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Reflections on U.S. Foreign Policy as a Tool for Promoting Human Rights

Reflections on U.S. Foreign Policy as a Tool for Promoting Human Rights from U.S. Diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford

By Debra DeLaet (Executive Director, Iowa United Nations Association)


On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and we now celebrate Human Rights Day each year on this date. The UDHR offers a comprehensive vision of human rights that spans civil and political rights as well as economic, social, and cultural rights. Unfortunately, there is a significant gap between the aspirational norms created by the UDHR and the realization of human rights in practice. The document neither codified binding human rights standards nor established concrete enforcement mechanisms. Subsequent international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), codified binding human rights norms. Although these treaties represent a significant step in the development of international human rights law, they did not create concrete enforcement mechanisms.


On November 29, U.S. Diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford, a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, gave a public lecture at Drake University that sheds light on this gap between aspirational human rights norms and the challenges of achieving universal human rights in practice. The lecture, held in recognition of Human Rights Day, was co-sponsored by the Principal Center for Global Citizenship at Drake University and the Iowa United Nations Association. Shackelford served as a career diplomat with the U.S. Department of State with postings in Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, Poland, and Washington, D.C. In December 2017, she resigned in protest of the Trump Administration. Shackelford is the author of The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age, winner of the 2020 Douglas Dillon Book Award.





Shackelford’s lecture focused on obstacles to relying on U.S. foreign policy to promote human rights. Shackelford explained that U.S. foreign policy is one of the most powerful tools for promoting and defending the country’s national security interests. She also acknowledged that U.S. foreign policy can be a force for good in the world. Nevertheless, because U.S. foreign policy is primarily a tool for protecting national security, it cannot be relied on as a mechanism for advancing universal human rights.


Indeed, Shackelford discussed the ways in which U.S. foreign policy can have counterproductive human rights consequences. As an example, she focused particularly on her time serving in South Sudan and described her initial optimism about the new country, which had gained independence in 2011. She shared her preliminary belief that U.S. support would help enhance democracy in South Sudan. As the country devolved into civil war, her optimism faded.


One of Shackelford’s professional responsibilities in South Sudan was the completion of a report on human rights in the country. In this report, she documented atrocities committed by the government of South Sudan. She collected testimonials both from internally displaced people and those who had fled to refugee camps in neighboring Uganda. She came to believe that the South Sudanese government’s rationale for violence—rooted in a national security discourse—was cover for an ethnic cleansing campaign. She recognized a fundamental tension between her human rights documentation and ongoing U.S. support for the South Sudanese government. When she expressed frustration that the evidence of human rights atrocities committed by the South Sudanese government was not accompanied by a shift in U.S. foreign policy, a colleague told her that she was “there to bear witness.” She received that remark as a “gut punch” and felt that ongoing U.S. support for South Sudan was giving that government cover. In her view, the U.S. government’s focus on short-term stability and national security did not serve human rights.


Shackelford’s experiences in South Sudan and in other postings led her to question whether she should remain in the foreign service. She was committed to the principle of doing more good than harm. By 2017, she observed the ways in which Trump Administration’s policies, including the Muslim travel ban and the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border, undercut U.S. legitimacy abroad and hindered the U.S. ability to present itself as a global leader on human rights. She resigned in December of that year.


Shackelford’s lecture raised critical questions about the possibility of engaging in human rights advocacy from inside the government. On the one hand, she acknowledged the power of U.S. foreign policy. On the other hand, she questioned whether the power of U.S. foreign policy could be marshalled in favor of human rights. Ultimately, she worried that U.S. diplomacy was a “little sibling” to the Pentagon, with national security inevitably being prioritized over human rights. Shackelford further highlighted concerns about the use of military force in U.S. foreign policy. She noted that when our primary tools involve the military, other countries perceive our purposes as exclusively militaristic.


Shackelford discussed existing U.S. laws intended to institutionalize human rights in U.S. foreign policy, including the creation of the Bureau of Human Rights at the State Department, the mandating of annual human rights reports on countries that receive U.S. assistance, and making some foreign assistance dependent on the receiving country’s human rights record. She also noted Congressional laws intended to prevent the U.S. government from propping up bad actors, including laws that require the U.S. government to cut aid to governments that use child soldiers, engage in human trafficking, or come to power via coups. Unfortunately, the United States has not consistently followed these laws and has continued to provide support to illiberal regimes when the U.S. government believes that national security is at stake.


In a December 1 opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune, Shackelford elaborated on the themes from her lecture. In this piece, she argues for an approach to U.S. foreign policy that places greater priority on human rights. In the long-run, a human rights-focused foreign policy is more likely to promote stability. Ultimately, a stable world where human rights are respected will be more likely to serve U.S. national security interests. Shackelford argues that a human rights approach to U.S. foreign policy is necessary to guarantee that U.S. tax dollars aren’t used to support human rights violations and “the long-term instability that oppression fuels.” She also refers to the enduring importance of the UDHR: “The declaration isn’t simply altruistic—it’s a recognition that rights, security and prosperity are deeply connected, both within a country and across them all.”


In recognition of Human Rights Day, we encourage you to reach out to your representatives to ask them to support the prioritization of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. UNA-USA has developed a resource guide that provides instructions and talking points you can use to make calls to your representatives. You also can consult UNA-USA’s Human Rights Day Advocacy Actions to explore other ways you can advocate for universal human rights.


Thank you for your advocacy on behalf of universal human rights!







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