BY Advocate.com Editors
December 14 2009 3:30 PM ET
Next year we will report on human trafficking not only in other countries but also in our own, and we will participate through the United Nations in the Universal Periodic Review of our own human rights record, just as we encourage other nations to do.
By holding ourselves accountable, we reinforce our moral authority to demand that all governments adhere to obligations under international law, among them not to torture, arbitrarily detain and persecute dissenters, or engage in political killings. Our government, and the international community, must counter the pretensions of those who deny or abdicate their responsibilities and hold violators to account.
Sometimes, we will have the most impact by publicly denouncing a government action, like the coup in Honduras or the violence in Guinea. Other times, we will be more likely to help the oppressed by engaging in tough negotiations behind closed doors, like pressing China and Russia as part of our broader agenda. In every instance, our aim will be to make a difference, not to prove a point.
Calling for accountability doesn’t start or stop at naming offenders. Our goal is to encourage—even demand—that governments must also take responsibility by putting human rights into law and embedding them in government institutions; by building strong, independent courts and competent and disciplined police and law enforcement. And once rights are established, governments should be expected to resist the temptation to restrict freedom of expression when criticism arises, and be vigilant in preventing law from becoming an instrument of oppression, as bills like the one under consideration in Uganda to criminalize homosexuality would do.
We know that all governments—and all leaders—sometimes fall short. So there have to be internal mechanisms of accountability when rights are violated. Often the toughest test for governments, this is essential to the protection of human rights. And here, too, we should lead by example. In the last six decades we have done this—imperfectly at times but with significant outcomes—from making amends for the internment of our own citizens in World War II, to establishing legal recourse for victims of discrimination in the Jim Crow South, to passing hate crimes legislation to include attacks against gays and lesbians. When injustice anywhere is ignored, justice everywhere is denied. Acknowledging and remedying mistakes does not make us weaker, it reaffirms the strength of our principles and institutions.
Second, we must be pragmatic and agile in pursuit of our human rights agenda, not compromising on our principles, but doing what is most likely to make them real. We will use all the tools at our disposal. And when we run up against a wall we will not retreat with resignation—or repeatedly run up against it— but respond with strategic resolve to find another way to effect change and improve people’s lives.
We acknowledge that one size does not fit all. When old approaches aren’t working, we won’t be afraid to attempt new ones, as we have this year by ending the stalemate of isolation and instead pursuing measured engagement with Burma. In Iran, we have offered to negotiate directly with the government on nuclear issues, but have at the same time expressed solidarity with those inside struggling for democratic change. As President Obama said in his Nobel speech last week, “they have us on their side”.