Handa Center Annual Public Lecture on Human Rights

Tom Malinowski
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice, Stanford University
Stanford, CA
February 3, 2016

Thank you, Beth, for that introduction and I also want to thank the Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice for inviting me to speak here on this fine evening.

Now when I got this invitation, for reasons you can now imagine, I admit to have hesitated for a moment. But then I remembered my duties.

After all, it is my job, as Assistant Secretary of State in charge of promoting human rights around the world, to venture to the darkest places and there to defend what is right and true, to come face to face with dictators and demons and try to lead them to the light. And if I can do all that on an almost daily basis, then I guess I can come to Stanford.

I do have a lot of friends here – I see Larry Diamond here in the audience. And also a bunch of refugees from the Obama administration – Mike McFaul… Jeremy Weinstein who I worked very closely with in last several years of the Obama Administration. And I have to say, I do envy them. Not just because they live so who so tantalizingly close to the cultural, intellectual, architectural, and culinary mecca of the East Bay . . . but because they now have more time to think. It’s not an easy thing to do in the daily rush of life in government, to the detriment, I fear, of our daily work in government.

But since you’ve given me this chance, I will use it to reflect on what I’ve learned in my almost two years in this job, and to offer some thoughts on the anxious and confusing times in which we find ourselves. I will reflect on what’s going on in the world, what’s going right and what’s going wrong; I’ll try to explain why, if we have realism, patience, and perspective, we should be confident about America’s power to make things better over time; and along the way I will quote three of my favorite philosophers.

The first one happens to be our president. Last year in Brussels, President Obama gave a speech that I think captures a lot of what’s going on in the world today. A lot of what’s troubling us in the world today.

He said that “throughout human history, societies have grappled with fundamental questions of . . . the proper relationship between the individual and the state.”

Over time, “a particular set of ideals began to emerge, the belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose, the belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding.”

But: “Those ideals have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power. . . that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign . . . or that by virtue of race or faith or ethnicity, some are inherently superior to others . . . or that national greatness must flow not by what people stand for, but what they are against.”

If you look around the world, you’ll see this age-old argument about power playing out in more places than ever before. And despite all the difficulties, I happen to still be convinced that the good guys have the upper hand in that fight… the good guys who believe in human rights and in government bound by law.

I was just a couple weeks ago in Burma where, as you know, not long ago a military junta ruled the country by fear. And now, actually in the last couple of days, after 25 years of peaceful democratic struggle, elected civilians took over control of the government of their country. When the people of Burma voted last November, their military still was strong enough to intimidate them; some people were still in prison for expressing their opinions. But voters turned out to be not afraid. We saw again how in that moment when citizens, ordinary people, are alone in a voting booth, when there is no gun to their head and a real choice in their hands, they have all the power in the world.

Now the same kind of people power won out in the country of Sri Lanka last year, when the two communities that had been divided in that country – the Sinhalese and Tamils – came together to vote out an authoritarian government.

It is rising in Venezuela today, where voters showed their overwhelming desire for change in legislative elections despite a ruling party’s overwhelming control of police, the courts and media.

It is persevering, although with difficulties, in Tunisia where, despite attack after attack by ISIL, the one true democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring is showing the strength of the one idea with a chance to defeat the nihilistic ideology of the terrorists.

It has a chance in Nigeria, where millions of people defied threats from Boko Haram recently to go to the polls and choose leaders committed to rooting out corruption and restoring security in their country.

In fact, all over Africa, young people are challenging entrenched rulers who have been in power for years and years and decades and decades; I don’t think President Obama has gotten louder applause from any audience than when he said recently in a speech to the African Union in Addis Ababa, that “no one should be president for life.”

Everywhere, ordinary citizens are driving this kind of progress -- creating civil society groups that monitor elections, empower women and people with disabilities, expose corruption, counter violent extremism, build bridges across religious and ethnic lines, and perform a thousand other useful tasks. And they do this while communicating across borders and past all of the barriers that dictatorships place in their path. And when they are persecuted today, in virtually every case, the world knows about it and can say something about it. That is a revolutionary change in my lifetime and I don’t think it can be turned back.

But even as this idea of democracy takes root in more and more places, actually, I’d say because it is taking root in so many places, that older view of power that President Obama talked about is fighting its way back.

