Human Rights and the Election, Part 3: Obstacles and hope

In a recent report, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, found that only 5% of questions posed to presidential candidates were about human rights. A panel was put together to discuss these findings, and in this 3rd installment, I’ll share what Gayle Smith, co-founder of ENOUGH! had to say.

“It is sad, but true,” she started, “that human rights do not make good politics, certainly in a campaign environment.” But, she added this could be changed.

But before we can change anything, we have to understand why we in this situation now.

Impediments

The American public has 2 impediments when it comes to human rights – 1) indifference, 2) they believe it is intractable. The good news is that people are less indifferent that they have been in the past. But the bad news is they still think these problems can’t be changed.

And you won’t find a candidate who will say, “I’m going to solve these problems.” They just can’t risk it.

Time Frame

A second problem is time frame. Human rights crises take a long time to resolve. When you compare that to a administration cycle (4 or 8 years) and especially in a campaign cycle, they are just not compatible. “It’s a process, and its hard to campaign around a process.”

Messaging

Human rights is presented as a stand alone issue, but in reality it is part of many issues:

  • the opinion of the US in the world
  • stability
  • security
  • democracy
  • intervention and the use of power
  • international cooperation
  • engagement with the rest of the world

The human rights advocacy community should work on integrating their messages into other issues, Smith suggested.

Cohesion (lack of)

There is no perception of an articulated constituency. And in the election debate, candidates have to balance between being strong and soft. Human rights is perceived a soft (Carter was often thought of as soft and naive). After 9/11, the pressure for the president to be tough is even higher. The candidates feel that pressure.

Media

“Our media covers human rights in a way that injects it into the debate, but they fail to ask the really hard questions,” Smith says. “Like about the trade-offs between rights and stability.”

What can be done?

So what would it take to change things? Three things:

  1. A change coming from the electorate. “Darfur is as high as it is [in the report] not because of the media or the policymakers, but because Americans have kept it on the agenda.
  2. Soft power/smart power – “the notion that we need a set of tools and approaches in foreign policy that extend beyond the military”
  3. A shift in values – “From values as a matter of personal choice, to values as an expression of solidarity and citizenship.” Some of this, she pointed out, can be seen now in some religious communities.

We used to think of human rights as an issue that other countries had to deal with, but unfortunately, Ms. Smith pointed out, human rights is an issue we now face at home.

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