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Uncomfortable Bedfellows: Why Human Rights and Democracy Promotion Are Better Off Separate



Bastiaan Bouwman wrote “Uncomfortable Bedfellows: Why Human Rights and Democracy Promotion Are Better Off Separate” as part of the 2014 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship. The research essay was first published in Transatlantic Perspectives on Diplomacy and Diversity (Humanity in Action Press 2015). The complete book is available for purchase on Amazon.




In this essay I explore the hypothesis that human rights and democracy promotion are better off in separation, whereas in recent decades they have increasingly been conflated. The convergence of human rights and democracy promotion has in part been responsible for a global phenomenon of ‘pushback’ against democracy and rights assistance.

I show how human rights came about as an apolitical, minimalist project, as embodied by Amnesty International in the 1970s but has since become increasingly politicized. The increasingly close association between human rights and democracy promotion has been an important contributor in this regard, especially from the 1990s on, after the end of the Cold War. During the 2000s, the unilateral, interventionist policies of the Bush administration and the association of non-governmental organizations with military humanitarian intervention put increasing pressure on the legitimacy of both human rights and democracy promotion.

I suggest that both human rights and democracy promotion would be best served by being once again conceived of and implemented as relatively separate. I argue that policies for the protection of human rights defenders are an especially promising avenue in this regard. (1)

OVER THE PAST DECADE, A GLOBAL PHENOMENON OF ‘PUSHBACK’ AGAINST DEMOCRACY AND RIGHTS ASSISTANCE HAS EMERGED. Russia is the most high-profile example of such policies: rather than using imprisonment or exile, as was common under the Soviet Union, the state now deploys measures like laws that restrict foreign funding of NGOs, brands the NGOs as ‘foreign agents’, and harasses them with court cases and raids. Noncompliance can mean the end of an organization, as in the case of St. Petersburg human rights group ADC Memorial last April. (2)

Human rights promotion had, of course, always served to limit the scope of state sovereignty.

Such pushback, prevalent in dozens of states, was in part precipitated by the convergence of human rights and democracy promotion. As the Cold War came to an end around 1990, both human rights and democracy promotion acquired nearly unassailable moral status.

The demise of the Soviet empire symbolized the victory of democracy over totalitarianism. The spread of democracy was spectacular, first and foremost in Central and Eastern Europe, where previously authoritarian regimes turned into fledgling democracies set on a gradual trajectory toward joining the European Union. In sub-Saharan Africa, men like Yoweri Museveni, Isaias Afewerki and Paul Kagame appeared as a new kind of African leaders who could break their countries free from painful histories. In Latin America, Chile and Brazil finally overcame the military regimes that had ruled them for many years. With these transitions came improvements in the human rights situation, particularly in terms of civil and political rights, which had been abrogated by political repression. In 1999, Amartya Sen could observe that

‘While democracy is not yet universally practiced, nor indeed uniformly accepted, in the general climate of world opinion, democratic governance has now achieved the status of being taken to be generally right. The ball is very much in the court of those who want to rubbish democracy to provide justification for that rejection.’ (3)

At the level of the United Nations, the promotion of democracy was elevated to a priority status. With the Cold War over, the United Nations acquired a much stronger claim to truly represent the ‘international community’, whereas previously it had often been merely the scene for clashes between East and West. In 1991, Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar announced the promotion of democracy as a United Nations priority for the 21st century. (4) The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of 1993 strongly asserted the interdependence between democracy, development and human rights:

‘Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. (…) The international community should support the strengthening and promoting of democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the entire world.’ (5)

Combining democracy, development and human rights into one overarching project, to be implemented by a like-minded ‘international community’, suggested that state sovereignty was increasingly conditional. Although it was still considered to be primarily the responsibility of the state to increase the wellbeing of its people, international standards, formal and informal, sanctioned interference when it fell short of expectations or rejected the very standards themselves. This exacerbated what Thomas Carothers has described as the central tension underlying the phenomenon of pushback against democracy and rights assistance, that

‘between the traditional norm of sovereignty and the idea that an emergent global consensus on certain political norms, rights, and values permits action across borders to support these principles’. (6)

Human rights promotion had, of course, always served to limit the scope of state sovereignty. But it had originated as a way of merely curbing excesses of state power. It had meant to place, as it were, a ring fence around the political arena, avoiding immediate interference with the political process inside but protecting any single individual from egregious injury. (7) By conflating human rights and democracy, however, Western states made the political process itself the object of change. This represented a far greater intrusion on state sovereignty than the promotion of human rights had been.

For instance, the ‘Bulldozer Revolution’ in Serbia in 2000, which led to the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic, benefited substantially from Western assistance. Between $50 and $100 million was funneled into the country in the lead-up to the 2000 elections, in addition to more immaterial forms of assistance. The subsequent ‘color revolutions’ in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan likewise encouraged fears among authoritarian leaders that Western states intended to overturn their regimes by giving support to or mobilizing domestic activists. (8) Human rights defenders increasingly came to be seen as advance agents of the West. The response has been to clamp down on international support as well as domestic organizations.

In this essay, I outline how this convergence of human rights and democracy promotion took place, and discuss its repercussions. I should note at the outset that the purpose of this paper is not to give a comprehensive account – for instance, it omits the relationship to development cooperation, a worthwhile topic but requiring separate treatment – but rather to explore a hypothesis, namely that the project of human rights benefits from being conceived of as clearly distinct from democracy promotion. The intention is to stimulate reflection on a topic that can easily be obscured by the size of its moral stakes, ultimately in the hope that the fields of both human rights and democracy promotion might benefit.

