Go to the website of any organization that tracks U.S. policy on human rights and you will find a similar refrain: The hypocritical heights scaled by the Bush administration—touting democracy and human rights as justification for war; asserting that human rights are a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy while embracing torture and rendition—have hobbled the cause of human rights around the globe.
This is true in the abstract—standards and standard-bearing institutions are weakened—and in the harsh specificities of lives lived under repressive regimes. For human rights activists on the ground, the costs of U.S. hypocrisy are profound. Take countries like Pakistan, Egypt, and Tunisia, where U.S. policy and aid prop up increasingly authoritarian presidents. In Pakistan, 90 percent of U.S. aid has gone to the military. In Egypt, the government has denounced and even jailed activists who work with financial support from outside the country. Tunisia refuses to allow any outside entity—governmental or private—to fund independent human rights groups and uses anti-terror laws to detain critics of the government.
These activists are the independent voices that successive U.S. administrations have hailed as heroes and beacons of democratic reform. Yet to the extent that foreign policy—in particular, foreign aid—presents an opportunity to shore up civil society and push governments to be less corrupt, more transparent, more just, and more accountable to their citizens, the opportunity is largely missed, especially in terms of the impact on human rights or the ability of local activists to make a difference.
How does the United States get in the way of human rights activists? The problem stems both from the cynical use of human rights rhetoric and from the confusion and inconsistency that has plagued U.S. attempts to support human rights. For example, is the aim of U.S. policy to support active, independent human rights activism? Or is it to shape and even bend the priorities of the organizations and individuals that lead civil society to suit U.S. interests that may have nothing to do with or even be harmful to their human rights goals?
As someone who works regularly and directly with human rights groups in places like Uganda, Morocco, Mexico, and India, I have heard repeatedly from colleagues that the United States makes it harder for them to move their societies toward the open and free systems that the United States claims to support. These human rights groups have an enormous amount to offer to the political, economic, and judicial stability of their countries. Green Advocates, in Liberia, leads the Publish What You Pay Coalition that is fighting to end corruption in the extraction of natural resources and thus to end the abuses that flow from the fight over the riches those resources produce. And the Congolese Initiative for Justice and Peace in eastern Congo pushes the national government to provide local judicial authorities with the resources and information they need to combat corruption, deliver justice to victims of violence, and implement reforms respecting women’s rights.
U.S. policy and assistance are largely failing human rights activists like these in three ways.
First, human rights advocates in many parts of the world are deeply skeptical about relying on the United States for political or financial support. They have been alienated by decades of policy that favor authoritarian regimes over democratic reform. Even when the United States has pledged support for human rights, it has too often abandoned these promises to embrace abusive governments willing to position themselves as allies in, for example, the Cold War or the War on Terror.
Second, where foreign assistance does target civil society, often it is delivered in ways that place short-term U.S. goals over human rights. The result is that aid either becomes politicized and thus tainted or favors comfortable institutions willing to follow the United States uncritically rather than activism that challenges a corrupt, repressive status quo.
Third, because of the poor reputation of the U.S. government in countries around the world, activists may make themselves vulnerable to criticism if they accept U.S. financial support (especially if they are required to advertise that fact). Activists with little access to resources then must choose between the money that could transform their reach and impact and the risk of losing credibility with their constituencies.
To move in a new direction, the United States needs to stop undermining human rights activism and start conducting foreign policy in a way that gives human rights activists the space and freedom to operate and seek financial support—not necessarily from the U.S. government—on their own terms. Too, the United States should look to provide critical resources to human rights organizations in ways consistent with respect for their independent voices and local initiatives.