The most extreme manifestation is of course ISIL, which I think is at bottom a vehicle for people who want order and power – the power to kill and to rape and to murder other human beings -- and who are looking for a veneer of religious legitimacy to justify that very old fantasy.

We also see that fundamentally authoritarian impulse expressed in more familiar ways: in the brutal reaction to the Arab Spring uprisings in Assad’s Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East; in China, where a government that can no longer justify one party rule on ideological grounds and on the grounds of endless economic growth is resorting to lashing out at dissidents at home and even kidnapping them abroad – something we are deeply concerned about in the Obama Administration; in Russia, where even those human rights organizations that survived Soviet communism are now being vilified as traitors, and where the government uses homophobia to divide its society just as its predecessors used anti-Semitism.

We see it in the politics of fear that is descending on a lot of democratic countries – fear of refugees, fear of minorities, fear of the world beyond our borders – anxieties from a time that we thought was long buried. I think history works in cycles. After World War I, President Wilson inspired millions of people with this vision of a world united and at peace; we got the League of Nations out of that. But then, what happens? A Red Scare in the United States, economic depression, isolation, demagogues like Father Caughlin preaching to millions of Americans on radio hatred of Jews. Then we recover from that. We go to war against fascism, save and unite the world, build a global organization dedicated to peace and a great alliance of democracies. But then, what happens? McCarthyism at home, division of Europe, a 40 year Cold War when one false move could have ended it all.

We know this, we know it from our experience, and yet, there are times when we feel that we are at last on the verge of breaking out of that cycle. Some of us may have allowed ourselves a brief moment of such hope when President Obama was elected in 2008 . We watched him give his speech in Cairo and we saw the reaction of the world to the ascendance of this extraordinarily intelligent, and talented, and inspiring and unifying American president.

Now I think America has achieved really amazing and great things in the world these last few years, but against headwinds that we did not always imagine or foresee. I did not think then that we’d be dealing now with a regime in Syria demolishing entire cities and using poison gas against its people; or that as a result, hundreds of thousands of human beings would be walking, literally walking, across Europe, driving support for xenophobic political parties that threaten the liberal ideal of European unity. A little crisis that begins in Syria and that’s what it leads to.

Few of us at that time expected to face two great powers promoting authoritarian values as aggressively as Russia and China are, in their much-copied campaigns against NGOs and an open Internet. Few of us imagined that out of turmoil in the Middle East we’d get a terrorist group even more destructive than al Qaeda.

And now, after all that, we even have to endure Vladimir Putin telling us that it is all our fault – that it was America’s promotion of liberal values, our embrace of democratic reformers and good government from Eastern Europe to the Middle East to all over the world that caused that turmoil.

Here is what Putin said last year to the UN General Assembly: "Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster — and nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life. I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation: Do you realize what you have done?" And he was pointing at us.

In a sense, Putin is saying what some self-styled realists in the United States say: that by trying to remake the world in our democratic image, America is actually making everything worse.

Here is the problem, I think, with that argument: It wasn’t the United States that gave all those people from the Middle East to Ukraine to Burma to Burundi the idea that their governments should serve them instead of stealing from them.

Yes, its true that ideals that we professed have inspired those people in many places; legal norms we have helped to forge over many years have empowered many of those people. But it was they who decided to remake theirworlds in their image of what a just society demands.

In thinking about this, let’s take a look in particular at what’s happened in Libya in the last few years, since that is the example that Putin and a lot of critics probably think most strongly support the accusation that I just mentioned to you.

In February of 2011, when the Libyan revolution started, I am quite certain that no one in the US government had any idea what was about to happen there. Here’s what happened: a few dozen lawyers and activists in the city of Benghazi in Libya march on their courthouse to demand the release of a few political prisoners who had just been arrested, and within days that protest spiraled in ways that nobody could have imagined until the Qaddafi regime pulled out of the eastern part of its country. And these few dozen activists suddenly found themselves in control of huge pieces of territory.

This happened not because anybody outside Libya encouraged it, but because Libyans wanted it desperately. Now it was only when Qaddafi sent tanks and artillery against those people, when he regrouped and decided ‘I’m going to retake what I have lost,’ that the United States and our allies, authorized by the UN Security Council, took military action to protect them.