Below, I begin by tracing the rise of human rights in the 1970s from its apolitical roots, very much bound up with the work and ethos of Amnesty International, to its becoming a matter of politics, as exemplified by the ‘Helsinki process’. In order to provide insight into both American and European approaches to human rights and democracy, I then turn first to American and second to Dutch and European Union foreign policy. (The choice of the Netherlands of course stems both from it being my home country as well as one that has a reputation for engaging in human rights and democracy promotion.) Finally, I focus on the recent rise of policies aimed specifically at protecting human rights defenders, because these represent a possible avenue through which human rights and democracy promotion might be usefully separated once again.


Amnesty International and the Rise of Human Rights in the 1970s

After the cataclysm of World War II and the Holocaust, the concept of human rights came onto the world stage. The Charter of the newly founded United Nations enshrined it, as did the 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This ‘common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations’ included a wide array of rights, from basic rights such as that to life, to civil and political rights such as freedom of expression and of religion, to economic, social and cultural rights such as the right to education and medical care. (9)

Yet while the Universal Declaration constituted a remarkable document, at the time of its promulgation it remained ineffective, as did the mention of human rights in the UN Charter. (10) As a mere declaration, it did not carry the force of international law, and the states signing it did not intend to let it undermine their sovereignty. Nor did those signatories that were still colonizing powers intend to extend these new rights to their overseas territories. The Universal Declaration did not attract popular attention, and the committee that set about drafting its legal manifestation, a process that would take until 1966, went to work in obscurity. As the Cold War set in, universalist ideals seemed far-removed from the reality of international affairs; instead of an ‘international community’ that joined forces to promote the ideal of human rights, a global clash of political and economic systems ensued.

It was only in the 1970s that a substantial ‘human rights movement’ came into being. Amnesty International was its most important representative, and perhaps also its most important driver. Its receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 signified definitive recognition of the role of international human rights organizations in international politics. The year before, two human rights Covenants had turned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into international law, and Jimmy Carter had been elected president of the United States, in part due to his championing of human rights. A number of Western states had begun to integrate human rights into their foreign policies, in response to violations under authoritarian regimes like those of Greece, Chile, and the Soviet Union. Amnesty and other groups called on citizens and governments to speak out against measures like political imprisonment, unfair trials, degrading prison conditions, torture and the death penalty, and they supported victims of repression as well as their families.

Because Amnesty was so important in shaping the human rights movement to come, I will dwell on its origins and principles. Amnesty’s charismatic founder, Peter Benenson, was torn between what might be called an inward and an outward impetus. His inward drive was one of spiritual regeneration: Amnesty would be almost a kind of ‘secular church’ in an age of rapid secularization (Benenson himself had recently converted to Catholicism, but he recognized the importance of an ecumenical approach). Furthermore, it would become a transnational movement that would unite people from across the Cold War blocs, even if only in spirit, allowing them to transcend the division symbolized by the Berlin Wall, which was erected at the same time as Amnesty was founded. His outward drive, on the other hand, was to do something about what seemed like a rising tide of repression, by coming to the aid of what he termed ‘prisoners of conscience’. By writing simple, polite letters to prisoners and to the authorities holding them, the former would know that he had not been forgotten, while the latter would know that their conduct was subject to the world’s scrutiny. (11)

This letter-writing was organized into groups called Threes: each group had to write to one prisoner from the West, one from the East, and one from the Third World. In the context of the Cold War, such a method was the only way to avoid accusations of political bias – or rather, it attracted such accusations from both sides of the political spectrum, thereby proving the point of being impartial. A similar core principle was to refrain from taking a stance on the desirability of any particular political system. Amnesty would only criticize specific violations of certain civil and political rights, without making statements about which system of government best promoted or protected such rights. To do so would have meant taking sides in the ideological confrontation of the Cold War. Amnesty represented a neutral moral force, absolute in its adherence to those human rights it had mandated itself to promote, and abstaining from all else. In order to stay aloof of the grime of politics, it refused all funding from governments, instead relying on small donations from its member base. (12)

Amnesty’s refusal to associate itself with democracy as such gives a strong indication of how human rights and democracy could be considered separate projects. Its focus on specific cases also meant that it was quite distinct from any project of democracy promotion in the sense that it was minimalist in scope. The objective was never to change the foundations and institutions of societies, but simply to ‘to make the world a slightly less wicked place’. (13) In this sense Amnesty was also not utopian, properly speaking: it did not indicate an ambition to rid the world of undemocratic regimes, much less to fully realize all human rights for everyone. Tacit in its mission was an understanding that its work was against all odds, yet that this did not diminish its value. Every prisoner freed was an end in itself.


Human Rights as Politics: The Helsinki Process

For Soviet leaders, the prize was to cement their dominion over Eastern Europe.

The integration of human rights into states’ foreign policies was the start of a process of politicization. Amnesty and other groups called for their governments to defend human rights abroad. Inevitably, this meant that the concept would become bound up with the exercise of state power. While the proponents of human rights within the foreign policy apparatus of the United States and the Netherlands were undoubtedly sincere in their desire to alleviate the suffering of victims of human rights violations, the state could never take on this issue with the impartiality of non-governmental organizations. Human rights became an important aspect of foreign policy, but they had to be weighed against other state interests such as security and economic relations. And they could themselves become a weapon in international politics.

The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and the ‘Helsinki process’ that followed it serve as the most striking example of this. The negotiations that led to it, starting in 1973, stemmed from a Soviet initiative dating back to the 1950s. The objective was to establish a security agreement that would stabilize the East-West conflict in Europe and promote cooperation between the blocs. For Soviet leaders, the prize was to cement their dominion over Eastern Europe. Aware of this, Western powers were very slow to come to the negotiation table. By the early 1970s, however, East-West relations had thawed significantly, and European leaders were prepared to negotiate. The United States, particularly its National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, was uninterested in the talks, dismissing them as mere words, of no practical consequence.

