to help the Egyptian people achieve true stability as they build a political system that will honor the aspirations of all citizens — women and men, Muslims and Copts, bloggers and businessmen. Egyptians need the freedom from fear that the state security police will knock on their door in the night or hack their Facebook pages. And they also need decent jobs for the nearly one-fifth of the population that is still living on less than $2 a day.”
The United States, Posner said, will continue to urge other countries to invest in a better future for their citizens. “We stand willing to assist by pursuing an approach to development that respects human rights, involves local stakeholders, promotes transparency and accountability and builds the institutions that underpin sustainable democracy,” he said.