What if we had we not done that, what if we had allowed Qaddafi to crush Benghazi in early 2011? I would say it is pretty preposterous to suggest that Libya would now be a peaceful and happy place. Here’s what I think would have happened -- and I spent some time in Libya in 2011 as this was unfolding. Libya’s rebels would not have given up. The fight would have continued from the city of Benghazi to other cities – to Misrata and Zintan and Tobruk. Just like in Syria, we’d probably have seen years of back and forth slaughter; in this situation, the extremists that we’re most concerned about would have not only found safe haven but genuine support from a desperate population that would have felt abandoned by the outside world, rather than the revulsion that groups like ISIL now inspire in the vast majority of the Libyan people.

Here, I think, is the truth of the matter: People want to be free. They want to be treated with dignity and respect. They want to be in control of their lives. And when these things are denied to them, sometimes they endure for a while, but eventually they will stand up and fight to get what they want.

But by the same token, power never gives way easily. Dictators, when confronted by people marching on their palace, they never say: “Oh, alright, I guess you guys are right, let’s have a free election, and if I lose fair and square, I’ll congratulate you and go home.” That never happens. They dig in and they fight, dirty and hard, and if they lose one battle they don’t give up, because for them the struggle is existential; in their world, if you lose power you lose everything. You may even lose your life.

So it would have been naïve for us to expect that the citizens of the Middle East back in 2011 would have forever endured governments that denied them basic freedoms; something like the Arab Spring was bound to happen.

But it would have been equally naïve to think that the old order there would give way without a long and at times violent fight – or for that matter, that Putin would react mildly when Russians and Ukrainians started asking for clean government and free elections, or that the Chinese government would react kindly to those arguing that their Party should bend to the law rather than the law bending to the Party. So this contest of ideals I think is inevitable and it often leads to friction. The only thing ever in doubt is the outcome.

And this is where we come in. Because while we do not set this contest in motion, we have a huge stake in its outcome.

Think of the biggest threats to global order and security today, and where they come from. In Syria, a dictator tries to crush a democratic uprising, and out of the chaos we get ISIL and the worst refugee crisis of our time. In Russia, an increasingly authoritarian government is threatened by a democracy movement at home. It sees another one rise next door, and what happens? It launches the first land grab in Europe since World War II.

So it makes sense that we should defend people around the world who are trying peacefully to advance respect for human rights, before conflict between power and people leads to the kinds of crises that we want to avoid. Our mistake has not been that we tried to defend those people and those values. It has been sometimes to think that helping the good guys won't take a lot of time or effort or that they can win without resistance, without friction, without crisis.

The hopeful democratic success stories, or nascent success stories that I mentioned earlier – for example, Burma and Sri Lanka – only came about after year after year of struggle within those countries and diplomatic efforts by the United States. It took us almost 25 years to get to this moment in Burma. The Obama Administration stuck it out for six or seven years with Sri Lanka after the end of their civil war in 2009.

And here’s the interesting thing: in all those years when we were working on those issues in those countries, there was not one moment where there was even a scintilla of evidence that what we were doing was working. Only after the change happened, when we looked back, we realized actually we had contributed to the change that happened. Because authoritarian governments are never going to say to you, “you know that policy you put in place is beginning to have an effect on us. We’re really thinking about this.” They don’t. And even when you get to that point of a democratic transition that we’ve gotten to in a number of hopeful places around the world, political scientists tell us that a full transition to stable democracy, true respect for the rule of law, takes, in the successful cases, on average around 20 years.

By that measure, a country like Tunisia, five years after the Arab Spring, is ahead of the curve. Even Libya, though hijacked by militias and assaulted by violent extremists, has a chance. It’s held successful elections. It has a courageous civil society. And now, thanks in part to painstaking efforts by my boss, Secretary Kerry and our Special Envoy for Libya Jonathan Winer, its political factions have agreed to a unity government.

As I said, I was lucky enough to have spent time in Libya in 2011. And I hoped then that the incredible idealism of the people I met might have been foundation enough for a successful democracy; that was unrealistic in a country with millions of guns and virtually no working institutions. But if a country like Libya can actually start to come together just five years after that kind of trauma, that would be a far better result than had its revolution failed, and far better than the calamity that has befallen Syria. Such a result was, and I think remains, worth working for.

