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Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy

Testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight

Morton H. Halperin testifies to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on ideals versus reality in human rights and U.S. foreign policy.


The following is the text of Morton H. Halperin’s testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight. Halperin is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Mr. Chairman,

I appreciate the opportunity to testify before this distinguished subcommittee on “Ideals vs. Reality in Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy.”

You have indicated that you want to use U.S. policy toward Azerbaijan, Cuba, and Egypt to help to illuminate this question. Because I am very far from being an expert on any one of these countries and because I have thought and written for some time about the broader issues, I thought that I could be of most assistance to the subcommittee by discussing the general question of ideals and reality in human rights policy and what I think is an appropriate approach to advancing human rights. I trust that your other witnesses will discuss the specific situations in the three countries. I will refer to them in my comments and would, of course, be prepared to respond to additional questions.

I believe that the formulation of “ideals versus reality” does not really illuminate the problem of addressing issues such as using U.S. foreign policy to advance human rights. No American “ideals” can be fully implemented in our foreign policy. Whether it is promoting human rights or democracy or the prevention of genocides—all of which embody conflicts between different foreign policy objectives that are labeled “ideals”—there are limits to the American ability to influence events abroad. Moreover, I think it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the world to contrast a foreign policy of “idealism” with one of “realism.” This approach assumes that there are “real” interests of a nation that can be derived from some straightforward analysis and that this is in contrast to “ideals” that are just objectives we may care about but that are not our “real” interests. In a democracy the “real” interests of a nation can be determined only by the political process. Preventing genocide is no less a “real” interest than is keeping the price of oil low or reducing the risk of a military attack.

The American people, through our constitutional processes, must decide what objectives are important to us in general and in relation to any specific country. As we deal with individual nations we will often find that Americans who have a special attachment to one particular country or another will be especially vocal when it comes to policy toward that country. In my view, that is as it should be. The intensity of concern as well as the positions taken can, and do, affect U.S. foreign policy.

Because of this difference, and because our ability to influence events varies from country to country, it is inevitable that some will see a double standard in U.S. foreign policy. The United States cannot, and should not, approach each country in the world in the same way. While it may not be possible to place the highest priority on promoting human rights in one country, that does not mean that we should not give the advancement of human rights the highest priority in U.S. policy toward other countries where we have a greater ability to do so.

Even when we have other critical interests in our relations with a particular country, we can and should press that government to honor its international obligations to respect the human rights of its people. The three countries under consideration today are all countries in which the United States has multiple interests that we must take into account when determining U.S. policy, but they are also places with substantial human rights violations which we should seek to end.

If we cannot have a single standard for deciding what priority to give to human rights in U.S. foreign policy, we also cannot have a “one size fits all” approach to advancing human rights in all countries. For example, one critical question is whether the U.S. government should speak out forcefully in defense of human rights activists and provide financial assistance to domestic actors struggling to defend human rights. In my view, in deciding the answer to that question (and many others) we should look first to the views of the local activists.

It is my understanding that human rights activists in all three countries of particular concern today welcome, and indeed encourage, the United States government and private Americans to speak out in their defense, and those at least in Egypt and Azerbaijan also welcome financial assistance from the American government. We should be responsive to those requests. In other countries, such as Iran, human rights activists have made it clear that American support of any kind is counterproductive. We should honor those requests as well.

On other issues as well we should listen carefully to the views of those struggling in each country to advance human rights. For example, as Congress debates the future of economic sanctions against Cuba I urge you to bear in mind that most Cuban dissidents have told us that the sanctions help the Cuban regime to justify repressive measures.

American military and economic assistance to other nations should also reflect our commitment to human rights. Where there are gross and persistent violations of human rights, we should honor the law and our values by denying any assistance. In those countries where there are lesser violations, we should use the leverage that our aid affords by pressing governments for greater respect for human rights. Egypt, as the second largest recipient of U.S. economic assistance, is a prime example of this imperative.

We should also use affirmative incentives to encourage states to improve their human rights records. The Millennium Challenge program is the best and most effective example of such an effort. Congress should consider amending the MCA to make clear that a state must be a democracy that respects human rights in order to be eligible for a compact. It is not inconceivable that Azerbaijan would improve its governance capability and human rights protections sufficiently over time to be considered for such a compact and we should be sure that the people of that country understand that.

The United States should also actively work with the United Nations and especially the Human Rights Council to help to advance human rights and to protect human rights activists. Here, as elsewhere, we need to recognize that by failing to observe internationally recognized human rights ourselves we reduce American credibility to champion human rights for others. I understand that many in the Congress and elsewhere are troubled by the first year of operations of the new Council. I share those concerns. However, it is far too soon to give up on the Council or to cut its funding. I am confident that human rights activists in Cuba, Egypt, and Azerbaijan share this view.

Mr. Chairman, I am grateful for the opportunity to testify at this hearing and look forward to responding to questions.

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