What I Told President Obama

Last week, I joined nearly two dozen human rights defenders for a White House meeting with President Obama and senior National Security Council staff. It was an opportunity for human rights defenders from around the globe who have gathered in Washington, DC for the 2010 Human Rights Summit to tell the President and his team about what is happening on the ground in our respective nations. Here is what I said:

We have no doubt that we are living through a period of global backsliding of democracy and autocratic assault on vital freedoms. We, human rights defenders in different countries, feel it with our own skin, in our own work and life, not only read in the Freedom House reports.

While ultimately responses to the challenge of autocracy lie with the ability of the public in our own countries to get organized and nonviolently change our political systems, our common prospect to successfully respond to the global anti-democratic backlash depends very much on restored international credibility of the U.S. as a moral leader in the field of human rights and democracy and in its ability to lead by example. In this context it is important to look at challenges of America's new engagement with non-democratic governments and the difficult choices the United States face at home in dealing with the dilemma of protecting fundamental rights while fighting terrorism.

First, have no doubt that we understand and agree with arguments behind the choice of the engagement strategy. In fact, many of us urged the U.S. that arrogance, self-righteousness, and lecturing should give way to ability to listen, act respectfully, and build dialogue, even with unpleasant and difficult interlocutors. We acknowledge the value of this approach; we see how anti-Americanism has indeed started to decrease and how you have been able recently to secure new level of cooperation with many governments in vitally important areas of military security, counter-terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, and trade. We know that building dialogues with difficult partners is by no means an easy process.

We have heard a message from you that engagement with non-democracies will be not happening at the cost of addressing human rights and democracy issues and American support to democratic activists and human rights defenders. However, so far it has not worked this way. Many autocrats have taken search for common interests and a more intelligent and discreet approach of the U.S. government for its weakness, and in fact quite a few of them have not delivered what they promised to the U.S. At the same time they successfully continue their anti-democratic practices and their attack on fundamental freedoms, putting in jail and murdering opposition members, silencing criticism and dispersing protests, rigging elections and manipulating courts.

Many of us on the ground feel forgotten, fear that human rights and democracy have been traded in, taken out of the equation of new relationships based on engagement. Can it be that in order to maintain dialogue and build good will the U.S. have changed not just the tone but the message? One may say that it is not true and that we do not know what really goes on behind the doors. But this is the way we feel, our public feels, and this is the way our governments feel too - with a different attitude, of course.

This should not be happening. Successful U.S. engagement with non-democracies should incorporate all key elements that are vital for American interests. We dare to believe that human rights and democracy are still among them, equally important to security and trade. They should be an integral, essential and permanent part of bilateral dialogues, not just occasional ad hoc expressions of concern by the White House when something terrible again happens in our countries. These statements are easily ignored by the autocrats because there are more important "real" things for both sides to focus on.

After all, while you are trying hard to secure cooperation of non-democracies now, in the long run you must be really interested in these nations becoming democratic: we know that democracies do not go to war with each other. Even when one speaks with others with respect and good will, it is important to base one's behavior on values and principles, to be consistent, to speak clearly, to call things by their real names and to avoid pursuing engagement at any cost. We know that you are grappling with these dilemmas but we want you to hear that we are not happy with the way things are going on now.

Likewise, we want you to know that America's decisions at home matter greatly to us. When the previous U.S. administration violated human rights while professing to spread liberty across the globe, it allowed autocrats in various countries to accuse America of double standards, justify their own violations, and attack human rights defenders. When President Obama ended torture and promised to close Guantanamo, you started to restore American moral leadership in human rights. We were all excited. The time has come now to deliver on these promises.

We say to you loud and clear: close this base, try the terrorism suspects in a due process in a court of law, do not give in to the growing pressure to adopt statutory regime for indefinite or preventive detention, and ensure accountability for the crimes of torture. Destructive practices eroding human rights standards could be dismissed as a temporary detour when they were pursued by the previous administration. But if they are adopted by this administration, this will make a permanent and hard blow to the whole system of international human rights norms.

Is indefinite detention and impunity for torture the kind of legacy this President would like to leave behind? Millions in this country and across the world who celebrated the dawn of a new hope with election of Barak Obama would be devastated and their expectations dashed. Equally important, America's ability to revitalize multilateral institutions and talk persuasively with others about human rights and democracy would be fundamentally undermined.

Please remember that these decisions are not only very important for the health of American nation but directly affect our ability to continue carrying on our struggle for democracy, rule of law and human rights in our countries across the globe.

Yuri Dzhibladze is president of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, a Russian public policy and advocacy NGO