The highly complex negotiations between 35 states, lasting for two years, resulted in a document that contained an inherent tension. Its core principles included ‘inviolability of frontiers’ and ‘non-intervention in internal affairs’, but at the same time ‘respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms’ and the ‘equal rights and self-determination of peoples’ – notions that invited states to scrutinize each other’s conduct. Apart from provisions on arms control and economic and scientific cooperation, the agreement’s third ‘basket’ dealt with cooperation in ‘humanitarian and other fields’. (14) The Netherlands had pushed strongly for such provisions, recognizing that pushing for internal liberalization in and increased communication with the Warsaw Pact countries could provoke far-reaching political change. (15) Crucially, the Final Act also established a follow-up process in which the signatories were to organize major international conferences to report on their progress in implementing the agreement. These conferences would ultimately lay the basis for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

From 1975 on, a battle for the interpretation and consequences of the Final Act ensued. Under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and in no small part due to the work of a number of activist Congressmen and women, the United States about-faced and used the follow-up conferences at Belgrade, Madrid and Vienna to pillory the Soviet Union and its allies for failing to respect human rights. A transnational network of activists developed, whereby Eastern dissidents called on their leaders to live up to the promises of the Final Act, and Western activists called attention to the regimes’ usually repressive response. In the United States, with the help of a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, Helsinki Watch was founded in order to monitor this struggle; in 1988, it would become Human Rights Watch. The entering into force in 1976 of the two United Nations Covenants on human rights further strengthened the hand of activists. The historian Sarah Snyder has argued that the ‘Helsinki network’, consisting of activists but also diplomats, parliamentarians, policymakers, journalists and others, won the battle for the interpretation of the Final Act. It may even have contributed significantly to the peaceful end of the Cold War, by showing to the Soviet leadership that liberalization was imperative.(16)

The difference between the movement that the Helsinki Final Act called into being and the restricted activism of Amnesty was fundamental. Amnesty considered the Helsinki process too politicized to touch. Although it mentioned the Final Act in some of its communications, the document never played an important role. The Helsinki process, while no doubt viewed by many Amnesty members as positive, was too politically charged and too much part of the Cold War for the organization to engage with it. For many participants of the ‘Helsinki network’, on the other hand, universal respect for human rights was an ideal that could not reasonably be separated from the Cold War clash of political systems. In order for human rights to be respected, the political systems of the Eastern states would have to change. For some, especially diplomats on the Dutch and American delegations to the follow-up conferences, human rights were nothing less than a weapon for winning the Cold War. (17)

In some other ways Amnesty and other more apolitical groups were also moving closer towards embracing democracy promotion. From the 1970s on, human rights became increasingly institutionalized not only in state foreign policies but also in international law. As mentioned, in 1976 the two UN Covenants turned the Universal Declaration into binding agreements. In 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was ratified; in 1984, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and in 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Increasingly, therefore, there emerged what might be called an ‘international human rights regime’, which demanded that states adapt their legislation so as to meet international legal criteria. The scope of international demands to respect and protect human rights had increased significantly from its initial focus on political prisoners, toward more structural adjustments in terms of law and institutions.

The Convergence of Human Rights and Democracy Promotion: The United States, the Netherlands, and the European Union

The United States

Gershman contended that it was time to now fully affirm the ‘complementary and mutually reinforcing relationship between democracy and human rights’. (19)

In a 1988 speech, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Carl Gershman, noted, with disapproval, the existence of

‘a certain skepticism in the human rights community toward efforts to promote democracy abroad, a skepticism based on the view that human rights activists should steer clear of the whole question of political democracy and devote themselves instead to maintaining human rights norms without regard to the kind of political system that may prevail in a particular country’. (18)

According to Gershman, this skepticism stemmed from three notions: the idea ‘that democracy is a Western idea’, pessimism in the face of forces that opposed democracy, and a desire to ‘escape from the ideological clash between democracy and totalitarianism’. With the end of the Cold War on the horizon and democracy newly taking root in a number of countries, Gershman contended that it was time to now fully affirm the ‘complementary and mutually reinforcing relationship between democracy and human rights’. (19)

The NED embodied the project of democracy promotion, related to human rights but also distinct from it, as it had arisen in the United States during the 1980s. Existing programs by the German Federal Republic’s party institutes, which were involved in the political transitions in Spain and Portugal in the mid-1970s, provided an important inspiration. (20) At Westminster in 1982, President Reagan spoke of a ‘global campaign for democracy now gathering force’, to which the United States ought to contribute. The NED was subsequently established in 1983 as non-governmental but funded primarily by Congress, and began distributing grants to ‘encourage free and democratic institutions throughout the world through private-sector initiatives’, among other activities. (21)

The organization was based on the premise that supporting democracy abroad would serve both U.S. interests and help those who struggled for self-government and freedom. (22) Until the 1990s, it remained much smaller than originally intended, due to Congressional opposition that led to a sharp decrease in appropriations – in 1984 the House of Representatives even passed a resolution to deprive the NED of funding altogether, but a similar attempt failed in the Senate. Yet even with limited funds, the organization undertook important work, for instance with regard to Poland’s ‘Solidarity’ movement. As a non-governmental organization, it had the advantage of being relatively non-bureaucratic (compared to USAID and the State Department). Also, it was less exposed to the vagaries of changing policy debates and priorities, not to mention electoral concerns. Moreover, the NED was in the position to claim – even if it was by no means always taken to be sincere – separation from the security and economic interests of the United States.

