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Rights, Democracy, & U.S. Relationship with China

David Kramer , Assitant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Remarks at Beijing Foreign Affairs University
Beijing, China
May 25, 2008

Human Rights, Democracy, and the U.S. Relationship with China

Thank you very much for that very warm and kind introduction, and thank all of you for coming here on a Sunday, for the applause -- applauding even before I said anything, that’s very kind of you.

I appreciate this opportunity very much to share with you my government’s views on human rights and democracy, the role that these issues play in U.S. foreign policy in general, and in our approach to our relationship with China. I hope that by the end of our discussion today I will have given you some insights into U.S. thinking on these important topics. I also look forward at the end of my talk, as you said, that we will have discussion, a dialogue, question and answer or any comments you wish to offer, and I truly welcome the opportunity to exchange ideas here with you today.

Before going any further, however, let me on behalf of my delegation, my government and the American people extend to you and to all the people of China our sincere condolences for the devastating earthquake in Sichuan. We have been deeply moved by the great loss of life and injury, but also by the acts of great compassion and courage performed by all those involved in the rescue and relief effort.

The response to this tragedy by the Chinese government, the international non-governmental community and civil society groups as well as individual citizens throughout China has truly been admirable and impressive. At such times one is reminded of our common humanity that life is precious and that sorrow, even when it strikes on such a massive scale is felt one community, one family, one suffering human heart at a time. My government and the American people remain eager to do all we can to be of assistance, just as China so graciously offered a helping hand to the United States after the Katrina flood disaster in New Orleans in 2005. And it is in that spirit of friendship and solidarity that the United States, both private and public sources, have made available more than $70 million in emergency assistance to help the victims of this immense tragedy.

When the delegation and I arrived in Beijing yesterday we went to our embassy where we packed up a number of kits to send off to the people in the region. That was our small token of the contribution that we can provide to those who have suffered from this great tragedy.

Ladies and gentlemen, I and my delegation are in Beijing for the next several days to hold a human rights dialogue with our Chinese colleagues. In February Secretary Rice and Minister Yang Jiechi agreed on the resumption of this dialogue after a hiatus of 6 years. We view this initiative as an important way for our two countries to have a constructive, mutually respectful discussion on human rights issues. I’d like to use this opportunity to explain our thinking in the way ahead.

At the center of U.S. efforts around the globe to advance respect for human rights and democracy is our conviction that every human being has intrinsic and equal value and that it is the birthright of every person to live in freedom. As President Bush has said, freedom is the non-negotiable right of every man, woman and child and the path to lasting peace in our world is liberty.

U.S. support for the advancement of human rights and democratic freedoms reflects the core values of the American people. These values are what bind us together as one nation. Though our individual backgrounds are as diverse as the cultures on this planet, we believe that when we are truest to these values we are at our best.

Our diplomatic efforts to promote human rights and democratic principles around the world enjoy the broad-based support of the U.S. Congress, and successive U.S. administrations, whether Democrat or Republican, have conducted an active human rights and democracy policy. In one form or another, this will continue when a new administration takes office in January.

Those of you who have followed the various schools of thought regarding U.S. foreign affairs are no doubt familiar with the controversies that sometimes arise within our country over our efforts to advance human rights and democracy overseas. In recent decades these arguments are not over whether, but how best to pursue human rights and democracy objectives. Indeed, human rights and democracy issues have become integrated into our foreign policy and into our bilateral approaches to all countries.

The human rights and democracy principles that we seek to promote, however, are not exclusively American values or even so-called Western values. Rather, they are profoundly human values, enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a document that China played an instrumental role in negotiating. These universal values are embraced by men and women from a wide variety of countries and cultures, backgrounds and beliefs.

We see a growing worldwide demand for human rights and democracy and we believe that this demand derives fundamentally from the powerful human desire of men and women everywhere to live in dignity and liberty. We believe that wherever they may live, people want to be free to follow their conscience and practice their culture, to worship or not worship as they see fit, to speak their minds without fear, to select their government, to hold their leaders accountable, and to obtain justice under the law.

