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Clinton to Vietnam, Human Rights Raised. Does She Really Care?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised concern over human rights during her trip to Vietnam, a country she last visited in the waning days of her husband’s presidency.  Per the NYT:

Noting Vietnam’s recent jailing of democracy activists, attacks on religious groups and curbing of Internet social-networking sites, Mrs. Clinton said she raised the status of human rights in a meeting with a deputy prime minister, Pham Gia Khiem. … She said the United States would press Vietnam to do more to protect individual freedom. …

Mrs. Clinton’s comments were notable, given that she has played down human rights concerns in visits to Vietnam’s neighbor, China. But her timing, at the outset of the visit, suggested that she wanted to make her point, and move on.

The last line is particularly intriguing, and offers potential fodder to critics from across the political spectrum: from conservatives wed to George Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” to liberal critics to issue-focused NGOs, like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House. Is the Secretary of State just making her point and moving on? Have human rights become simply a talking point, as Secretary Clinton unfortunately suggested before her first trip to China in early 2009?

Despite her regrettable gaffes about China, she’s said that her more nuanced approach is “designed to make a difference, not prove a point.” So what is Secretary Clinton’s approach, exactly?

In Russia, a country desperate for some international respect, a stern human rights stare-down could prove counter-productive. The balance between economics, bilateral security, multi-lateral security, climate change and personal freedoms demands measured engagement. Would, for example, Russia have cooperated on New START or Iran sanctions if the Obama administration issued one human rights tongue-lashing on top of another? Anything’s possible, but such agreements would have undoubtedly been more difficult to come by.

That’s why, in big countries as Will Marshall wrote on this site the other day, Secretary Clinton is focused on building civil societies:

In an important speech that got little attention back home, she unveiled what she called a 21st century approach to promoting democracy by defending civil society. Clinton described an independent civic sector as a nursery for democratic citizenship, no less critical to a free society than representative government and a market economy. And she warned of a spreading global backlash against civil society…. This marks a significant departure from the Bush administration’s approach to democracy, which centered on demands for elections and accountable political institutions. …

Clinton aimed more modestly, but shrewdly, at bolstering a particular aspect of liberty – freedom of association. In authoritarian countries, civil society or “third sector” organizations play an especially vital role in building the infrastructure of liberal democracy. … [Clinton's approach is] deeply subversive, in that it enables indigenous reformers to carve out space for civic action that is independent of state control. By defending the right of CSOs to organize and operate, and receive international support, the United States and other free countries can promote democracy from the ground up.

It’s in this vein that Secretary Clinton addressed an audience on cyber freedom at the Newseum earlier this year.

Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks. …  They’ve expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Expect the direct challenging on human rights to continue behind closed doors, but expect the Obama administration to take a more indirect, but ultimately more effective path in public.

Photo credit: US Mission Canada’s Photostream


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