In 1993, President Clinton stated: ‘During the cold war we sought to contain a threat to the survival of free institutions. Now we seek to enlarge the circle of nations that live under those free institutions.’ (23) Thus, he went as far as to put the promotion of democracy forward as the next American ‘grand strategy’: ‘the successor to a doctrine of containment’. (24) The Clinton administration sought to affect this strategy principally through USAID.  Reagan’s push for democracy had already led to the establishment of a democracy assistance office within USAID’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean in 1985. This bureau had a budget of several dozen million dollars per year to spend on programs focused on ‘human rights and democratic participation, rule of law reforms, and elections’. (25) In 1990, under President George H.W. Bush, USAID had launched its Democracy Initiative. The appointment by the Clinton administration of democracy promotion veteran J. Brian Atwood as head of USAID in 1993 further accelerated the agency’s work in this area. Spending on democracy promotion increased from $165 million in 1991 to $635 million in 1999. The four priorities of the organization in this field were rule of law, governance, civil society, and elections and political processes. Rule of law included the protection of rights. (26) USAID thus became an important player in the field of human rights, as part of its work on democratization.

Under the Bush administration, however, USAID was often neglected in favor of the State Department, as it was seen to be populated by well-meaning but ineffective bureaucrats. USAID’s Center for Democracy and Governance was moved down the ladder of internal institutional hierarchy. In 1998, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor had created a Human Rights and Democracy Fund, and in 2006, a reorganization placed USAID more directly under the State Department’s direction. (27) The Bureau received increasing amounts of funding, as did the newly established Middle East Partnership Initiative. (28) The Bureau’s funding grew from $7.82 million in 1998 to its peak at $320 million in 2007. (29)

Most importantly, under the Bush administration democratization turned from a low-key undertaking into a matter of high policy, intertwined with national security and even geopolitics. In response to the attacks of 9/11, the United States launched its invasion of Afghanistan, and, less than two years later, also invaded Iraq. Neither invasion could count on widespread legitimacy and solid grounding in international law, particularly in the case of Iraq, signaling a willingness of the United States to act unilaterally. While it remains controversial what role the desire to turn Iraq into a democracy had in making the decision to invade, this stated intention soon became an important justification for the war. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, efforts to promote democracy were – eventually – launched on a massive scale in an effort to turn both into viable and pro-Western states. In the mid-2000s, roughly half of the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor’s budget for democracy promotion was spent in Iraq alone. (30)

The ‘Freedom Agenda’ that the administration put forward had the spread of democracy at its core: ‘It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.’ (31) The extent to which this doctrine was tied to the promotion of U.S. national interests, however, especially glaring in the case of the invasion of Iraq, did a great deal of damage to the credibility of American democracy promotion in general. The United States’ willingness to undertake action unilaterally, punctuated by its 2002 refusal to participate in the newly founded International Criminal Court, indicated a break with what had by and large been a global shift towards the establishment of a more forceful international legal order. Its ‘trampling of the rule of law in its antiterrorist pursuits’ did ‘grievous, even devastating harm to America’s status as a promoter of democracy and human rights in the world’. (32) Counter-terrorism measures could even have a direct negative impact on civil society organizations working for objectives aligned with U.S. national interests. (33) And the outcome of the democratic ‘experiment’ in Iraq did little or nothing to justify the expenditure of human lives and resources.

One response to the Iraq war at the United Nations level was the affirmation of the Responsibility to Protect. The UN embraced this doctrine in part in order to reassert its own centrality in matters of humanitarian intervention. It served as a counterweight to the unilateralism that had been displayed by the Bush administration, and could help solidify the Security Council’s position as the decision-making body on whether to take military action in the name of freedom or human rights. American liberals, on their part, subsequently embraced the concept as part of their effort to put the United States on a more multilateral course. (34) Yet although it represented a wider consensus than American interventionism, the Responsibility to Protect remained contentious. In the case of Libya, for instance, this doctrine was seen by many, especially outside of the West, as a thinly veiled excuse for the advancement of Western geopolitical interests. Thus, although the doctrine in a sense brought humanitarian intervention back into the fold of multilateral cooperation and international law, it could not efface the association between democracy promotion, human rights, and Western power politics.

This association was regarded by many with all the more worry because of the extent to which non-governmental organizations could tacitly and even explicitly endorse military intervention, a development that the Responsibility to Protect helped to enable. For instance, in the case of Libya, global civil society coalition CIVICUS called for ‘appropriate non-military and military action to restore peace and security for the people of Libya’. (35) Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth made statements that implicitly called for military action. And after the intervention, its Washington Director Tom Malinowski wrote an op-ed in The New Republic that hailed this ‘most rapid multinational military response to an impending human rights crisis in history’, for which ‘we should be grateful’. (36) When, around the same time, human rights violations intensified in Ivory Coast, one of the organization’s researchers publicly put up the intervention in Libya as an example: ‘Ivory Coast deserves nothing less than the type of unified and decisive action the U.N. Security Council has brought to bear on Libya.’ (37)

Such support for intervention gave rise to fears about Human Rights Watch’s close connection to the American foreign-policy establishment (which, given its origins as Helsinki Watch, had of course always lingered). The alleged ‘revolving door’ relationship between the two was sharply criticized in a letter signed by Nobel Peace Prize laureates Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Mairead Maguire and over 100 other human rights practitioners and scholars. (38) The authors called the organization’s independence into question, for instance pointing to Malinowski’s leaving in 2013 to become Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor, and researcher Nik Steinberg’s move to the office of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. (39)

Human Rights Watch firmly dismissed such accusations, but even the fact that these questions were being asked with such vehemence signaled a worrying trend of declining credibility of the non-governmental sector. While the establishment over decades of a network of policymakers and others who were deeply involved in human rights matters was a success for non-governmental organizations, the fact that human rights had become enmeshed in politics at large meant a fundamental shift away from its apolitical roots of the 1960s and 1970s, generating fundamental questions about the concept’s moral authority.

