Advancing Freedom and Fundamental Rights Demands a Global Effort

By Amanda Schnetzer and Elizabeth Hoffman

Last week, it was announced that North Korea's largest labor camp has recently grown in size. Known as kwanliso 16, the compound is the site of some of the country's cruelest acts of government-sanctioned rape, torture, and murder. The news comes on the eve of December 10, the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an event we observe as Human Rights Day.

Today is a chance to commemorate an important development for the cause of individual freedom, but it's also an opportunity to acknowledge the unthinkable violations of human rights and dignity that continue to take place around the world in places like North Korea. Such brutalities are particularly important to keep in mind at a time when isolationist sentiments in the United States are at an all-time high. As the last 65 years have made clear, progress in the fight for human liberty requires the support and leadership of all free societies, especially the United States.

Adopted by the United Nations in the wake of World War II and the atrocities of the Holocaust, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights codified the belief that "all human beings are born free" and endowed with certain "equal and inalienable rights." It also recognized the essential role that democracy plays in protecting those rights.

Despite the continued advance of democracy and human freedom, more than a third of the world's people currently live under governments that systematically deny basic rights, according to Freedom House, a U.S.-based research and advocacy group. And as the expansion of North Korea's kwansilo 16 camp demonstrates, some regimes show no sign of curtailing their brutal practices.

Any effort to stomp out this kind of despotism must start by supporting individuals and groups who are committed to facing down their oppressors through nonviolent means. This has been the guiding philosophy behind our work at the George W. Bush Institute's Human Freedom Initiative, which is aimed at advancing the development of free societies around the world. One way we do this is by documenting and spotlighting the stories of courageous individuals who are standing up for freedom.

The stories in the Initiative's video archive, the Freedom Collection, demonstrate how crucial international support is when it comes to helping those fighting against oppressive governments.

According to Carlos Alberto Montaner, an exiled Cuban author and journalist, international support not only "protects those who struggle for freedom" it also serves as a source of "moral pressure on the power structure -- and that's where there's a psychological battle that can't be ignored."

In her Freedom Collection interview, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf credits international leadership for drawing attention to her plight as a political prisoner after a 1980 coup resulted in civil war. As she notes, "international attention and support and, ultimately, the U.S. institutions" were instrumental in securing her freedom.

Before recent reforms in Burma prompted the international community to lift its sanctions, Burmese women's rights activist Charm Tong noted the impact of "international targeted economic sanction[s]" on the Burmese military regime. "We want[ed] more actors . . . and more countries to join this effort."

By the same token, a lack of international outcry can do serious damage to nonviolent dissident efforts. In his contribution to the Freedom Collection, Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid lamented the "international indifference" to dictator Bashar Al-Assad's attacks against his own citizens. "[H]e used tanks, and no one said anything. Then he used heavy artillery, and no one said anything. Then he used helicopter gunships, and no one said anything . . . In these kinds of conditions, you cannot sustain a nonviolent momentum."

The importance of international support to the cause of human freedom, it seems, has never been more apparent. Yet in recent years, economic and other factors have contributed to an increasingly isolationist outlook among Americans. A December 3 poll from the Pew Research Center found that a record high 52 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally."

But, as Americans, we recognize that our commitment to freedom and democracy doesn't apply solely to U.S. citizens. Human Rights Day should serve as a reminder that our values are universal, and that those fighting for freedom are no less deserving of it than we are.

As former President George W. Bush has said, "by marking the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we let those who struggle for their freedom know that we stand with them." To ensure that the cause of human liberty continues its steady advance around the world, Americans must continue to stand with these brave individuals.

Amanda Schnetzer is director of Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute, where Elizabeth Hoffman serves as program manager.