Posner discusses human rights, U.N. conventions

Oct. 26, 2011, 2:40 a.m.

Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, spoke Tuesday night at the Schwab Residential Center about the Obama administration’s approach to issues such as democracy and human rights.

Stanford in Government (SIG) and the Freeman Spogli Institute’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) co-sponsored the talk.

The Obama administration has a “principled engagement” in the world, Posner said, meaning human rights issues are incorporated into conversations involving international interests.

“We are going to be there; we are going to engage,” Posner said.  “But we’re going to ensure that human rights are part of that equation.”

On a macro level, the administration seeks to engage with multilateral institutions such as the United Nations (U.N.) Human Rights Council, Posner said. On a micro level, it seeks to support development projects where human rights issues are inherent.

Three common themes for development projects include the need for economic empowerment, political participation and building opportunities, Posner said. He added that a human rights-oriented approach to development gives recipients a stake in the projects, ensures transparency and promotes the strengthening of effective democratic and rights-based institutions-such as open courts or the police system.

Posner cited Internet freedom as a necessity to ensuring international human rights. The Internet-open, neutral and capable of traversing borders-serves as a platform for commerce, education, innovation and political discussion, according to Posner; it supports freedom of speech, association and assembly.

Continuing to focus on civil society, Posner said human rights organizations should be able to operate outside of current constraints, including the ability to organize or receive foreign funding.

According to Posner, it is important to target civilians instead of governments because, as he said, change does not come from the outside.

“Change occurs within societies when people see their own destiny and power for change,” Posner said. “Tempting as it is to think that we [the United States] can force change, what we really can do is reinforce peoples best aspirations, amplify their voices and support them.”

While the United States may not force change, it often inspires it, according to Posner.

“We are going to lead by example-universal standards apply to all, including ourselves,” he said.

“The power of the idea of human rights and democracy, the power of the United States’ example on human rights and democracy, resonates around the world,” he added.  “It’s amazing and reassuring how much people aspire to the kinds of freedom and openness that we take for granted.”

Although Americans may take domestic human rights for granted, the U.S. government still has yet to ratify these rights in an international setting, Posner said. One such example is the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted by the U.N. in 1979.

Posner said CEDAW is still a priority of the administration, but lacks Senate support for possible ratification.

“The administration is ready to go,” Posner said. “But we have work to do in domestic politics [to get it passed].”

SIG was eager to co-sponsor the event, according to one of the organization’s members, Patrick Kennedy ’13.

“Stanford students are well-connected with current events, so SIG was eager to have representatives from government who are fighting political issues from the trenches, in addition to our academic faculty,” Kennedy said.

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