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Op-Ed: Human Rights Are The Highest Form Of Realism

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By John McCain

Two decades ago on Monday, the world watched in awe as Germans poured by the millions into the streets of Berlin, both east and west. They tore down one of history's great monuments of human enslavement, and in so doing, the German people not only reunited with their fellow brothers and sisters after 28 painful years apart; they also gave birth to the promise of a Europe whole, free and at peace.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of communism that followed, was the work of many hands, eastern and western, European and American, soldiers and statesmen. But perhaps the most profound blow against totalitarianism was struck by an idea: the universal appeal of human rights -- life and liberty, the protection of property, and rule by the consent of the governed. The west's support for these values, and for all who kept faith with them behind the Iron Curtain, helped to win the cold war, and 20 years later, there is much we can learn from this experience.

Most important is this: governments that embody human rights must champion them in their foreign policies -- in all places, for all peoples and at all times. This is not just the right thing to do; it marks a higher form of realism. The character of regimes cannot be divorced from their behaviour. Governments that abuse and lie to their own people will likely do the same to us, or worse. Conversely, states that respect the rights of their citizens are more apt to play a peaceful role in the world. For reasons of basic self-interest, then, we must lead the long, patient effort to shape a world in which human rights are more secure for more people.

There will of course be times when we supporters of human rights will fall short of our own high standards. But in those times, our true friends will demand better of us and we will change course. What matters most is that we remain confident in our principles, mindful that they are not ours alone, and supportive of all who aspire to them. This means that the US and our allies must always align ourselves on the right side of history -- with the oppressed, not their oppressors.

We should certainly respect the wishes of dissidents who do not desire our support. But when demonstrators call on us by name, plea for our assistance and write their banners of protest in English, this is a good sign that they want our help. We owe it to them. When brave citizens peacefully appeal for their rights, we must encourage them to endure. When they are seized and thrown in prison, we must call and work for their release. And when they face violence and intimidation, we must condemn it and remind the perpetrators that their crimes will not be forgotten.

This is not to say that we should refuse to engage with human rights abusers when it is in our interest to do so. The world is not that simple, and we may need to deal at times with some pretty bad actors. But we should never pay for that pleasure by silencing our criticisms of how they treat their own people. Indeed, it is morally incumbent upon us to speak out for human rights in those situations -- for it shows oppressed citizens that, even as we negotiate with their jailers, we have not forgotten or forsaken them. It shows that we know whose side we are really on.

I think of former US president Ronald Reagan. He was always willing to engage and negotiate with the Soviets when it would advance our interests. But at the same time, he told the Soviets their empire would end up on the ash heap of history. He told Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet president, to tear down that awful wall. He used engagement as another opportunity to demand better treatment for the captives of communism. And when Reagan did temper his public criticisms of Soviet behaviour, it was in response to real progress on their part, not in exchange for engagement itself.

The fall of the Berlin Wall made history, but that history was made by countless men and women over many decades who longed for a world in which their rights would be protected too. Those impatient dreamers are still out there today, in Iran and Cuba, Zimbabwe and Burma and beyond. States like these, hostile to human dignity, may look stable, but they are actually rotting inside -- for they have only fear and force to sustain them, and people will not be afraid forever.

The writer is senator for Arizona and the former Republican party presidential candidate in 2008


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