Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

Human rights and U.S. foreign policy: history, funding, data and action

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By Shruti Banerjee

In recent years, we have seen an increase in authoritarian regimes rejecting democratic values and committing human rights violations. This crackdown on civil society poses an enormous threat to economic and political stability, making it a central issue to consider in U.S. foreign policy. To respond to these crises, the U.S. has allocated foreign policy funds with the intention of promoting democratic governments, creating allies, ensuring peace and security, stabilizing economies and trade, regulating immigration and preventing human rights violations. Unfortunately, the foreign affairs budget, which provides an invaluable set of tools for advancing U.S. foreign policy interests, represents less than 1 percent of the annual U.S. budget, and is subject to more cuts, if both Houses reject the President’s recent request for more funding.

By analyzing the political history of integrating human rights into U.S. foreign policy, the issues with funding, the lack of data and U.S. credibility, it becomes clear that effective human rights advocacy requires multiple factors to function in harmony with each other, including: political discourse, laws protecting human rights, foreign funding that has a non-negotiable component requiring compliance with human rights policies, U.S. compliance with international laws and accurate data to help properly document and fully gauge the threat posed by human rights violations. This means competing political or economic interests cannot completely overshadow the value of rights-respecting institutions and policies.

HUMAN RIGHTS PROMOTION AND U.S. FOREIGN POLICY

Despite the U.S.’ rise to superpower status after World War II, human rights did not become a central concern of the U.S. foreign policy agenda until the late 1970s. Congress was urged to push a human rights agenda by the public, which included human rights advocates, lawyers, scientists, labor unions and church groups, who all agreed that the U.S. had created a negative global presence by the late 1970s. As awareness grew around incidents like Watergate, the Vietnam War, carpet bombing in Cambodia and the U.S. support of police states in South and Central America, Congress was finally compelled to include human rights as a central topic in foreign policy and legislation. In 1974, a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued the report, “Human Rights in the World Community: A Call for US Leadership.” It recommended that the Department of State makes human rights a priority in foreign policy, arguing that the current policy had led the US “into embracing governments which practice torture and unabashedly violate almost every human rights guarantee pronounced by the world community.” Congress proceeded to pass legislation that required reports on human rights violations for every country receiving aid from the U.S. and prohibited economic and military assistance to governments repeatedly violating human rights unless national security or humanitarian aid concerns justified the assistance.

While Congress was pushed by their constituents to make fundamental changes in their approach to human rights, other powerful government officials disagreed. In his book, Partners in Power: Nixon and Kissinger, Robert Dallek documented the influences and policies of Kissinger and Nixon that led to high tensions between the Executive Branch and Congress during the Nixon Administration. When Henry Kissinger was confirmed as Secretary of State in 1973 he argued that it would be dangerous for the U.S. to make “the domestic policy of countries around the world a direct objective of US foreign policy.” The policy of realpolitik embraced by Kissinger, and subsequently the Ford administration, excluded human rights calculations. Kissinger believed human rights considerations would damage bilateral relations with U.S. allies and thwart efforts to contain the spread of communism. Under his leadership, Congress and the Executive Branch engaged in a struggle over the prominence and relevance of human rights to the U.S.’ foreign policy agenda.

It was not until 1977, with the election of President Jimmy Carter, that human rights became integrated with U.S. foreign policy. Carter argued that advancing freedom internationally would protect our national security, promote economic interests and help the U.S. regain its lost moral credibility. More specifically, Carter maintained that U.S. national security would be enhanced by the expansion of human rights and democracy around the world and that the US was obligated under international law to promote human rights abroad. Carter and subsequent administrations utilized numerous tools to promote human rights internationally, including powerful political rhetoric, sanctions, symbolic gestures of support and peace and economic and military aid. While Carter was accused of failing to thwart the threat of communism because of these policies, he promoted more awareness and governmental action on human rights issues than any administration prior.

It is important to note that attention to human rights issues do not fall squarely within political lines. Democratic and republican administrations both succeed and failed at acknowledging and preventing human rights violations. For example, President Clinton has said that his administration’s failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide was his greatest regret during his presidency and his senior aides regularly apologize for this. On the other side, the Reagan Administration provided both Liberia and Somalia with arms in the 1980s, building up the oppressive regimes of Samuel Doe and Siad Barre. While the U.S. successfully prevented Soviet influence in those countries, the lack of consideration for democracy and human rights led both Liberia and Somalia to become failed states, rampant with human rights violations. Our political rhetoric towards human rights abuses may have changed since the Carter era, but our policies and funding have not caught up.

