Voicing Dissent: Inside the Fight for Democracy and Human Rights


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Michele Dunne, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Amb. Michael Kozak, Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Win Min, Burmese civil society advocate

Moderated by Jackson Diehl, The Washington Post

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Jackson Diehl, editor and columnist of The Washington Post, opened the Forum’s final panel discussing recent developments in democracy and human rights movements, including the release of Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi and the precarious situation in Egypt leading up to its November parliamentary elections. Diehl introduced the panelists—Ambassador Michael Kozak from Department of State, Burmese human rights activist Win Min, and Senior Associate at Carnegie Endowment Michele Dunne—and asked each speaker to comment on the state of human rights and democracy in particular regions and the implications of these developments for U.S. foreign policy.

Ambassador Michael Kozak began with a brief history of U.S. involvement in democracy and human rights movements in order to set the context for foreign policy under the Obama Administration. Although U.S. foreign policy made much progress in the 1990s and early 2000s, Kozak argued that authoritarian governments have “started to get better at what they do” in maintaining their repressive rule under the façade of democracy. Obama’s address to the U.N. General Assembly in late September 2010 was an important theme in Kozak’s argument for multilateral engagement. Kozak explained three important reasons for U.S. involvement in multilateral organizations, especially for its participation on the U.N. Human Rights Council:

  1. Membership is not only the right and moral course of action but also an important policy instrument for U.S. national security.
  2. The U.S. is setting an example by accepting scrutiny from other member nations.
  3. Participation increases the effectiveness and efficiency of multilateral institutions.

Burmese civil society activist Win Min shared Kozak’s sentiment on the importance of international mechanisms and pressures in supporting human rights movements around the world. Although Aung San’s release has been taken as a victory for Burmese political activists, Win Min explained that there is still a need to monitor the situation in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 1995 and 2002 before being arrested again in 2003; therefore, the prospects of democracy and human rights in Burma cannot be based off of her recent release on November 13, 2010. Win Min argued that human rights and democracy will only take root if there are concessions made on both sides of the current regime and the dissenters. He also demonstrated that the U.S. must put more pressure on the Burmese government through engagement rather than sanctions in order to help Burmese activists.

Michele Dunne from the Carnegie Endowment focused her presentation on U.S.-Egypt relations and the need for the Obama administration to bring the grievances in Egypt into public light. Dunne argues that the people of Egypt have been living under the authoritarian rule of President Mubarak for the past 29 years; however, change in the political system is bound to happen within the next two years. The Egyptians have been publicly protesting against Mubarak’s rule due to economic and labor grievances. There has also been a growing liberal movement in Egypt; the “common theme that has emerged among these [dissenting] groups is [one] on behalf of democratization.” The question now is what role does the U.S. play as a major economic and military ally of Egypt. Dunne argues that the Obama Administration needs to take more of a “strategic approach and needs to put things on the table, both positive and negative incentives.” The U.S. cannot remain neutral on these issues and must take a credible stand on human rights for the Egyptian people.

The panelists agreed that the U.S. plays an integral and unavoidable role in the global stand for democracy and human rights. Although Obama Administration has made strides in current development, the U.S. must continue to apply pressure in its bilateral relationships with certain politically oppressive nations and to sustain its involvement on the multilateral front.



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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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