Reflections on Human Rights Week

Human rights are a set of rules that define the relationship between people and their governments in a way that squares with the natural demands of human dignity.  When those rules break down, we know the result is almost always conflict and crisis that threatens our interests.  Look at Syria -- a dictator tries to crush a movement for democratic freedoms, creating a gateway for extremists alongside a pile of corpses.  Look at Russia -- an increasingly authoritarian government is threatened by a democracy movement at home, then sees another rise next door, and launches the first land grab in Europe since World War II.
There is a high stakes contest of ideas in the world today; in fact, it’s been underway for a long time.
As president Obama has said, “Throughout human history, societies have grappled with fundamental questions of how to organize themselves, the proper relationship between the individual and the state.”  Some of us hold fast to “the belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding.”
“But those ideals,” the president added, “have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign.”
The contest, in other words, is, and always has been, between those who think that states exist to serve their citizens, and those who think that citizens exist to serve their states.
In this contest, ordinary citizens are more empowered today than at any previous point in history.
They are more empowered because the human rights movement has succeeded in establishing, as an international norm, that everyone really does have a right to speak, associate, and worship freely and to choose their leaders in free elections.  In other words, it can no longer be said that it is normal to deny these rights, and no leader who does so can be considered legitimate, in any country, in any culture.  
Citizens are more empowered because nations have established institutions and policies -- however imperfect -- to enforce these human rights norms.  If you flout them, you will be condemned.  You may be sanctioned.  You may one day even be prosecuted.  
Citizens are more empowered because they are more connected to each other.  Civil society in one country helps civil society in every other country -- and it’s not just civil society in the United States and Western Europe doing the helping.  If you are learning civil resistance to dictatorship, you are probably being taught by a former dissident from Serbia or Georgia.  If you are mapping outbreaks of violence in a crisis-torn country, you may well be using software tools invented by activists from Kenya.
Citizens are also more empowered because information and ideas can no longer be contained.  Because cheap software can defeat the most expensive firewall.  Because almost everyone in every part of the world knows how people live everywhere else, enough to see through the lies dictators tell to convince their subjects to be happy.  Thus, a democracy movement in Tunisia can raise expectations throughout the Arab world.  Ukrainians confronting abuse of power can inspire Russians fed up with the same thing -- as Vladimir Putin clearly understands.
This can happen anywhere. Even in North Korea, smart phones are appearing as status symbols, and all people need is a data card or flash drive to hold in their hands an encyclopedia of knowledge about the world, with some South Korean soap operas thrown in for good measure.  “Why can’t we live like that,” people say, and now, for the very first time, the North Korean regime appears sensitive to human rights criticism from the outside world.
It is precisely because their citizens are more empowered today that some dictatorships are pushing back so ruthlessly, especially against civil society groups and their connections to the outside world.  They are doing so not because they are more emboldened, but because they are more threatened.  
I’m not trying to put a positive spin on this problem.  In the short run, it is very dangerous.  It has led some authoritarian powers not just to crush internal dissent, but to intervene outside their borders to stop the example of democracy from spreading.  As their old conception of power loses legitimacy, some have also sought refuge in another old idea, nationalism and territorial expansion.
But in the longer run, people fighting for human rights and human dignity around the world still have tremendous advantages, especially if we continue to stand with them.  And we will.
It is never a mistake to align ourselves with people who struggle for the kind of world we want to live in.  The mistake we sometimes make is to imagine that helping them win can be the work of a few news cycles, or even a single presidential administration.  Or to forget that some of the goals we promote, which seem so benign to us, like promoting civil society and transparency and open government, can be deadly threatening to entrenched structures of power in some parts of the world.  Of course, when such power is threatened it will fight back, causing conflict and sometimes presenting us with tough short-term choices.  
But when tyrants and kleptocrats push back against something, perhaps we should consider that something is probably worth supporting.  It is probably something that can work if we stick with it.   And that knowledge ought to give us something that we very much need.  It should give us confidence.
About the Author: Tom Malinowski serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
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Angie V.
United States
December 12, 2014
Mr. Malinowski, this is the message I have come to expect from the State Deparment: "Do as I say, not as I do." The double standards and hypocrisy seem to be the order of the day. For example, you criticize Syria for cracking down on a rebellion, and then praise Ukraine for doing exactly the same thing. All your braying about human rights and democracy inevitably masks some other agenda. In particular, your administration will be remembered by historians for reviving the Cold War with Russia and China, something not even Bush was dumb enough to do. Because you stubbornly cling to an economic policy that shuts down production and replaces it with speculation, you cannot compete with the more sensible BRICS nations, so you seek confrontation with them, using whatever pretext you can find.
Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski
Posted by Tom Malinowski
December 10, 2014


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