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US Leadership in the Reinforcement of Human Rights
Testimony of Michael J. Abramowitz
President of Freedom House
State Department Commission on Unalienable Rights
Good afternoon. My name is Mike Abramowitz, and I am the president of Freedom House.
I would like first to express my appreciation to the members of this commission for their invitation to provide testimony. I should add that our work has been enriched by the advice and counsel of Ambassador Glendon, who made an enduring contribution with her definitive study of Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in securing the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—an aim that Freedom House strongly supported at the time.
I mention this because Eleanor Roosevelt played a crucial part in our history. Freedom House was formally established in 1941, with the purpose of mobilizing support for President Roosevelt’s efforts to join the fight against fascism. Mrs. Roosevelt was one of our first honorary co-chairs, along with Wendell Willkie, who had run for president on the Republican ticket in 1940.
During the first years of World War II, most Americans were opposed to military involvement. Even as Nazi troops stormed across Europe and menaced Great Britain, polls showed that 9 in 10 Americans were against intervention in the conflict. A powerful isolationist movement, organized around the America First Committee, lobbied against United States aid to Great Britain and entry into the war. America First adherents were motivated by a variety of sentiments, but some admired Germany’s achievements under Hitler.
Roosevelt, Willkie, and the other Americans who launched Freedom House were convinced that the United States, as a free and independent society, would face grave peril if the Nazis prevailed. They believed that fighting fascism was essential to the national interest. Going further, Freedom House embraced as its unique mission the pursuit of a postwar environment in which free nations would predominate.
Even as conditions have changed and tactics have evolved, we at Freedom House have remained committed to that mission, through the Cold War and up to the present day. And in our view, the chief problem we are facing today is not that the structure or the rules of the world’s human rights architecture are flawed, or that we suffer from any surfeit of rights, but that human rights and democratic values are being inadequately defended by the world’s democracies, including our own.
Rather than trying to define human rights and democracy down, we should be trying to live up to the noble standards we have set for ourselves.
We know that many are concerned about the work of this commission. They fear that it may seek to narrow the scope of the human rights efforts undertaken by the United States, or that it could prioritize some rights over others. We strongly urge you not to pursue this course. Freedom House believes that when women are not considered full citizens, or people are persecuted because of their language, or gay people are scapegoated and beaten, or people cannot freely practice their religion, the freedoms of all and democracy itself are in danger.
This commission has an important opportunity to validate the promotion of human rights—all human rights, not just a select few—and we encourage you to seize it. We call on the US government to exhibit international leadership by robustly reinforcing the principle that human rights are universal, vigorously defending those rights at home and abroad, pushing back against authoritarian encroachment on human rights, and giving special attention to emerging human rights challenges, such as the manipulation of social media and authoritarian regimes’ abuse of democratic systems.
The Work and Core Principles of Freedom House
I would like to start by telling you a little more about Freedom House, the work we do, and the perspective we bring to these questions. Freedom House is a nonpartisan organization that engages in programming, research, and advocacy. We are unique in the world of democracy and human rights groups in that we both document the problem and try to do something about it.
For instance, we provide direct and indirect support to democracy advocates and human rights defenders abroad. This often means emergency assistance for those who work to uphold basic freedoms in highly repressive environments, including champions of religious minorities and independent journalism. We have been proud to work in partnership with the State Department on the provision of such support, across administrations led by both major parties. We develop policy recommendations—informed by our partners overseas—to strengthen democracy and human rights at home and abroad, and we advocate for these policy solutions with the US government and at multilateral fora.
Freedom House is perhaps best known for our annual report on global democracy, Freedom in the World. Our growing concerns about the threats facing human rights and democratic values are drawn largely from the data gathered through this project, which was first launched in the early 1970s.
The report monitors a series of 25 indicators grouped into seven categories that capture core freedom issues: electoral process, political pluralism and participation, functioning of government, freedom of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, the rule of law, and personal autonomy. Freedom in the World designates countries as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. It also assigns more detailed scores for the indicators I mentioned, enabling the public to identify the aspects of freedom that are improving or declining. Freedom in the World measures political rights and civil liberties as the individual experiences them in daily life, and considers the impact of both state and nonstate forces that threaten freedom.
Our methodology is derived from many sources, the most important of which is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and our basic conception of freedom is rooted in the tradition of liberal democracy. We also draw inspiration from libertarian ideas, the notion of natural rights, and key international agreements. While our core principles endure, our report’s scoring system and coverage are meant to be pragmatic and adaptive. We recognize that humanity’s understanding of democracy and human rights evolves over time, and we hold regular discussions and external consultations to ensure that our report methodology remains fit for purpose.
When I say that our approach is rooted in the liberal democratic tradition, I am referring to the belief that the benefits of universal suffrage and representative government must be coupled with the rule of law and safeguards against the concentration of power, to ensure that the inherent rights of every individual are protected from the tyranny of the majority or abusive officials.
