Standing Up For The Rights Of Others

"...part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others..."   - President Barack Obama

In an extraordinary speech at the United Nations last Thursday, President Obama asserted his leadership and the leadership of the U.S. in the promotion of democracy and human rights around the world. Think that’s a "no news" story? You’d be wrong. The Bush administration’s effort to frame the Iraq invasion as an effort to bring democracy to the region has had the effect of linking traditional U.S. democracy promotion to military intervention in the minds of many people, in the U.S and abroad. And, although Mr. Obama campaigned in support of democracy promotion, his administration has approached the issue cautiously. In fact, the administration has been criticized for backing away from a tough democracy and human rights line in its bilateral relations, especially in the Middle East and China. Moreover, although he promised to increase the budget for the National Endowment for Democracy, in his first budget, the President actually proposed a funding reduction, but in the subsequent compromise legislation, signed off on a small increase.

In this context, apparently anticipating a skeptical reaction to the speech, the White House released a "fact sheet" outlining activities and initiatives to illustrate its commitment to promoting democratic ideals.

Whether or not the principles and commitment enunciated in the speech can have a practical impact in bi-lateral relationships remains to be seen. Still, after the Administration’s rocky start, the speech gives heart to human and democracy rights organizations at a time when new, nondemocratic governance models are emerging in the world. The strength and resilience of authoritarian capitalism in China, the increasingly nationalistic and repressive "Putinism" in Russia, and the continuing dominance of religious and secular dictatorships in the Middle East are worrying to many democracy activists. Just last week Egyptian authorities shut down a scheduled conference on Freedom of Association that was to focus on the rights of non-governmental organizations, women’s rights groups, and other civil society organizations in the Arab world.

President Obama had some encouraging words for unionists who are fighting repressive governments and hard-faced businessmen in a world that, according to a recent Freedom House report, is overwhelmingly hostile to them. The president noted the role of Poland’s Solidarity trade union in the fight for Polish democracy, and the right of all workers to a decent wage. He also laid down markers on the rights of women, on a "free and open" Internet, and other freedoms that Americans cherish and the U.S. should stand for in its foreign policy.

The speech is worth reading.