FUNDING FOR FOREIGN AID, HUMAN RIGHTS AND DATA COLLECTION

The U.S. foreign affairs budget represents a mere 1 percent of the annual budget and recent changes in the U.S. political climate have made it significantly harder for the Obama Administration to push for more foreign aid and human rights funding. The tensions in passing budgetary laws can be seen in the current Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16) budget battle. Despite Obama Administration’s request for $47.8 billion in base funding for FY16, the House Appropriations Committee has only approved a $40.5 billion base budget, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has only approved a budget of $39.0 billion in base funding. (Base funding represents the U.S.’ continuing commitment to foreign policy missions and national security; the International Affairs budget also comprises of an Overseas Contingency Operations budget to be used in temporary emergencies.) Furthermore, the International Affairs budget has seen a general decrease in funding over the past few years, with overall FY15 funding ($50.9 billion) being 16 percent below FY10 ($56.6 billion), and base funding ($41.6 billion) reduced by nearly 20 percent from FY10 ($51.5 billion). This decrease during a time of increasing human rights and humanitarian crises is unacceptable. Moreover, accepting either the House or Senate budgets, both of which decreases International Affairs funding dramatically from the Administration’s original request and from FY10, would have detrimental effects on the ability of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to continue promoting democratic governments, creating allies, ensuring peace and security, stabilizing economies and trade, regulating immigration and preventing human rights violations.

Aside from the fact that both proposed budgets drastically cuts an already miniscule budget, another major issue is that U.S. aid often goes to countries with poor human rights records. While our leaders have denounced continuing human rights violations in strong political rhetoric, our funding, policies and legislation have not yet matched this discourse. A stark example of this is the U.S.’s continued aid to Egypt after the government committed serious human rights violations, which were internationally documented by various human rights groups, journalists and social media platforms. Instead of instating a non-negotiable human rights compliance clause for foreign aid, the U.S. waived conditionality requirements on aid to Egypt.

It is also highly debated which countries should receive funding and which abuses require more attention and aid. These problems can be somewhat alleviated by increased transparency and disclosure of governmental reports on human rights conditions in various countries, pursuant to the Foreign Assistance Act. Extensive data collection on human rights violations occurring in countries that are not currently receiving U.S. aid is another important solution. According to Foreign Affairs, these efforts are particularly crucial in countries such as Russia, Ethiopia and Kenya, where governments are actively passing laws restricting the work of NGOs and human rights groups. This includes making it difficult to register with the government, organize public events and collect data on human rights abuses. These same regimes are also passing laws making it more difficult for their citizens to be politically critical, organize demonstrations or voice opposing opinions on the internet. Accurate data is an integral part of effective advocacy and legislating and more transparency and data collection on human rights abuses is vital for documenting, analyzing and preventing these atrocities from continuously occurring.

EFFECTIVELY PROMOTING HUMAN RIGHTS DOMESTICALLY AND ABROAD

What would a compelling, rights-based foreign policy look like? According to a statement by the Brookings Institute, the first criteria for effective human rights promotion is credibility. Put simply, a government cannot promote human rights abroad if it is not observing them domestically and internationally. As discussed in previous articles, the U.S. violates human rights policies on its own soil by failing to prevent hate crimes and domestic violence. Furthermore, the U.S. is struggling with rampant police brutality, structural racism and inhumane prison conditions at home, as well as torture abroad. Our lack of credibility in human rights prevention and promotion has made it difficult for other countries to take us seriously and respect international human rights law. Moreover, human rights cannot be used as a pretext for pushing other foreign policy goals, such as engaging in a foreign conflict or accomplishing a domestic political goal.

In order to effectively promote human rights abroad, the U.S. needs to start by complying with human rights laws while actively promoting their implementation abroad. This requires making human rights a fundamental part of our foreign policy through rhetoric, political pressure and funding. More specifically, we must view human rights not solely as a moral or religious obligation, but as a fundamental tool to increase peace, security and economic prosperity around the world. In their book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson found that more equal societies with less violence have a greater overall quality of life, not just for poor people, but for all income classes. Wilkinson and Pickett’s analysis can be extended to the international community: We can achieve greater economic and social prosperity in our own country by abiding by human rights laws and promoting equality abroad.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Stephen Melkisethian/Creative Commons

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Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

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