President Obama and the demand for universal rights

During this week’s trip to Latin America, President Barack Obama has hit on a theme about the universal nature of human rights. Here is a paragraph from his speech on Sunday in Brazil:

But we also know that there’s certain aspirations shared by every human being: We all seek to be free. We all seek to be heard. We all yearn to live without fear or discrimination. We all yearn to choose how we are governed. And we all want to shape our own destiny. These are not American ideals or Brazilian ideals. These are not Western ideals. These are universal rights, and we must support them everywhere.

He said something similar yesterday in Chile:

And despite this region’s democratic progress, stark inequalities endure. In political and economic power that is too often concentrated in the hands of the few, instead of serving the many. In the corruption that too often still stifles economic growth and development, innovation and entrepreneurship. And in some leaders who cling to bankrupt ideologies to justify their own power and who seek to silence their opponents because those opponents have the audacity to demand their universal rights.

In July 2009, I blogged about President Obama’s speech in Ghana: "We have a responsibility to support those who act responsibly and to isolate those who don’t, and that is exactly what America will do."

I suggest that the best way to advance universal rights abroad is to live by them at home. Recall that in the previous Congress, President Obama put forward a version of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act that would actually take away the existing legal protections for federal employees that raise concerns deemed to be minor or inadvertent. As to living without fear of discrimination or corruption, his bill would have divided federal employees so that national security workers would be dependent for their protection on the agency heads in charge of the operations about which concerns might be raised.

We might also remember that 600,000 U.S. citizens do not have the power to choose how they are governed because they happen to live in the District of Columbia. They cannot change their local constitution because an act of Congress sets out how they are governed. They have no representation in that Congress which imposes taxes they must pay. They cannot impose taxes on out-of-staters who work in their District (including me), and any laws their Council passes might be overturned by Congress.

It is good that the international flow of ideas includes what rights should be "universal." This call would ring less hollow if we saw those espousing them doing more to accomplish them in their home jurisdictions. I submitted a report to the United National Universal Period Review about ways in which U.S. laws fall short of international treaty standards for whistleblower protections. The U.S. Department of State chose not to answer it.

Whistleblowers everywhere will benefit if we can call our leaders to account for their treatment of whistleblowers, here and abroad. Instead of trying to pick specks out of the eyes of other countries, I invite President Obama to join with me in looking for the logs in our own.

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