Under the Obama administration, on the one hand advances were made to restore the legitimacy of American human rights and democracy promotion, while on the other hand serious issues persisted or arose. The president’s more diplomatic and scholarly style restored some of the respect that his predecessor had lost. Winding down its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan helped to alleviate some of the immediate causes for anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and beyond, although the United States’ unflinching support of Israel remained a source of great scorn. Obama’s promise to close the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay raised hope, but his failure to make good on this weighed down the moral momentum that had accompanied his election. The controversial program of drone strikes, initiated under Bush but greatly expanded by his successor, sparked concerns over civilian deaths as well as possible violations of the U.S. constitution and international law. At the same time, disclosures about the surveillance and intelligence-gathering programs of the National Security Agency aroused fears of the abrogation of privacy and other civil and political rights. All in all, the Obama administration’s foreign policy was not characterized by great attention to issues of human rights, and the president’s infrequent use of the phrase – perhaps due to the connotations that the previous administration had burdened it with – demonstrated that his priorities lay elsewhere.

The Obama administration did, however, continue existing programs for rights and democracy assistance, and the president himself worked to draw attention to pressure on non-governmental organizations. Speaking in September 2014, President Obama emphasized the importance of supporting civil society organizations under threat and announced that the United States government as a whole, not just the State Department and USAID, would seek to partner with civil society organizations as much as possible. In response to the recent ‘crackdown on civil society’, ‘the United States will not stop speaking out for the human rights of all people, and pushing governments to uphold those rights and freedoms’. (40) By hosting a yearly event the topic on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, Obama signaled a new American willingness to undertake action multilaterally and in cooperation with non-state actors.

The Netherlands and the European Union

Coming to power in the Netherlands 1994, the Kok government emphasized a focus on European integration, to which the 1992 Maastricht Treaty had given a major impulse, and on contributing to the international legal order. A relatively small country dependent on international trade and commerce, the Netherlands was (and continues to be) one of the few countries that have actually enshrined commitment to furthering the international legal order in its constitution, doing so in 1982. Article 90 thereof states: ‘The Government shall promote the development of the international legal order.’ (41) The city of The Hague served as the country’s crown jewel in this respect, with the United Nation’s International Court of Justice being joined by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court. Work to further the international legal order took place through the European Union, but the Netherlands also continued to play an active role at the United Nations. By leveraging its diplomatic clout, the Netherlands might move such multilateral institutions and their members into the desired direction.

Later on during the 1990s, human rights became a less salient element of Dutch foreign policy. This was caused, in part, by the general ‘de-ideologizing’ (verzakelijking) of foreign policy, but on the other hand also by the attention that was given to peace missions and humanitarian intervention. Indeed, the Netherlands was eager to participate in such operations during the 1990s, a national point of pride that was tarnished when Dutch troops under United Nations command failed to prevent the largest massacre in Europe since World War II, at Srebrenica in 1995. Dutch enthusiasm to participate in such missions was, however, only momentarily chilled.

A very different reason for the decrease in visibility of human rights work in Dutch foreign policy was the increased demand for creating common positions among the European Union member states. This process was necessarily aimed at compromise and therefore reduced the space for autonomous action. (42) Through the European Union, however, the Netherlands did play an active role regarding both human rights and democracy promotion. In 1994, the European Parliament moved to pull together the Commission’s budget headings for human rights, democratization and conflict prevention by creating the European Initiative (now labeled a European Instrument) for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), which served as a grant-making body. EIDHR signified a major step in the convergence of human rights and democracy promotion in European foreign policy, including that of the Netherlands.

The desire for such convergence between human rights and democracy promotion not only followed from beliefs about the interdependency and even positive relationship between the two, but also reflected the search for a foundation for Europe’s new common foreign policy. The November 1993 Treaty on European Union stated that the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy should have as one of its objectives ‘the development and consolidation of “democracy and the rule of law, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”’. The Treaty of Amsterdam (1999) affirmed that these were the principles upon which the union between the member states was based. (43)

This constituted a shift from the late 1980s that can be observed in the changes that the European Commission’s Human Rights Working Group (COHOM) underwent. COHOM had been established in 1987, on the initiative of the Netherlands, among others. At that time, it had a reactive approach to its work; it would engage in ‘[d]iscussion and submission of recommendations to the Political Committee on general guidelines for common reactions to actual or predictable violations of human rights’, ‘[c]o-ordination of positions of the Twelve [member states] on human rights issues likely to arise within all relevant international fora’, and so on. By its extension in 1999, however, the linkage between human rights and democratization was very explicit: the Declaration of the EU on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights spoke of ‘the field of human rights and democratisation’ and expanded COHOM’s mandate to include, inter alia, that it would ‘foster the development and consolidation of democracy and the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in third countries’. (44)

In the first decade of the 21st century, European strategy focused more on security, yet it placed this concern within a broader perspective. Its 2003 European Security Strategy revolved around a ‘comprehensive approach’, in which global public goods, such as physical security, economic prosperity, political participation and social welfare were central. Unequal access to such goods was seen to breed instability, and therefore such access needed to be improved as much as possible. This differed from the American approach in that it did not subsume all other categories under the end of attaining security, thereby avoiding the ‘securitization’ that had affected American foreign policy. Furthermore, the European strategy had a greater focus on prevention and multilateral efforts. (45)