In fact, we firmly believe that democracy and the security of human rights are interdependent. On the one hand, experience has demonstrated that basic freedoms cannot endure under autocratic rule, and that leaders who seek to amass unchecked power inevitably trample on human rights, as we have seen in countries like Iran, Russia, and Turkey. In the past, those who argued that liberty can flourish without democracy often cited Hong Kong as an example. But Hong Kong has now become a worrying reminder that unless legal rights are combined with a freely elected government, they can be withdrawn at the ruler’s whim.
On the other hand, protection of the full array of human rights helps to preserve democracy and prevent tyranny. True democratic resilience requires not just a separation of powers, but also the independent checks provided by a free press, unfettered religious organizations, robust academic institutions, civic activism, autonomous trade unions, and a strong private sector. This is why Freedom in the World measures both political rights and a full array of civil liberties, from religious freedom to protection for private property. For similar reasons, our country’s founders wisely augmented the US Constitution with the Bill of Rights and enabled subsequent amendments.
Freedom House’s mission is also based on the premise that democratic rights are universal. There is a long history of claims that human rights and liberal democracy are Western implants, alien to the cultures of the Middle East or Asia, or that these freedoms should be subordinated to the priorities of economic development guided by an all-powerful state. The Communist Party leadership in Beijing today invokes both arguments to justify dystopian surveillance, censorship, and the persecution of religious minorities like Christians, Tibetans, and Uighurs. We reject these claims, which are nothing more than alibis for tyranny.
For proof of our conviction about the universal relevance of democracy and human rights, we can point to the ways in which they have developed throughout history, as various nations, communities, and individuals struggled for inclusion and recognition. Poor people, enslaved people, women, ethnic and religious minorities, victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide—all have worked at different times and in different places to secure their liberty, and democratic institutions have evolved accordingly. In our country, for example, we rightly outlawed slavery with the 13th amendment, enshrined voting rights for all races with the 15th amendment, and recognized women’s right to vote with the 19th amendment.
We are convinced that American leadership is essential if democracy and human rights are to prevail over the forces of tyranny and oppression. It is no coincidence that the remarkable gains for democracy during the 20th century were achieved as the United States led global alliances against fascism and communism, assured in the understanding that the spread of freedom was intertwined with its national interest. While many have pointed out our country’s mistakes during these endeavors, no one should underestimate the tremendous overall benefits of democratization—especially an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in Europe, which had been devastated by two world wars.
We also strongly believe that the United States should remain fully engaged at the United Nations and other international fora. There is no question that many international institutions are flawed, but withdrawing would do nothing to strengthen democracy and human rights around the globe, and it would very likely harm them. Despite their current weaknesses, multilateral institutions provide an important venue for exposing, discussing, and addressing critical human rights problems. When the United States exercises its enormous power as an advocate and participant, it strengthens the institutions themselves and the rights they are meant to protect.
Current Conditions for Democracy and Human Rights
Unfortunately, America’s commitment to global democratic leadership has wavered over the past decade, but the need for US leadership is greater than ever.
Today the predominant global trend is a relentless, strategic, and patient campaign by authoritarian forces to cripple democracy and restrict human rights. Our Freedom in the World analysis has shown a decline in overall freedom for 13 consecutive years. Each year, the countries experiencing declines in political rights and civil liberties have outnumbered those experiencing improvements. This is the longest such decline since the project was launched in 1972.
Freedom is eroding in every region—in new democracies and in societies where liberty had been secure for decades. States that were already repressive have grown even worse.
Turkey, which in the mid-2000s was embracing liberal reforms and seeking entry to the European Union, has slouched toward dictatorship and become a leading jailer of journalists. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy is on shaky footing in several European states that had been counted as success stories after their transition from communist rule. In Latin America, another bright spot of the 1990s, populist demagogues have crushed freedom in places like Nicaragua and Venezuela. The regimes in China and Russia, meanwhile, have simultaneously intensified repression of their own citizens and exported their methods to other countries.
We must also acknowledge that democracy is eroding in traditionally free societies. Over the past five years, we have documented declines in fully half of the 40 strongest democracies in the world.
Given the importance of American leadership, Freedom House is especially concerned about the weakening of democratic standards in the United States. This includes pressure on electoral integrity, media freedom, judicial independence, and safeguards against corruption. The decline in fair and equal treatment of all people, including refugees and asylum seekers, is particularly worrisome for a country that takes pride in its historical role as a beacon for the oppressed.
We are deeply disappointed by the fierce rhetorical attacks on the press, the rule of law, and other bulwarks of democracy coming from US leaders, including the president himself—attacks which undermine our ability to persuade other governments to defend core human rights and freedoms. This is not something we expected to be a problem more than 70 years after the United States led the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Harmful rhetoric in this country has been thoroughly exploited by dictators and demagogues everywhere, and our leaders must choose their words more responsibly.
