Human Rights in the Obama Administration

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
American University Law School Conference
Washington, DC
April 28, 2011

(As Prepared)

Date: 04/28/2011 Description: Under Secretary Maria Otero discusses the importance of human rights in U.S. foreign policy and successes under the Obama administration of engagement with Muslim communities, support for civil society, and reengagement with the international community. © Photo by Richard Reinhard, American University

Thank you, Claudio. It’s always a special treat to be introduced by someone who I count as both a trusted colleague and an old friend.

It is wonderful to be among many friends and colleagues. I won’t be able to name all of you, but I do want to recognize President Neil Kerwin, Provost Scott Bass, and all of the Deans of American University, along with the distinguished members of the Diplomatic Community and representatives from human rights organizations.

I am no stranger to this campus. I want to recognize Joe Eldridge, chaplain of AU, internationally renowned human rights expert, and conveniently my husband. I’m convinced one of the reasons Secretary Clinton asked me to take this job was that she knew I’d be accountable not just to her on human rights, but to Joe as well.

It has been a great honor to serve in the Obama Administration for the past 18 months. As Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, I oversee U.S. foreign policy on a wide-array of human security issues, including the protection of human rights, the promotion of democratic principles, and the pursuit of rule of law, justice and civilian security. And I am fortunate to work closely with our Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Mike Posner, whom many of you know and respect as much as I do.

Today, I’d like to share with you three ways that the Obama Administration is promoting human rights around the world:

  • First, we are elevating human rights through increased engagement with Muslim communities worldwide;
  • Second, we are bolstering human rights with unprecedented support for civil society around the world, including vulnerable or marginalized groups such as women, LGBT individuals, disabled persons, and religious minorities;
  • And third, we are reengaging on important human rights issues in the multilateral system.

In each of these approaches, we are drawing upon not only the strength of the U.S. human rights record, but also the lessons we have learned and the challenges we have faced over our own history.

Any discussion of human rights today is set against the backdrop of historic change in the Middle East and North Africa. All of us are witnesses to a monumental wave of democracy in action. And among those leading these movements are the activists, advocates, students, and community leaders who will be the next generation of human rights leaders and scholars. Even now, they are teaching and reminding us of the potential of social movements and the power of the human spirit.

In June of 2009, President Obama stood before a crowd in Cairo, Egypt to declare a new beginning for the United States’ relationship with Muslim communities. His message was that America’s values and those of Islam are not exclusive, but instead that all of us share universal principles of justice, tolerance and respect for the dignity of all human beings. The President placed a marker in American foreign policy—one that set a new course for our engagement with Muslim communities.

Under the Obama Administration, we have seen a shift in dialogue towards mutuality and partnership. We have challenged discrimination and intolerance toward Muslims, and fought to protect their, religious freedom, both at home and abroad. The US government has condemned acts of religious intolerance—whether they are against Copts in Egypt, Buddhists in Tibet, or Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan. The assassination of Pakistani Minister Shabbaz Bhatti last month was a tragic reminder that none are immune from this trend. Violence in the name of religion is an insult to the religion itself. Any society that does not protect religious freedom cripples the pursuit of the stability and prosperity of its people.

18 months after President Obama’s Cairo speech, students who may have been in his audience made their way to Tahrir Square. With the same spirit that has breathed life into democracies around the world, the people of Egypt found their voices and took their demands to the streets. And the revolutions continue today.

Born of frustration and inspired by the pursuit of their human rights, the citizens of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Libya have staked their claim to that which we all believe in—the human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Our ability to preserve and promote the foundations of democracy, such as freedom of expression, directly relates to the second way in which the Obama Administration is promoting our human rights agenda: and that is through bolstering civil society.

As Secretary Clinton said last year in Krakow, the United States’ very own democratic experiment was a product of its civil society. “We were a people before we were a nation. And civil society not only helped create our nation, it [has] helped sustain and power our nation into the future.”

And we are not alone in our experience. From Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia, civil society groups have played essential roles in bolstering democracy and spurring democratic transition and advancement. They also play a crucial role in keeping their governments accountable. So we have enhanced our support for civil society groups as they work to improve democracy in their own countries. Under the Obama Administration, diplomacy in the name of human rights and democracy is no longer limited to conversations between governments. It is a conversation with the people—driven by the shared goal of achieving the best for the people.

