WASHINGTON, D.C. — What in some circles is called “humble confidence” in the United States articulating a strong human rights policy worldwide while owning up to times when the country hasn’t lived up to its ideals may be the best way to go, said one panelist at an April 15 forum on human rights.
“I don’t think we should go around apologizing. The United States has been a force for good in many, many parts of the world, and I don’t think we should step back,” said Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, who served for 10 years in the State Department working on democracy promotion and human rights. “But I think we should own up to when we make mistakes.”
Slavery and the “glorious principles” in the Bill of Rights are “both true and we have to wrap our brains around it,” Sedaca said. “Live up to the best and account for the worst.”
She added the Biden administration must “start moving” on human rights. “We cannot pull back when some of our allies abuse human rights. What we can say is that we will not engage as fully as we would like to. This is a barrier to that full relationship.”
Sedaca made her remarks at “Promoting Human Rights in Foreign Policy,” an online forum sponsored by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and co-sponsored by the university’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and master’s program in foreign service.
“To say there’s been a hit on our reputation would be the understatement of the year,” said Marc Lagon, a Georgetown professor who formerly was president of Freedom House, a human rights watchdog group, and ambassador at large to combat human trafficking under President George W. Bush.
But human rights may be one of those issues that can find comity in a contentious Congress, he said.
“We have this special island of issues where there is bipartisanship. Human trafficking is a great example of it,” Lagon said. “I wonder if those waves of bipartisanship can cascade out toward other issues,” he added, noting, though, that “the bipartisanship on those core issues has begun to crumble. There needs to be a revisiting of memory as to why these things are central to our foreign policy.”
China may prove to be the focal point, according to Lagon. “There’s an immense decision on the Hill. It goes from one issue to China, some other issue to China,” he said. The Biden administration “ought not do a 180 degrees opposite of Trump, perhaps 160,” such as “the reaffirmation of the State Department that China has committed genocide against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang,” Lagon added.
Still, he said, “it is a wonderful thing in this tragedy for so many hundreds of thousands of Uighurs that the United States would place itself on the side of Muslims” given two decades of anti-Islamic sentiment among large numbers of Americans.
Last spring, Joe Biden, then still running for the Democratic presidential nomination, “promised to convene a global summit for democracy” if elected, said David Little, a U.S. authority on human rights issues who retired from teaching at Harvard University in 2009.
The administration’s task, Little said, is “advancing human rights abroad while fighting corruption and authoritarianism,” and responding to the challenge posed by China “even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge.”
Little said the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the United Nations document finalized in 1948, should not be recast as just the work of Western nations. The declaration voices “fundamental, non-derogable rights which become the primary focus of the document, fundamental still to the world the United States faces,” he said.
Backing Little’s view was Jesuit Father David Hollenbach, the Pedro Arrupe distinguished research professor of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown and a past recipient of the John Courtney Murray Award from the Catholic Theological Society of America.
The Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, Hollenbach said, “issued a very strong program of action.” That action program, he added, included the statement, “The universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question.” It was signed, he noted, by the leaders and heads of state of 171 countries, including the People’s Republic of China.
“The protection of human rights means protection of people’s ability to participate with others on a basis of solidarity,” Hollenbach said. “Individual dignity is not something that one achieves alone. It is achieved within community.”
He added, “The right to free speech is not the right to sit in my office talking to myself about my political ideas. It is the right to debate with others about how we should live together. We can achieve a greater degree of universality if we recognize that solidarity and human rights go together.”