Human Rights and the Election, Part 2: Are We Compelled Enough?

Its not likely that you would find a presidential candidate that is against human rights. So why is it that human rights issues take such a backseat in presidential campaigns?

The Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) found that so far, only 5% of questions posed to presidential candidates were about human rights issues. Earlier this week CAPAF hosted a panel discussion and released reports on its findings concerning human rights issues in the campaigns.

In this second of four postings about the discussion, I’ll focus on the comments of Gary Haugen, President of International Justice Mission. (Click here to read the first post of this series.)

Mr. Haugen started off with a reality check. The typical American voter does not care deeply about these kinds of issues. “It will actually take a long time to shift the thinking of the American people who will do the voting to actually care deeply about these issues. And,” he continued, presidential campaigns are “a reflection of what Americans care about.”

But its not just about caring. Its about caring enough.

“They [human rights battles] are really very much a fight- between those who are perpetrators of these abuses and those who want them to stop. And the most fundamental thing we have to remember is that a fight always comes down to a question of who is most committed. And perpetrators of human rights abuses are extremely committed to what they are doing, and it is an utterly unfair fight if those who are trying to stop the abuses are not equally committed.”

So where does that commitment come from? Mr. Haugen says that in elections, when leaders speak about human rights, they come from one of three perspectives:

-They believe it is a compelling national interest- “this matters because it affects us”

– They believe it is a compelling national value- “this matters to us morally”

-Or, they have compelling personal visions or identities.

These could all be sources of inspiration that would cause us to be committed.

But many politicians are wary of speaking about human rights issues. Especially in an election campaign – to do so could politicize the issue, then they find themselves working against an issue simple because their opponents are working for it.

But, he says, we shouldn’t shy away from asking the candidates questions and bringing up the issues during campaigns. In fact doing so could be helpful in three possible ways:

1) First of all one could get a candidate to promise action. Haugen called this “memorialization of a commitment.” If a candidate promises something during a campaign, they will be reminded of it later in office.

2) Bringing up a human rights issue with a candidate can sometimes reveal a competitive advantage. One might expose a creative idea, or bold approach that distinguishes s/he from other candidates.

3) Conversely, one could expose a political vulnerability. By bringing up an issue and explaining to the candidate that his/her constituency is concerned about this, one can expose a vulnerability that may be significant to voters.

So for Haugen, there is a delicate, but predictable, balance between discussing human rights, and the getting the public will to do something about it.

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