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Investing in Freedom

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The foreign affairs budget, which represents less than 1 percent of the annual U.S. budget, is invaluable for advancing U.S. foreign policy interests. The relatively modest investments that fall under the international affairs budget yield impressive returns, as they allow the American government to help develop stable, democratic partners that can cooperate on trade, security, immigration, and economic issues. In a new report, Investing in Freedom: Democracy Support in the U.S. Budget, Freedom House analyzes the international affairs budget and urges Congress to fully fund the president’s request for these programs for Fiscal Year (FY) 2014.

Funding for democracy and human rights represents just 9 percent of the total request for foreign assistance for FY 2014, or less than 0.1 percent of the total U.S. budget. The administration’s proposal will support important initiatives that protect and promote democracy, rule of law, and human rights, including:

  • Flexible funding to support democratic change in the Arab world through a Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund
  • Increased funding for priority regions, including Asia and Africa
  • Robust funding for priority countries and territories including Afghanistan, Mexico, South Sudan, the West Bank and Gaza, and Burma

However, increases in some areas contrast with decreases in others, including:

  • The elimination of the Assistance for Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia Account (AEECA) and decreases in the Europe and Eurasia region overall
  • Large decreases in democracy funding for Iraq and Pakistan
  • Regional and country-level decreases in the Western Hemisphere and in South and Central Asia

Robust funding for international affairs in FY 2014 will give America’s diplomats the tools they need to advance U.S. interests abroad and maintain the United States’ role as a global leader. Such funding alone is not enough, however. The administration must match a strong budget with clear policy decisions and a consistently forceful message, communicated both publicly and privately, that democracy and human rights are of the utmost importance to the United States.

Policy Issues

The appropriations process offers lawmakers a chance to provide guidance on American foreign policy issues and to set requirements governing the disbursement of foreign aid. Congress should consider the following policy issues in the FY 2014 bills:

Egypt Funding: Any continued funding for Egypt should be made conditional on an inclusive and transparent constitution-writing process; the organization of parliamentary and presidential elections; a specific timetable for the transfer of power from the military to an elected government; and the protection of human rights, including amnesty for the 43 nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers—seven of them from Freedom House—who were convicted in a politically motivated case in June. It is time to reevaluate the Egyptian-American relationship with the aim of ensuring that U.S. assistance is contributing to a truly democratic transition.

Support for Civil Society: As outlined in a recent Freedom House report, Resisting the Global Crackdown on Civil Society, the last few years have seen a growing trend of authoritarian leaders repressing civil society. Governments in countries such as Russia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, and Ethiopia have all used legislation and politicized justice systems to similar ends. Earlier this year, Bolivian president Evo Morales followed Russia’s 2012 example in kicking out the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The United States should make clear that democracy and human rights activities, including unequivocal support for civil society, are a nonnegotiable aspect of U.S. foreign assistance. In countries with authoritarian tendencies, the United States should not rely excessively on government-to-government assistance, but invest in a strong civil society that can push back against repressive measures.

Internet Freedom: Repressive regimes have become savvy not only in blocking internet activities and controlling online content, but also in using internet and mobile communications to track, target, harass, and prosecute activists. The FY 2014 request includes $25 million for activities related to internet freedom. Much of this investment is focused on supporting the development and spread of anticensorship tools for activists. Activists and NGOs would benefit from additional initiatives that provide digital security training; combat the use of harassment, torture, and imprisonment to silence bloggers, journalists, and civil society based on online activities; challenge restrictive national legislation and promote good standards for laws that advance fundamental freedoms online; and support research, monitoring, and reporting on internet freedom around the world.

Foreign Military Financing: The United States provides more than $6 billion in foreign military financing every year. Equipment sales, training, and other forms of military-to-military cooperation are essential tools for the United States to build strong military partnerships around the world. However, overreliance on military assistance to authoritarian regimes tells local populations that the United States does not value human rights, or at least considers them secondary to military partnerships. In a few cases, equipment sold by the United States has been used against local populations in recent years, notably in Bahrain and Egypt.

The Leahy Law is an invaluable tool for preventing U.S. assistance to military or police units that commit human rights abuses, but it is invoked sparingly and only in egregious cases of specific violence. Congress should strengthen its oversight of military assistance to ensure that regimes engaging in torture or using violence against their own citizens do not benefit from American training, equipment, or weapons systems.

United Nations: As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and an active member of the Human Rights Council, the United States is a leader within the United Nations and must stay fully engaged on the most pressing global issues, including human rights. The United Nations is a better, more deliberative, and more representative body when it has the United States’ full participation.

Efforts to withhold funding from the United States’ assessed contributions to the United Nations damage America’s image abroad. This can harm the country’s ability to achieve strategic foreign policy goals, such as sanctions against regimes seeking nuclear weapons, censure of violent and repressive leaders like Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Kim Jong-un of North Korea, and successful peacekeeping missions in postconflict environments. Congress should fully fund the administration’s $1.2 billion request for the United Nations and affiliated agencies.

Since the days of the Marshall Plan, the United States has used assistance, diplomacy, and policy to encourage the development of democratic allies and promote the protection of human rights in countries around the world. Activists face severe repression in many countries; programs to support them are often difficult or dangerous, and may be outright opposed by foreign governments. The United States continues these programs because there is a strong demand by people of various nationalities, religions, genders, and ethnicities to receive U.S. support for their efforts to exercise their fundamental human rights, live free of persecution, and participate in democratic processes. The budget process is an opportunity to make investments in the programs and policies that do great good around the world and advance U.S. interests.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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