We also note that efforts to uphold human rights standards and democratic principles increasingly are reflected in the work of regional institutions. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the African Union, the Organization of American States, and the Association of Southeast Asian nations already have established or are in the process of establishing human rights and democracy standards, institutions and mechanisms.

We believe that democracy has proven to be the form of government capable of securing and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms. We also believe that democracy is the form of government best able to meet the daily needs of its citizens over the long term.

That said, we fully recognize that no form of government is without flaws. Democracy is a system of government of, by and for the people based on the principle that human beings have the inherent right to shape their own future. But we humans are flawed creatures and any system we build is bound to be imperfect. Therefore, in order to protect individual citizens we believe there must be built-in correctives and counterweights to the power of the state, even a democratic state. These correctives and counterweights include a vigorous civil society; a vibrant, independent media; a legislature and judiciary independent of the executive power; and a well-established rule of law.

Let me now say a few words about the U.S. record. The United States, like all democracies, is not perfect. That said, our citizens claim a proud history of striving in every generation since our nation’s founding to bring our democratic principles and practices even closer together even as we seek to correct the injustices and confront the challenges of each new age. U.S. democracy is still evolving. Our national journey toward liberty and justice for all has been long and difficult and it is still far from complete, yet over time our independent branches of government, our free media, our openness to the world, and most importantly, the civic courage of impatient American patriots, impatient patriots like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, who are willing to stand up for what they believe and criticize our government, the U.S. government, when they think it is warranted help us keep faith with our founding ideals and our international human rights obligations.

The U.S. Government takes all of its human rights commitments seriously, and in our good faith efforts to meet those commitments we value the vital role played by civil society and independent media, even when we in the government come under criticism. Indeed, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls upon every individual and every organ of society to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.

For our part, the U.S. Government will continue to hear and reply forthrightly to concerns of others about our own practices including the actions we have taken to defend our nation from the global threat of terrorism. My delegation fully expects to hear and to respond to issues of concern and disagreement that our Chinese colleagues may raise during our upcoming human rights dialogue over the next several days. We do not consider views about our performance voiced by others in the international community to be interference in our internal affairs, nor do we think that other governments should regard our expressions about their performance as such. These are legitimate subjects for domestic and international debate and we certainly do have lively debates on these issues between our Congress and the Executive Branch, in our court system, and through the media. That’s healthy. It serves as a corrective when things might go wrong.

Similarly, our delegation will raise issues with your delegation such as our concerns about human rights defenders we regard as prisoners of conscience, the situation in Tibet, the constraints on religious freedom, and press and internet restrictions.

Being able to discuss matters of disagreement in a proper yet candid way is part of the nature of a serious dialogue. We will pay each other the respect of honesty.

Let me now try to dispel some common misconceptions that I encounter around the world about what our human rights and democracy policy is and what it is not.

First, my government’s promotion of human rights and democratic principles is not naïve idealism. Even as our efforts reflect the core values of the American people, they also advance our core interests. Helping to widen the community of stable, well-governed states that enshrine liberty under the rule of law, respect the rights of their people, and provide for their needs, and that act responsibly in the international system is fundamentally in the interest of the United States and, I would argue, it is also crucial to global stability.

Second, if our efforts to promote human rights and democracy are not naïve idealism, neither are they calculated attempts to impose alien values on other countries or to undermine other governments. By definition, democracy is based on the consent of the governed. Genuine democracy cannot be imposed nor can the United States build democracy in other countries. It must be the choice of the people in those countries, being their initiative. But we can certainly help and do openly help those working to develop their own democracies. As President Bush has said, “America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal, instead, is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.”

We recognize that some other governments see our support for human rights and democracy around the world as part of a cynical, zero-sum game of geopolitical influence. To do so, I think, is to underestimate the desire of their own citizens for reform.

Yes, my government and other democratic governments support the efforts of those working for peaceful change, but we do so transparently and in ways fully in keeping with international norms.

A third point, my government cannot and does not pursue our human rights policy to the exclusion of other important interests such as combating terrorism and extremism, promoting non-proliferation, or improving trade relations. We seek to cooperate on all these key issues and mutual interests. At the same time, cooperation with the United States in these strategic areas does not mean that a country wins a free pass from us if it does not live up to the commitments it made to its own people and to the international community to respect fundamental rights. This is a matter of principle for us and we will make our concerns clear.

