In a recent speech at Stanford University, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski spoke of an age-old contest: the struggle between the desire of people to be free, to be treated with dignity, and to have control over their own lives; and the fundamentally authoritarian impulse that believes ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs – the impulse that fuels the dictator’s desire to seize and cling to power.
Today the latter impulse, said Assistant Secretary Malinowski, is seen in its most extreme manifestation in ISIL, where terrorists seek to use the veneer of religious legitimacy to justify a thirst for control that includes the desire to kill, rape and subjugate.
But there are other places that reflect the authoritarian urge: Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, with its brutal reaction to the aspirations of the Arab Spring; Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where human rights organizations are now being vilified as traitors; China, where the government is lashing out at dissidents at home, and kidnapping them abroad.
But the ardent desire for people to control their own lives is also having its successes, said Mr. Malinowski:in Burma, where the people were able to cast their ballots for elected lawmakers for the first time in decades; in Sri Lanka, where the two communities that had long divided the country –- the Sinhalese and Tamils —- came together in an election to oust an authoritarian government.
The United States, with its own ideals of democracy and the rule of law, has a great stake in the battle that is being waged. So it makes great sense, Mr. Malinowski said, that we “defend people around the world who are trying peacefully to advance respect for human rights, before conflict between power and people” leads to devastating consequences; that we speak out when governments try to stifle dissent, or control the internet, or pollute their citizens’ efforts and aspirations with corruption.
“Our hopes for the world may not…be fully realized,” said Assistant Secretary Malinowski. “But the world is not falling apart. It is presenting a challenge to which we must rise. And if we keep doing so, I believe things will get better, slowly but surely.”