Dean Eric Schwartz delivering a speech titled, "Practicing at home what we preach abroad," at a event in Washington, D.C., on June 26, 2013. Schwartz serves on the board of the Center for Victims of Torture.
In a speech delivered at a Washington, D.C., event, Humphrey School of Public Affairs Dean Eric Schwartz calls on U.S. leaders to “practice at home what we preach abroad.” Schwartz delivered the remarks at “Torture as a Weapon Against Democracy,” a symposium co-sponsored by the Center for Victims of Torture, the Human Rights Institute of the Georgetown University Law Center, and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy delivered the keynote address.
Below are Schwartz’ remarks, as prepared for delivery:
I want to thank the Center for Victims of Torture and Georgetown University Law Center for joining with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in this important event.
As the National Security Council official who had principal responsibility for human rights issues in the Clinton Administration, during which Congress enacted implementing legislation for the Convention Against Torture, it is a particular pleasure for me to be with you today.
I want to speak about a theme that I’ve called “practicing at home what we preach abroad,” a theme that informed my own thinking, almost day-in and day-out, as both an advocate and as a government official, who has had the honor of working in the Congress, as a staff consultant to the House Foreign Affairs Committee; at the National Security Council, ultimately as senior director and special assistant to the President for Multilateral and Humanitarian Affairs; and, most recently, as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration.
I’ll talk in a moment about why that theme is so important, but whatever rationale you advance for that admonition—to practice at home what we preach abroad—it seems that the requirement to do so is even stronger if you are aspiring to be exceptional in terms of the values and traditions you and your society represent and reflect.
And, indeed, a common theme of our political leadership, and our foreign policy—really throughout our history—has been American exceptionalism, in one manner or another—typified, perhaps, by Ronald Reagan’s use of the biblical reference of a shining city on the hill, which he characterized, and I quote, as a “tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”
But exceptionalism really isn’t the province of just one foreign policy ideology.
To be sure, President Obama has indicated that just as Americans believe in American exceptionalism, British citizens probably believe in British exceptionalism and Greek citizens probably believe in Greek exceptionalism. And commentators have debated the extent of the President’s belief in American exceptionalism. But the evidence is pretty clear that while there are varying perspectives among political leaders about America’s role in the world, some concept of exceptionalism is rather broadly shared.
For instance, in articulating the rationale for the U.S. intervention in Libya, President Obama declared, and I quote, that “[f]or generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom,” and he went on to declare, and, again I quote, that “to brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and—more profoundly—our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.”
Well, if we are different in the way that the President has suggested, then practicing at home what we preach abroad becomes, it seems to me, all the more important.
It matters, first, I suppose for ethical or moral reasons—integrity, consistency of character, demands that individuals don’t ask of others that which they aren’t inclined to demand of themselves. And those demands can also be made of governments, which, after all, are run by individuals.
Of course, some might argue that the rules of international politics are not the same as the rules that govern relations among people; that if your government has the power and you can make the rules, then you can impose behaviors on other states that you might not be inclined to impose on yourself.
Putting aside any moral qualms you might have about that perspective, the problem with the approach is that it fails to recognize that American power—the capacity of the United States to exercise influence over time on issues about which we care deeply, is directly related to the perception of our integrity, and our commitment to democratic principles and values that are consistent with a rules-based international system in which the rules apply equally to all.
Ironically, perhaps, other governments are far more inclined to see the United States as an exceptional nation—a nation that is a leader; a nation that merits the support of others—not only when we avoid making that claim for ourselves—that is, when we exercise the humility that George W. Bush advocated during the 2000 Presidential campaign—but also when we decline to assert that we, because we are superpower or because we shoulder greater burdens for international peace and security, are entitled to special prerogatives that others do not enjoy.
Let me speak personally for a moment, and say again that this issue—practicing at home what we preach abroad—has been a major preoccupation for me in my service on behalf of the U.S. government—from the House of Representatives, to the White House, to the State Department, and—currently—on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
For instance, in the days leading to the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993, the incoming President’s advisors, myself included, were involved in deep discussions of Haitian migration, and—in particular—whether the incoming administration would act to reverse the policy imposed by the administration of George H.W. Bush of directly returning Haitians fleeing Haiti by boat. Under this practice, individuals were not given the opportunity to make claims for protection before they were returned to Haiti, and the practice clearly violated the spirit of the international refugee convention prohibition on forced return to a place where an individual would fear persecution. The following year, 1994, the new Administration confronted the same kind of policy challenge, when—with the acquiescence and encouragement of the Government of Cuba—thousands of Cubans began to flee the island of Cuba by boat.
In each of these cases, the Clinton administration ultimately developed imperfect solutions, but measures that were designed in large part to meet international standards. In the case of Haiti, the new administration implemented a safe haven approach in mid-1994 that provided temporary protection in Guantanamo for all Haitians fleeing Haiti by boat; and in the case of Cuba, the Administration developed, in coordination with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a screening protocol for Cubans interdicted at sea by the Coast Guard. To be sure, these measures were not ideal in terms of protection, but efforts within the government to press for more than a modicum of protection were informed by this imperative—of practicing at home what we were preaching abroad.