Fourth, we do not think that developing vibrant, human-rights-respecting, law-based democracies worldwide can be done overnight. This is the work of generations but it is work that cannot be delayed. We do not believe that governments should withhold from their people fundamental freedoms of belief, expression, association and peaceful assembly until a certain level of development is reached. We believe that development is, if anything, furthered and sustained by the fullest possible participation of citizens and their society through the exercise of their civil and political rights.

China has scored impressive economic successes and has earned the respect of the entire international community. Today the people of China have greater personal scope to their lives, their private lives that would have been unimaginable only three decades ago.

This is my first visit to Beijing and I have to tell you that in the very brief time I’ve been here, and we just landed yesterday, how impressed I am by this city’s vibrancy, its prosperity, its life. I know that Beijing is not necessarily representative of all of China just as visiting Washington, DC, where I live would not give you a full picture of what the United States is like. But I hope on future visits to be able to see other parts of this tremendous country.

We understand that your government has articulated the goal of nurturing a harmonious society, one where the government works hard to listen and respond to citizens’ concerns, for example, over corruption, even as it strives to spread China’s new wealth farther into the countryside. That said, it is our view that Chinese citizens still face restrictions on their exercise of fundamental, internationally recognized freedoms of speech, religion and assembly. Permitting alternative views and freedom of expression even on matters of policy is a way to shape the best policies, providing outlets for different views and even disagreements gives citizens the opportunity to have their voices heard and to feel that they have a stake in their country’s future.

Fifth point, we do not claim that democracy is ever inevitable or that the path to full democracy is smooth or straight, but we do believe that it is a sure path to a better future. Along the way there are bound to be stumbles and setbacks, but the way forward is clear. Entrust citizens with greater freedom so that they can use it to correct the deficiencies that stand in the way of a more hopeful future.

Six, there is no secret formula for advancing human rights and democratic freedoms. Each country ultimately must find its own solutions. That said, as we see it there are three essential and mutually reinforcing elements of a truly free country. These are the concrete objectives we are trying to help openly to advance around the world. A free and air electoral process and contested elections of all levels of government, accountable institutions under the rule of law, and a robust civil society including non-governmental organizations and independent media.

An open resilient civil society helps keep elections and those elected honest citizens contributing to the success of their countries. By the same token, restricting the political space of non-governmental organizations and the press constraints a society’s long-term political and economic development. We hope that the easing of restrictions on the foreign press that your government has announced in connection with the Olympics coming up will continue and be broadened after the Olympics have concluded.

In today’s increasingly interconnected and networked world, the problems confronting states are too complex even for the most militarily, economically and technically powerful countries like China and the United States to tackle alone.

It’s been our experience in the U.S. that the contributions of civil society and the free flow of ideas and information are crucial to addressing a host of challenges on issues from poverty to pollution, infectious diseases, to natural disasters. Non-governmental organizations played a critical role in the Katrina relief effort in my country. We have only to look at the heroic contributions that individual Chinese citizens and non-governmental groups are making in Sichuan. The spontaneous outpouring of assistance such as the long lines of people donating blood speak to the decency and selflessness of ordinary people and their deep commitment to help their country cope with the national tragedy caused by the earthquake. China is indeed fortunate to have citizens like you.

Ladies and gentlemen, the thinking on human rights and democracy that I’ve shared with you today informs my government’s approach to our relationship with all countries including China, and it will inform our human rights dialogue with our distinguished Chinese counterparts tomorrow.

We believe that building a cooperative and mutually productive relationship between our two countries is important, not just for the people of China and the United States, but for the world. Such a relationship must be built on mutual respect, on understanding one another’s viewpoints, especially on matters where we disagree, and on our willingness to identify areas where we can cooperate.

I hope that my talk today and the dialogue itself will increase understanding and help to illuminate the possibilities of a future joint effort. Thank you once again for joining me here this morning, for your hospitality, and for being willing to hear me out. Why don’t we begin our dialogue?


ENDS

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