Foreign Policy Blogs

Fusing US Foreign Policy with Human Rights

The Washington, DC-based Brookings Institute and the University of Bern's Project on on Internal Displacement has released an interesting report focusing on how to fuse human rights with US foreign policy. The author is Roberta Cohen, who, among her impressive credentials in the field of human rights, was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Rights at the Department of State and Senior Adviser to US Delegation to the UN.

Here's her main premise:  

“…What the United States is known and appreciated for around the world is not just its strong economy and military capability. It is its democratic way of life and commitment to the observance of human rights. Our nation defines itself by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the ending of slavery and segregation, the promotion of equal rights for women, the struggle to end racial and minority discrimination, and the defense of free speech, press, and civil liberties. In its dealings with foreign governments and countries, it must necessarily reflect this identity. Whether it is well expressed will depend upon the nature and strength of its human rights policy and the dedication and skill of its diplomatic corps in the implementation of this policy.”

Cohen identifies three challenges to injecting a regard for human rights into US foreign policy.

The first challenge is “how to address human rights and democracy without unduly straining relations with governments and undermining overall US foreign policy.” The US relationship with Pakistan is a prime example. The report queries: “Will the overthrow of Musharraf produce an extremist Islamic government hostile to the US as in Iran? Or will it lead to a more democratic alternative, as in Chile, the Philippines and South Korea?”

The second challenge is “dealing with competing priorities, that is, the political, military and economic interests that conflict with action on human rights.” More often than not, these types of interests override action on human rights. For example during the Reagan Administration, the author says “strategic interests overshadowed human rights concerns with South Africa, and a policy of "constructive engagement' was introduced to gain South Africa's cooperation in reducing Soviet and Cuban influence in southern Africa.” A more current example can be found in the use of torture to get intelligence that could be used to fight the war on terror.

Finally, Cohen notes that “the intelligence community often pursues policies at variance with a human rights policy.” In sum, there is a trade off between foreign policy implementation and prudent practice of human rights policy. Based on Cohen's historical observations it doesn't appear that any Presidential administration has quite hit the nail on the head in regards to human rights.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.