Secretary Clinton has made engagement with civil society a defining feature of our democracy agenda. Our embassies and missions around the world are charged with developing strategies to support and protect civil society. On February 16th, Secretary Clinton announced the launch of a new strategic dialogue with civil society, bringing together representatives from the U.S. government and civil society groups for regular consultations, just as we do in our strategic dialogues with partner governments.

Our engagement with civil society addresses the growing trend in many regions where we see crackdown and isolation of civil society organizations. Even in nations that call themselves democracies, fear of opposition and agitation has resulted in the elimination of citizens’ rights to advocate, organize and even exercise human rights and fundamental freedoms such as the right to vote. That is why we are establishing a Lifeline fund to support embattled NGOs. This fund will provide emergency assistance to embattled local NGOs, so that they can pay for legal bills or replace office equipment when security police stand in their way. Through this fund, international NGOs will work with local NGOs to fight back against repressive operating environments.

As we witness a disturbing trend of laws that restrict the movement and work of nonprofits and NGOs, we must redouble our efforts to directly support those who work through peaceful means to improve society. Because when civil society is intimidated and rule of law undermined, human rights, citizen safety, and democratic principles are diminished as well.

Our support of civil society in its pursuit of human rights also means elevating our commitment to marginalized and disenfranchised groups, including women, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.

For example, despite bearing the brunt of society’s political and economic challenges, women across the Americas' continue to drive democratic change and social equality. I have met with women leaders in Brazil who are fighting the scourge of human trafficking. Women in Honduras are raising their voices in the name of freedom of speech, and protecting the place of human rights defenders in society. In Colombia, women are defending the rights of the 3 million internally displaced people. And in Cuba, the Damas de Blanco were recently honored for its work fighting for fundamental freedoms. Yet, despite these heroic examples, women remain marginalized by outdated legislation and lackluster law enforcement. Even as we gather here today, women in the Middle East are struggling to make their voices heard in nascent democratic transitions. As countries seek to establish more stable, respected governments, the role of women will be tantamount to their success.

In countries from Uganda to Honduras, men and women are subjected to horrific violence, persecution, and threats simply because of who they are or who they love. Such hatred poisons so-called “free” societies. The United States has responded by condemning such actions, and I have personally addressed this issue at the highest levels in Africa and Latin America. In Honduras, the United States worked closely with the Justice Ministry to establish a special office devoted to investigating the unsolved murders of over 30 LGBT people. At the Human Rights Council last month, the U.S. co- led with Colombia and Slovenia the international lobbying effort on a joint statement on ending acts of violence against LGBT people, which was signed by 85 countries—18 more than signed onto any previous UN statement on LGBT issues. This was also the first such statement to call for the decriminalization of LGBT status.

And most recently, President Obama announced with Brazilian President Rousseff their support for the establishment of an OAS Special Rapporteur for the human rights of LGBT people within the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This special rapporteur would be the first of its kind in the international system. As Secretary Clinton unequivocally declared in June and reiterated at the recent launch of the 2010 Human Rights Report, the United States government believes that “gay rights are human rights.” We will continue to challenge the antiquated standards and laws of society that allow for the erosion of basic human rights, because no free society can thrive when its government or people repress those with the least power and influence.

The Obama Administration also recognized early on the need to do more for persons with disabilities. In 2009, the President sent a clear signal of his commitment to protecting disability rights by signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Secretary Clinton followed up on this commitment by appointing a Special Advisor on International Disability Rights, who travels the world working to ensure that equal access and opportunity is afforded to all people despite their physical or mental limitations.

The signing of the 2009 Convention on Persons with Disabilities is only one example of the Obama Administration’s reengagement with the international community on human rights, which brings me to my third point this morning.

Early on in the Administration, the President and Secretary Clinton set a new course for our human rights agenda—one that emphasizes partnership and mutual respect. And in a bold move away from the past Administration, we joined the United Nations' Human Rights Council.

Since joining the Council, we have worked to make it a more effective institution, using it as an important platform to advance universal human rights protections and address pressing human rights concerns around the world. Even though the Council continues an unfair and imbalanced bias against Israel, the U.S. presence on the Human Rights Council has made a difference.

Through increased engagement, we have spearheaded special sessions on Libya and the Ivory Coast to establish commissions of inquiry that will investigate alleged violations of international human rights law. Tomorrow, we will participate in a new special session on Syria.

We have worked with Muslim-majority countries to re-frame the debate on so-called “defamation” of religions—into a shared effort to combat religious intolerance. We have taken important steps to support the human rights of LGBT persons. We have passed resolutions on freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.