We just have to accept that this kind of work requires discipline, patience, and realism. You have to set a strategy; you have to stick with it over time. You have to have confidence in your ability to achieve success over time. Sometimes you have to put in place a policy that will probably not come to fruition until your successors are in office, or your successors’ successors. And sometimes you’ve got to accept that the ideal that we’re striving for is never going to be fully realized, that the contest with all the ups and downs is always going to continue.

We stopped mass killing in Bosnia when I was a young person working for Bill Clinton in 1995; twenty years later, the country is still struggling to achieve true stability. We saw democracy rise in Eastern Europe after the Iron Curtain fell, and now people in Hungary are electing leaders who are questioning its fundamentals. We had a free election in Burma, and now some people there are using their freedom to demonize Muslims.

When we act, we can never know what the second and third order effects of our actions will be. Sometimes we make the world better. Sometimes, as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote, all we can do is preserve “an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and constantly in need of repair.” Either way, as he added, “we can only do what we can: but that we must do, against difficulties.”

So here is what we try to do in the Obama Administration: We defend activists and NGOs wherever they face push back, as our President has asked us to do under his Stand With Civil Society Initiative.

We speak out when governments stifle dissent, including in countries with which we cooperate closely, like Saudi Arabia when it flogs a blogger, or Ethiopia when it imprisons journalists.

We stand up for a single open internet that unites people across the world rather than the vision of a separate Russian internet or a Chinese internet or an Indian internet.

We know that corruption props up predatory and failed states, so we make the fight against it a first order priority.

We insist that the foreign security forces, the ones that we train to fight terrorism, respect human rights because we know that’s the only way they can build the social trust they need to win.

We stand by our old alliances with countries that share our values, and we forge new agreements, like the Trans Pacific Partnership that President Obama just signed today, with inducements to respect human rights.

We champion the inclusion of countries like Russia and China in a rules based international system, but we defend those rules if those countries break them, abroad or at home.

We muster every element of our power to try to prevent mass atrocities and where possible, we act with our allies to stop them, as we did in Libya, as we did in the defense of the Yezidis in Iraq when ISIL tried to eliminate them from the face of the earth.

Facing the most terrible crisis in the world in Syria, we continue to try, as Secretary Kerry does every day, to find a solution that will save lives, while channeling help to people inside who are keeping their communities alive and working for the justice that must eventually come there.

Foreign policy experts, some you may know, keep writing op-eds wondering if the United States still can play a leading role in addressing these challenges. The non-experts who actually live in the countries facing these challenges don’t appear to have read most of those articles.

It is the United States to which they keep turning – the Christians in Iraq who expect us to save their ancient communities, the young people in Burundi and Congo who ask us to speak out when their presidents try to change their constitutions, the factory workers in Vietnam who seek our help in starting independent trade unions, the anti-corruption campaigners in Russia who ask us to keep illicit funds out of our banks.

None of these people expects us to fight their battles for them, or suggests that America alone can solve their problems. But they believe, reasonably, that there is always something we can do. They’ve seen us do it.

A couple of years ago, just before I started this job, I went to Syria, to a part of Syria already under the control of the rebel groups fighting Assad. And I met a lot of people there who asked me why the United States could not do more to stop Assad from bombing their homes. And I tried to be honest with them. I tried to explain our experience in Iraq, and how many people in the United State were wary of getting more deeply involved in more countries in the Middle East, how limited our power sometimes seems from the vantage point of Washington. I really tried to channel all of the anxieties that we feel as a people about these involvements. Now these people – who, mind you, were very conservative Sunnis with really jaded views of the United States of America – looked at me like I was stark raving mad. “Of course you can do something if you choose,” they said. “And if not you, where else are we going to turn to? Russia? China? “

In fact, we can’t do everything for everybody all the time. There are problems we can’t solve. But we are still by far the most powerful, most productive, most creative country in the world. Unlike some other great powers, we are not slaves to the price of oil. Our government doesn’t have to fear its own people. No one else has anything close to our global reach or our globalist attitude.

Our hopes for the world may not and probably never will be fully be realized. History is usually two steps forward and one and three quarters steps back.

But the world beyond our borders is not falling apart; it is presenting a challenge to which we must rise. And if we keep doing so, I think things will get better, slowly but surely.

And meanwhile we’ll be able to say, in the words of the last great philosopher I’ll quote today, the immortal Billy Joel: “We didn’t start the fire, no we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.”

Thank you very much and I look forward to your questions.