Need for United States Leadership on Urgent Human Rights Challenges
There are, to be sure, signs of hope around the world. Protests in Hong Kong, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and elsewhere remind us that the universal yearning for equality, justice, and freedom from oppression can never be fully extinguished.
Still, we are at an inflection point, and reliable US support could help turn back attacks on democracy and convert breakthrough moments into lasting gains. This brings us back to the work of your commission, which could profitably address several particularly vexing challenges to the human rights project today.
The first is ensuring that the internet remains a space for free and open discussion, access to information, and civic mobilization. Our annual Freedom on the Net report has documented a steady erosion in online rights over the past decade. While the internet is still a powerful tool for individual freedom, it is being restricted and warped by state and nonstate actors. Almost three-quarters of the countries we examined this year featured arrests of users for political, social, or religious speech online, and over 50 percent of internet users reside in countries that censor websites.
Social media platforms are increasingly exploited to manipulate elections and monitor journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens for signs of dissent. In 26 of the 30 countries under study that held elections in the past year, governments and political parties abused information technology to shift the vote in their favor, whether by blocking access to independent information sources, arresting opponents for their posts, or covertly flooding platforms with carefully prepared disinformation using fake or automated accounts.
China was the world’s worst violator of internet freedom for the fourth consecutive year. Censorship in that country reached unprecedented extremes as the government rolled out new information controls in advance of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and in the face of the protests in Hong Kong. Beijing’s successful efforts to export its technology will make it easier for other regimes to monitor and oppress their populations as well.
This leads to a second challenge for democracy and human rights: the growing influence and power of authoritarian states. Modern authoritarian systems are not simply adversaries of free societies or resistant to democratic reforms. They represent an alternative model that simultaneously mimics, exploits, and distorts the basic components of democracy. Modern authoritarians generally avoid mass violence and conduct elections on schedule, the better to legitimize their rule; they nominally maintain constitutions, civilian courts, political parties, and other institutions normally found in real democracies. But leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are fundamentally hostile to pluralism. They use pliant legal systems and economic pressure to hamstring viable opposition forces, squeeze out independent media, undermine civil society organizations, and silence any criticism from universities and cultural institutions.
Disturbingly, these governments no longer recognize national borders in their zeal to punish dissent. After a period of inward-looking retrenchment after the end of the Cold War, modern authoritarian states have “gone global,” projecting power and influence beyond their own territory. Dozens of governments from every region of the world now run active campaigns of “transnational repression,” targeting their exiles and diasporas with surveillance, intimidation, and violence. Facilitated by new technologies and well-paid representatives inside democracies, these campaigns threaten to inject authoritarian practices into free and open societies.
A third and related challenge is the need to forthrightly address the egregious human rights violations committed by American partners like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and the attacks on democratic institutions in NATO allies like Hungary and Poland. It is necessary but insufficient to call out the abuses of truculent US adversaries such as Iran or Venezuela. Balancing specific security and economic considerations with human rights concerns has been difficult for every administration, but the balance has grown especially lopsided in recent years. Too often, authoritarian leaders have effectively been told that their records on human rights are of little interest to us.
This approach is deeply misguided. The goals of long-term security and stability among US partners are not served by ignoring their acts of repression. Indeed, a drift from democratic norms tends to make these countries less secure, less stable, and more likely to find common cause with authoritarian powers such as Russia and China. The pattern is evident in Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and other regions. Turkey’s recent friction with the United States—over responses to the 2016 coup attempt, Syria policy, violations of sanctions on Iran, and the purchase of Russian defense equipment—is a prime example.
But aside from these practical considerations, to minimize the importance of democracy and human rights among our allies would be to weaken the character of the United States. If we lower the standards we set for others, we risk doing the same for our own country.
In closing, on behalf of Freedom House, I would like to urge this body to act as the catalyst for a revived commitment to the democratic mission that has guided the United States since its founding, but which has grown and improved to meet the challenges of each new century. Finding the proper policies, strategies, and even the right vocabulary to explain today’s most pressing problems requires us to think creatively and with ambition, not to seek out a rationale for narrowing our definition of freedom.
We reiterate our call for the United States to exhibit international leadership on the promotion of democracy, to robustly reinforce the universality of human rights, to vigorously defend those rights at home and abroad, and to push back against authoritarian attempts to stamp them out. We urge the United States to give special attention to current threats, including the erosion of freedoms in existing democracies; growing exploitation and manipulation of democratic societies by antidemocratic forces, in part through social media; and the problem of impunity for human rights abuses among US partners and allies.
Those who champion human rights today operate in an environment of daunting hostility. If your commission can help fortify them in their struggle, it will have made a significant contribution to this most American of causes.