In 2000 the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy was founded – the closest thing to a national democracy-promoting institution such as NED. This was a joint endeavor of seven Dutch political parties, who wanted to support their counterparts abroad. The pluralist background of the Institute itself helped in its mission to ‘assist political parties in new and developing democracies and to deepen and sustain young political systems’. (46) One of its tools, for instance, was to set up and facilitate ‘inter-party dialogue platforms’, bringing together the leadership of both ruling and opposition parties. Coming from the Dutch multiparty landscape that necessitates coalitions and compromises among numerous parties instead of a polarized competition between only two, the organization was well-placed to take such initiatives. (47)

The character of Dutch human rights policy in the 2000s relied more on the ministers of foreign affairs who designed and implemented it than on the governments that they were part of. Ben Bot (2003-2007) did not closely identify with human rights ideals, but his successor and fellow party member Maxime Verhagen (2007-2010) made these a priority, frequently speaking out on the issue and contacting human rights organizations on his visits abroad. Verhagen’s strategy for human rights was grounded in the moral and constitutional obligation to further the international legal order: ‘Without rules, the world is not viable.’ (48) In passing, it recognized the relationship between human rights and democracy, the former representing the fundamental values upon which the latter was based. Human rights, however, were clearly attributed fundamental importance of their own, and democratization did not play a role of any significance in the strategy. Nor was democratization a substantial part of other aspects of foreign policy, except through the abovementioned EU instruments.

After a less proactive human rights policy under Uri Rosenthal (2010-2012), Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans again emphatically identified himself with the cause of human rights (2012-present). An important innovation on his part was ‘trilateral cooperation’, meaning that the Netherlands would seek out a regional partner to help it address a situation in a third country. Apart from enhancing credibility, this had the advantage of turning the partner into a regional promoter of human rights, a role it would then hopefully continue to play. (49) In addition to the EU and the UN, the document mentioned a number of international fora through which it endeavored to promote human rights. At least two of these were very clearly related to democracy promotion: the Community of Democracies, an intergovernmental organization founded in 2000 to bring governments, civil society and private sector together in promoting democracy, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which among other activities carried out a great deal of work monitoring elections. (50) The policy note called human rights ‘the basis for free and open societies all over the world’, but also noted that democracy could result in human rights violations, as in several newly democratic Arab countries. Yet it contended that ‘our efforts should focus on a comprehensive drive towards human rights, democracy and the rule of law’. (51)


Protecting Human Rights Defenders

The specter that the convergence of human rights and democracy promotion raises is that Western states have established a universal blueprint for what societies should look like, and that they now aim to reform the world in their image – through soft power and international law as much as possible, but even through hard power if necessary. While this suspicion may be exaggerated, the stated universality of human rights and democracy leaves no doubt that their spread is, in principle, an objective of Western governments, even though it is bounded by other, competing interests. It is hard to imagine this objective ever being achieved, but as stated above, the notion that Western actors are pursuing it certainly vexes authoritarian regimes. It also disturbs many, especially in the non-West, who doubt the sincerity of the stated intentions for rights and democracy assistance, and who feel that interference in their national polities diminishes their ability to determine their own future.

Some of those objections might of course be disingenuous – the product of government propaganda or self-serving logic. Yet it would be short-sighed to assume that all of them are, as there are good reasons for being skeptical of rights and democracy promotion. As indicated above, recent interventions in the name of human rights and democracy as well as human rights violations on the part of countries that are supposed champions of universal morality have dealt a real blow to Western legitimacy. And crucially, the more that human rights and democracy promotion have been amalgamated and expanded into a comprehensive approach to building better societies, the more this threatens to stifle, rather than encourage, political debate in countries in question. As the historian Samuel Moyn has put it, for the purpose of opposing a regime the ‘fiction of moral consensus’ may be useful, but ‘construction requires political dissensus’. (52) The more extensive and concrete human rights and democracy promotion become, the more they risk preempting debate on the contentious political choices that need to be made, such as the makeup of political institutions or arrangements for social justice.

An area that may have the potential to steer human rights and democracy promotion around these objections is the protection and assistance of human rights defenders and their organizations. Human rights defenders represent, in principle, endogenous change. Although support for them may well have broader goals in mind, as long as supporting actors guard against selectivity in terms of recipients and use a wide-ranging definition of what constitutes a human rights defender, they have a strong claim to impartiality.

Human rights defenders began receiving serious attention as a category of their own about a decade and a half ago. In 1998, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted its ‘Declaration on Human Rights Defenders’, a document that had been in production since 1984. In large part, its adoption was spurred by worries over the plight of human rights defenders in countries that had recently become democracies but now seemed to be receding into authoritarianism. By 1997, ‘what enthusiasts at the start of the decade were calling “the worldwide democratic revolution”’ had ‘cooled considerably’. (53) Many new democracies became ‘hybrid regimes’ that had some features of democracies – such as elections – and some of authoritarian rule – such as concentration of power. In 2003, a UN expert noted that of the 81 countries that had democratized during the 1980s and 1990s, only 47 were now considered ‘fully democratic’, while problems persisted in the remaining 34. (54)

Human rights defenders – a term generally taken to extend not only to human rights professionals but to anyone taking action in defense of any human right – as a category became subject to new measures designed to suppress their activities. Especially from the mid-2000s, countries like Russia, Ethiopia and Venezuela developed new legal and other measures to stifle civil society, in part because the ‘color revolutions’ and the Arab Spring demonstrated just how dangerous civil society could be, in particular with the onset of new communications technologies. (55) They specifically targeted international rights and democracy assistance by cutting domestic organizations off from foreign funding and forcing international organizations to register as ‘foreign agents’, among other measures.

