For the past year, the neoconservative conception of democracy promotion and human rights — hollow elections; wars waged under the pretext of do-gooderism; speeches rather than actions — have been embraced uncritically by major media to measure President Obama and find him wanting. Today at Georgetown University, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton provided what might be called an institutions-based approach to a human rights and democracy agenda that challenges the paradigm set out by the previous administration.
Clinton’s remarks, via Ben Smith:
[I]t is crucial that we clarify what we mean when we talk about democracy. Democracy means not only elections to choose leaders, but also active citizens; a free press; an independent judiciary and legislature; and transparent and responsive institutions that are accountable to all citizens and protect their rights equally and fairly. In democracies, respecting rights isn’t a choice leaders make day-by-day, it is the reason they govern. Democracies protect and respect citizens every day, not just on Election Day. And democracies demonstrate their greatness not by insisting they are perfect, but by using their institutions and their principles to make themselves—and their union— “more perfect,” just as our country continues to do after 233 years.
At the same time, human development also must be part of our human rights agenda. Because basic levels of well-being—food, shelter, health, and education —and of public common goods—environmental sustainability, protection against pandemic disease, provisions for refugees—are necessary for people to exercise their rights. And because human development and democracy are mutually reinforcing. Democratic governments are not likely to survive long if their citizens do not have the basic necessities of life. The desperation caused by poverty and disease often leads to violence that further imperils rights and threatens the stability of governments. Democracies that deliver on rights, opportunities, and development for their people are stable, strong, and most likely to enable people to live up to their potential.
Human rights, democracy, and development are not three separate goals with three separate agendas: that view doesn’t reflect the reality we face. To make a real and long-term difference in people’s lives we have to tackle all three simultaneously with a commitment that is smart, strategic, determined, and long-term.
Notice as well the development focus on human rights. After all, liberty in the absence of prosperity and justice typically leads to demagoguery, which is no liberty at all.