Put simply, I and others were deeply concerned that our diplomatic efforts around the world to press governments not to return refugees to conditions of persecution would be frustrated if those governments we were pressing could resist our admonitions by arguing that we ourselves were doing the same thing.
More recently, and despite the fact that the mandate of an Assistant Secretary of State is not a domestic one, I sought to take opportunities to enhance U.S. human rights and humanitarian practices.
For instance, if we were urging other countries to increase their capacity and willingness to resettle refugees in safety and dignity, then we were obliged not to resettle refugees into poverty; if we were pressing host governments to provide humane conditions for temporary refuge for those who are in transit, then it behooved us to ensure against prison-like conditions in our migrant facilities in Guantanamo; and if we were telling governments that they should treat asylum-seekers with dignity, then we should avoid putting asylum-seekers in shackles during court or administrative hearings.
In each of these areas, we took action—to double the size the State Department’s per capita grant for incoming refugees, to dramatically improve conditions at Guantanamo, and to engage DHS on the issue of the treatment of asylum-seekers—because it was the right thing to do, but also because we were keenly aware of our obligation to practice at home what we preach abroad.
It is obvious how this all relates to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
For many years, U.S. Presidents, U.S. Secretaries of State, U.S. diplomats and public reporting from many Administrations have taken governments to task—not only for the most egregious forms of torture, but also for practices which were authorized and/or implemented by U.S. officials in the post 9/11 period. There is considerable evidence of the significant, substantial, and adverse impact of these actions on world perceptions of the United States, which risks undermining our capacity to exercise leadership—not only on human rights issues, but on international peace and security issues generally.
As indicated by the Center for Victims of Torture and others, the President’s 2009 Executive Order on ensuring lawful interrogations, and subsequent statements and actions by the administration, sent an important signal to the international community. Its revocation of inconsistent executive directives, order and regulations; its assertion that terms like “treated humanely,” “violence to life and person,” “torture,” and other terms have the same meaning as those terms in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions; its validation of the interrogation techniques listed in the Army Field Manual; its reference to access for the International Committee of the Red Cross—all helped to articulate a reaffirmation of an American commitment to humane treatment.
But of course, the process of sustaining and strengthening our commitment to combat torture is an ongoing one, and one that includes—critically—accountability and transparency. Here again, in our preaching to other governments over past many years, we have emphasized the importance of accountability and transparency. To be sure, there have been long and involved debates on the requirements of accountability. Under what circumstances is a process of truth-telling adequate, and when it is it necessary to complement that process with one that anticipates criminal culpability for human rights abuses?
But whatever one’s perspective on that difficult issue, there is no disagreement that truth-telling is a key element in the promotion of reconciliation and justice, whether in South Africa, Argentina, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, or Liberia.
In April, Vice President Joe Biden, characteristically making the obvious and elevated point, said it best, when he noted, and I quote, “the only way you excise the demons is you acknowledge, you acknowledge exactly what happened straightforward.” The Vice President went on to say, and, again, I quote, “[t]he single best thing that ever happened to Germany were the war crimes tribunals, because it forced Germany to come to its milk about what in fact has happened… That’s why they’ve become the great democracy they’ve become.”
As most if not all of you well know, the Vice President was of course responding to a comment from Senator John McCain, who has called for the release the reportedly exhaustive Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation efforts. The Vice President’s comments indicated he supported release, though he also indicated that the Administration had not yet taken a position on the question of release.
According to the Chair of the Committee, Dianne Feinstein, “the report uncovers startling details about the CIA detention and interrogation program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight.” She went on to say that “the creation of long-term, clandestine 'black sites' and the use of so-called 'enhanced-interrogation techniques' were terrible mistakes.”
According to media sources, the report is ,6000 pages, and is based on review of some 6 million pages of documents.
Subject to appropriate redactions of information the release of which would damage national security or put people at risk, it is difficult to imagine a compelling rationale not to make the report public. Moreover, the President would serve our interests by an early declaration that he strongly supports such release.
Frankly, it’s also hard to imagine that this report, which is likely to be a—if not the—definitive historical account of the CIA interrogation effort, will not see the light of day at some point. It’s far better that the Administration is the forefront of an effort to promote accountability and transparency, rather than being perceived as acquiescing in release after much pressure is brought to bear—or, even worse—having to fashion a response after the report is leaked.
Of course, in a world in which terrorism and other threats to the United States will continue to proliferate, our resolve to protect basic human rights—even of those who pose threats to our security — will continue to be tested. It seems to me that striving to practice at home what we preach abroad is one of several crucial guideposts for policy makers and advocates. Fidelity to this principle enhances the capacity of the United States to exercised influence and leadership around the world. More importantly, perhaps, it offers the prospect for a brighter future—free of torture—for people around the world.