Since it was felt that existing mechanisms did not offer the means to counter such policies, the United Nations, states and non-governmental organizations began taking measures to protect human rights defenders. (56) In 2000, a UN Special Rapporteur was appointed to deal with the issue. In 2006, the U.S. State Department established a Human Rights Defenders Fund. The 2007 Dutch human rights strategy prominently featured human rights defenders, as did the strategies that followed it. In 2008, the European Union adopted special Guidelines to instruct member states on how they could best protect and assist human rights defenders. As mentioned above, in 2013 President Obama headed an initiative at the United Nations to counter the closing of space for civil society organizations.

Dutch policy has aimed to safeguard above all the physical safety of human rights defenders and to free them from intimidation. This has taken the form, for instance, of the Shelter City project, which allows the relocation of human rights defenders under threat to the Netherlands for a period of three months. (57) In order to preserve its political independence, the ministry limits its involvement to co-funding, opting to have the non-governmental organization Justice and Peace Netherlands execute the project. The selection of participants takes place on the recommendation of an advisory committee in which the ministry has one of the four seats, but Justice and Peace none. During its first year of operation, four human rights defenders participated in the program, and it was set to be ramped up in subsequent years. In 2012, a consultancy firm hired by the European Commission found that across the 27 member states of the European Union, there existed close to 200 temporary shelter places per year. (58)

The U.S. State Department co-founded a similar initiative in 2011, called the Lifeline: Embattled Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) Assistance Fund, a multilateral mechanism supported by eleven (now seventeen) like-minded governments, including the Netherlands, and two major American foundations as funders, and a consortium of seven non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to execute the project. In addition to providing emergency support, including funds for relocation and security assistance, the fund supports short-term advocacy efforts to raise attention to violations of the freedom of association and assembly. The activities of the fund are carried out by the NGO consortium, a decision made by the donors to depoliticize the assistance provided through the fund, which reports on activities and outcomes to the donors each quarter. Carrying out the activities through the NGO consortium ensures the global scope of activities, while the inclusion of countries such as Chile and Mongolia shows the wide extent of diplomatic support for the work of Lifeline. (59) By its latest tally, the Lifeline fund had provided assistance to 446 civil society organizations in 85 countries. (60)



In the post-Cold War era, human rights and democracy promotion have become increasingly interwoven. In terms of human rights promotion, the Netherlands, both in rhetoric and in practice, has clearly steered a more reticent course than the United States; perhaps not coincidentally, the country is home to one of the largest national sections of Amnesty International. Nevertheless, in Dutch foreign policy, too, human rights promotion has to some extent become interwoven with promoting democracy. The formulation of European foreign policy has exerted a strong pull in this direction and will continue to do so.

The crackdown that human rights defenders have experienced since the late 1990s and especially since the mid-2000s was, in part, a response precisely to the amalgamation of human rights and democracy promotion into an increasingly far-reaching project on the part of Western states. As sovereignty has become more and more conditional on compliance with the values and norms of human rights and democracy, states disputing those international standards have pushed back against international rights and democracy assistance as well as domestic individuals and organizations representing these causes. While to a significant extent this was a matter of authoritarian leaders striving to maintain power, the widening of the agenda of human rights and democracy promotion and especially its deployment as a justification for military interventions also generated legitimate objections. The association of human rights with democracy promotion has politicized the former, and their association with war has done substantial damage to the legitimacy of both concepts.

Measures to protect human rights defenders have largely been a response to the challenge of crackdown by authoritarian regimes. Yet it might be in precisely this area that the promotion of human rights might reclaim its relatively apolitical status. The minimalism of policies that protect human rights defenders – aiming simply to keep endogenous voices for change from being silenced – gives them greater legitimacy than more ambitious forms of human rights and democracy promotion. Insofar as these specific policies have become a priority, they signal a return to a less politicized way of promoting human rights, more in line with the original ethos of Amnesty International than with the zeal of the NED. This could provide a way in which to separate human rights and democracy promotion from each other once again, for the betterment of both.

Policies aimed at protecting human rights defenders must be reconciled with the legacy of Western states elevating civil and political rights over social, economic and cultural rights – to an important extent a legacy of the Cold War. The phrase ‘human rights defender’ in effect leads to a just such a focus on a set of civil and political rights, such as the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to freedom of association, and the right to protest. Since the end of the Cold War, however, Western states have subscribed to the indivisibility and interdependency of human rights. (61) Amnesty has embraced the full spectrum of human rights. Nevertheless, a tendency to focus on civil and political rights has persisted.

It is, then, all the more important to ensure that the individual human rights defenders that states focus their efforts on are engaged in furthering not only civil and political rights, but also social, economic and cultural rights. These rights may not resonate as strongly among the Western public, but are widely affirmed as equal in importance. Moreover, aiding human rights defenders in raising an issue like land rights will help to counter the notion that Western rights and democracy assistance goes hand in hand with the promotion of corporate interests that hurt local populations. For instance, by aiding activists who work against expropriation of local farmers, Western actors can prove that their concern extends across the full array of human rights. UN Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya provided an important impetus in this direction in her 2012 report, which noted ‘Defenders working on land and environmental issues’ as one of the most at-risk groups of human rights defenders and called for their protection. (62)

Furthermore, as the examples in the previous section show, the legitimacy of human rights as well as democracy promotion can be improved by reaching out in new ways. Policies to protect human rights defenders are now increasingly the work of coalitions, not only of states but also of non-governmental organizations, municipalities, and even corporations. Heavier investment in international non-governmental organizations stands as a possible way for states to enact policies that enjoy greater legitimacy. In this way states can avoid direct ties with organizations in countries with authoritarian governments. The NED’s Gershman noted in 2008 that ‘[i]t is appropriate for the U.S. to seek the democratic transformation of states that foster extremism, but linking official U.S. policy and diplomacy so closely to this effort has a number of serious drawbacks.’ (63) For instance, because of their permanent engagement through bilateral relationships, states can never claim the impartiality of non-governmental organizations, nor can they single-mindedly pursue democratization or human rights. Cooperating with other actors will not placate those who class all rights and assistance activities as foreign interference, but it does help to show the breadth of support for these areas. The Dutch government’s innovation of trilateral cooperation is a particularly promising instrument in this regard, as it draws on the legitimacy and expertise of regional partners.