And, in keeping with our focus on civil society, the United States led an effort along with emerging democratic powers to create the first-ever UN Special Rapporteur to protect Freedom of Assembly and Association. This Rapporteur will monitor crackdowns on civil society groups and advance protection of the right to freedom of assembly and association through its vigilant exposure of state conduct. We worked with Kyrgyzstan to draft a resolution addressing human rights abuses and related problems in the wake of killings and abuses in June 2010, and we have highlighted human rights problems in Burma, North Korea and Sudan through efforts by the Council, its Rapporteurs and Independent Experts.

As this Administration has expanded U.S. multilateral engagement as a tool for promoting and protecting human rights, we have sought to lead by the power of example, drawing upon our own history as a means of illustrating both challenges and opportunities for advancing democracy and the protection of human rights. When it was our turn to engage in the Human Rights Council’s “Universal Periodic Review” process, the Obama Administration undertook a year-long consultative process with American civil society organizations. As part of the review, we responded to more than 228 recommendations by at least 56 countries about U.S. human rights practices.

As a result, we not only set a high bar for the review process by other countries; we also have strengthened our ties with civil society organizations. By recognizing our country’s imperfections, we are better able to find ways to improve our domestic policies in areas such as immigration, homelessness, and healthcare, in conjunction with our protection of human rights. And we can share with other countries the lessons we have learned on the course to a stronger and more vibrant democracy.

We have also pursued our human rights agenda by strengthening our partnerships with emerging democracies around the globe. It is no coincidence that President Obama has made major visits to countries like India, Indonesia and Brazil in the past six months. These countries are examples of democracies that have emerged globally; and they are leaders both in their region and globally. On each of his stops, the President has partnered with these countries to see that we are working together to extol the virtues of democracy and human rights in their regions and around the world.

With India, for example, we have sought to highlight its excellence in administering elections. India mobilizes hundreds of thousands of civil servants to help administer its own domestic elections for over 730 million voters. The Indians are now sharing their expertise with other nations like Nigeria, where the electorate just went to the polls in a historic Presidential election that saw significant improvements over 2007 elections despite incidents of violence.

India also just sent experts to Egypt, whom we hope will have its first successful free election soon. South Africa has a similarly impressive history of breaking the yoke of apartheid and establishing a strong democracy in Africa.

President Obama also visited Indonesia, where the Bali Democracy Forum is becoming a model for regional discussion of rights and elections. In addition, we are working with civil society actors in Indonesia to share their experiences with civil society counterparts in the Middle East.

And in Latin America, Brazil has exchanged its past military rule to become a model democracy with world recognized expertise on social inclusion and public involvement in local government financing, among other aspects of stable and prosperous democracies.

As the Obama Administration has shown on a range of issues, international leadership doesn’t always mean charging ahead while loudly imploring others to follow. In a time when shared international challenges require collaborative and collective problem-solving, this Administration has sought to identify where U.S. interests and values are best pursued by vocal action, and where we achieve more by facilitating or encouraging others to share the burdens of leadership.

As a native of Bolivia, I have witnessed the power of knowledge shared among neighbors. Learning from those whose transition to democracy is recent and fresh often mobilizes societies and political leaders. The Obama Administration has prioritized this peer to peer knowledge sharing, recognizing that sometimes our leadership is best exhibited by knowing when to drive and when to simply facilitate an exchange among friends.

In closing, I’m reminded of the Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, who out of desperation set himself on fire on a fateful day in January. I have known people like Mr. Bouazizi—I know many of you in this room have as well. He was a man of the market, with relatively few needs and even fewer luxuries in this world. When the police confiscated his produce scale, they took part of his livelihood with them. He no doubt felt powerless in the face of a corrupt government and overwhelming security services. His act of despair sparked a democratic revolution which seized an entire region, highlighting the potent well of frustration in the Middle East and North Africa.

Mr. Bouazizi’s death, and the revolutions it helped spark, remain a powerful call to renew our commitment to human rights and democracy in the Middle East and around the world. We no doubt have a long way to go in the achievement of our goals, and many challenges remain. But we are making progress. Our narrative with Muslim communities is changing. We are engaging with civil society on a new, unprecedented level. And we have reengaged as leaders in the international discussion on human rights, demonstrating that the United States is committed to promoting and protecting the values upon which our own nation was founded. Thank you.