Projects like Shelter City and Lifeline stand as important case-studies for the further development of a more network-based, multilateral and indirect approach – and similar projects are underway, not only in the West, but also locally and regionally, for instance the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project. A corollary of focusing in this area is to keep shifting the ultimate emphasis as much as possible to local partners. This applies to human rights promotion but also to processes of democratization that may of course be enabled by it. As a 2008 report by the Overseas Development Institute noted, ‘[t]he impetus for democratisation must come from within’. (64) This is so not only for the sake of efficacy, but also for the sake of legitimacy (which are, of course, interrelated, since a project viewed as illegitimate will be more vulnerable to countervailing forces). Herein lies, perhaps, the greatest challenge for human rights promotion as a state-initiated project: to succeed in the long term, as a manifestation of a truly universal desire for dignity, it must seriously engage with local partners and allow them to not only use the resources that assistance affords to their needs, but also to contribute to setting the agenda. This means returning to the ethos of human rights as an apolitical project, aimed at countering repression and thereby empowering people to realize their ambitions as autonomously as possible.


•     •     •


Bouwman, Bastiaan. “Uncomfortable Bedfellows: Why Human Rights and Democracy Promotion Are Better Off Separate.” In Transatlantic Perspectives on Diplomacy and Diversity, edited by Anthony Chase, 97-115. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2015.


  1. I would like to extend my warm gratitude to the interviewees for their time, as well as to Meline Arakelian, Lotte Akkerman, Lammert de Jong, and Lester Ramsey for their comments on an earlier version of this article. Jake Nelson, Sørine Rasmussen, and Terrol Graham provided helpful remarks early on.
  2. Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, ‘Justice Ministry Shuts Down St. Pete Rights Group’ The Moscow Times (April 25 2014),
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  8. Carothers and Brechenmacher, Closing Space, 24. See also Anthony H. Cordesman, Russia and the “Color Revolution”: A Russian Military View of a World Destabilized by the US and the West (Washington, DC 2014).
  9. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948),
  10. Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA 2010).
  11. Tom Buchanan, ‘The truth will set you free. The making of Amnesty International’ Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 37 No. 4 (2002) 575-597.
  12. Stephen Hopgood, Keepers of the flame. Understanding Amnesty International (Ithaca, NY 2006).
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  19. Gershman, ‘Democracy’, 6.
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  23. ‘Address by Bill Clinton to the UN General Assembly’ (27 September 1993),
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  27. Carothers, Revitalizing, 20.
  28. Carothers, Revitalizing, 11-2.
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  30. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, ‘Human Rights & Democracy Fund’,
  31. Quoted in Carothers, U.S. Democracy Promotion During and After Bush (Washington, DC 2007) 3.
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  34. Mark Mazower, Governing the World. The History of an Idea (London et. al. 2012) 389-391.
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  36. Tom Malinowski, ‘The Speed Paradox’ The New Republic (27 March 2011),
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  39. ‘Nobel Peace Laureats Slam Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth for Refusal to Cut Ties to U.S. Government’ (11 July 2014),
  40. White House, ‘Obama at Clinton Global Initiative on Value of Civil Society’ (23 September 2014),
  41. The Constitution of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (The Hague 2008) 22.
  42. Peter R. Baehr, Monique C. Castermans-Holleman and Fred Grünfeld, Human Rights in the Foreign Policy of the Netherlands (Antwerp 2002), quoted in Duco Hellema, Nederland in de wereld: De buitenlandse politiek van Nederland [The Netherlands in the World: The foreign policy of the Netherlands] (Houten 2010) 435-6.
  43. European Commission, Furthering Human Rights and Democracy Across the Globe (2007) 6.
  44. ‘The 1987 COHOM Mandate’,
  45. Sven Biscop, ‘De Europese Unie en democratisering: ambities en dilemma’s’ [‘The European Union and Democratization: Ambitions and Dilemma’s’], in: Hans Groen and Ernst John Kaars Sijpesteijn, ed., De slag om globale democratie [The Battle for Global Democracy] (2006) 106-7.
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  50. Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Human Rights Policy, 25, 43.
  51. Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Human Rights Policy, 8.
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  55. Carothers and Brechenmacher, Closing Space.
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  57. Full disclosure: I interned with Justice and Peace, working on the Shelter City project from February to June 2014.
  58. GHK Consulting, Mapping of temporary shelter initiatives for Human Rights Defenders in danger in and outside the EU (London 2012) 2.
  59. Interview with Carolyn Zander, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 19 June 2014.
  60. U.S. State Department, ‘Joint Statement on Embattled Civil Society Organizations Fund’ (25 September 2014),
  61. United Nations Population Fund, ‘Human Rights’,
  62. UN Human Rights Council, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya’ (21 December 2011) A/HRC/19/55, 20,
  63. Carl Gershman, ‘Remarks at Pew-Hudson Forum on Democracy Promotion’ (Washington DC, 10 December 2008).
  64. Overseas Development Institute, Assessing International Democracy Assistance: Key Lessons and Challenges (London 2008) 2.