Tuesday, April 13, 2010
In commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum designated Stories of Freedom: What You Do Matters as the theme for Days of Remembrance 2010. Among the events the Museum held was an interview conducted by Sara Bloomfield, Director of the Museum, with Assistant Secretary of State Mike Posner. Posner addressed the challenges of fighting antisemitism and responding to genocide today. Assistant Secretary Posner complimented the work of the Genocide Prevention Task Force, which the Museum helped convene, and discussed progress that the Obama Administration has made in implementing the recommendations of the Task Force report.
Fred Zeidman: I’m Fred Zeidman, Chairman of the museum. We are starting slightly early, and I will apologize, but I insisted that I welcome everybody to my bar mitzvah weekend. So I want to thank everyone for being here. This is truly going, having nothing to do with me. I believe in the nine years that I’ve been here the most exciting and truly monumental experience that we have had.
Primarily because this year we are honoring the liberators. And if I may ask the liberators who are here to stand up. [Applause] I hope you’re in good shape, you’re going to be doing a lot of that over the next two days. But let me tell you, as you well now, none of this would be going on if it were not for you. And we do honor you. We have such an incredible sense of gratitude for what you did for this country and thank you.
And we started earlier because I have to be up on the Hill in about 20 minutes and I know there’s traffic out. So I just, I really wanted to welcome everyone here tonight. I want to thank you for being here. We have a jam packed incredible program only, again, to be topped off by the last time we will, of the many times we’re going to honor the liberators over the next three days, at today’s Remembrance Ceremony.
So please catch your breath, be ready for a lot of action over the next three days. And Sara, I don’t know if I now turn this over to you. We all know who makes this museum what it is today, and that is Sara Bloomfield, and her incredible staff. So I’m also honored as always to thank Sara for the incredible job she does in leading this museum, and turn the program over to her. Thank all of you, and I will see you in the morning.
Sara Bloomfield: Fred, I just now, with all the liberators here, I want to be called Supreme Allied Commander. Anyway, special welcome to all of you, thank you for coming, for what we hope will be a few days of really a lot of learning, a lot of laughing, some crying together, and celebration and commemoration. We’re delighted to have tonight a good friend of our museum and a personal friend of mine, Mike Posner.
Mike is the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. He was appointed to that position I believe last September. Before that, for 30 years he was a leader of one of the most prominent human rights organizations, Human Rights First. And among his many accomplishments, Mike played a leading role in having the first U.S. law providing asylum to political refugees passed.
And had such a law been in place during the Holocaust, well who knows. I mean, it would have made a dramatic difference, would have saved a lot of lives. Mike has a law degree from Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in our favorite subject which is history. And I’d just also like to introduce, we have another special guest tonight, Hannah Rosenthal, who is the State Department Special Envoy for Anti-Semitism.
Hannah is here in the front row and she’ll be here with us for the evening if you’d like to meet with her later. Just want to mention that Hannah lost her grandparents and many members of her family at Auschwitz so the work of the museum is particularly significant to her. So Mike, you have a very big title. It’s kind of a little bit of a mouthful, yes. And I’m curious if you would talk a little bit about what is your role at the State Department, where you fit into the structure, what do you do, what kinds of things are you responsible for? Like are you responsible for the Human Rights Report?
Mike Posner: First of all I should say I’m thrilled to be here and honored to be here. This is a really important piece of our work is education and public education. We do the Human Rights Reports every year. This was the 34th year the State Department’s done the report. We reported on 194 countries in the world. The report is 7,000 pages long, more than 1,000 people work on it. And I’m really proud of it because I think it’s the most comprehensive view of human rights conditions anywhere, done by anybody in the world.
We also do a report on religious freedom which comes out in the fall, and which covers again a global survey. So that’s one piece of what we do. The other piece, which is really critical, is to inject and interject human rights into policymaking. Human rights and democracy issues play out all over the world. We have a competing set of priorities in the world, economic, security, diplomatic priorities.
If we’re not there pushing, it’s sometimes, it’s often the case that those issues aren’t at the top of the agenda or aren’t even considered the way they need to be. So for 30 some years the State Department has said these issues matter and there need to be people who wake up in the morning and try to figure out how do we promote human rights. So that’s what we do.
Sara Bloomfield: So would it be fair to say you’re basically our government’s advocate, within the government system, for human rights concerns?
Mike Posner: Exactly.
Sara Bloomfield: And you’re the only one doing this in the government, there’s not, for example, I would imagine the Pentagon doesn’t have somebody.
Mike Posner: Well, it’s interesting you say that. One of the things I’m really trying to do, the President has talked about a whole of government approach. And I think it’s really critical if we’re going to succeed at these issues that we have people not just me, but people in the White House and the Pentagon and the Treasury Department, pushing on these issues.
So, for example, we’re doing a strategic and economic dialogue with China. There are issues like internet freedom or supply chain labor issues which are trade issues. They have a security component and they’re human rights issues. So part of what I’m trying to do is get others in the government to say, let’s work on issues. You might call it trade, you might call it security, I call them human rights. But it’s let’s join forces and have a united front.
Sara Bloomfield: So I’d like to talk a little bit at antisemitism. And as we mentioned, the antisemitism issue is in your portfolio. Antisemitism is such a complex problem, it’s manifested itself differently in different parts of the world. And, of course, it’s a growing problem. Talk a little bit about how you address that.
Mike Posner: Well, first of all I should say I’m just thrilled to have Hannah Rosenthal with us and really pushing this issue within the State Department and within the government. She’s really the perfect person to be doing it. These are issues, the issue of antisemitism matters a lot to me personally, but it’s also something that I worked on when I was with Human Rights First. And I recognize both how broad and deep the problem runs, not just in the Middle East region, in Western Europe for example.
There, we get routine reports of things that are really hair-raising. The challenge for us in raising an issue like antisemitism is that diplomats are not historically attuned to this issue. And these are the kinds of sensitive issues that are difficult for governments to talk about with each other. So our job is to find out one, to pay attention to what’s happening and to make sure that it’s reported honestly. That diplomats know that this is part of their portfolio.
And then to look for ways both on a bilateral basis between governments and in larger forum like the U.N. or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to create venues where these things really are discussed in an honest way. We have a long way to go. We have a lot, in fact, one of the things we found in our Human Rights Reports which came out last month, is that the incidents of antisemitism almost doubled from 2008 to 2009.
Sara Bloomfield: And where is this, everywhere, is this Europe, is this the Islamic world?
Mike Posner: It’s everywhere. But, you know, things like the only synagogue in Crete, in Greece, bombed not once but twice. Police going into a synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey to do an identity check. Never happened, hadn’t happened for many, many years. In Moldova people coming into a Jewish neighborhood, taking a menorah and ripping it away and taking it, burying it in the cemetery. There really is a sense -- what we saw at Auschwitz, the taking of the sign, two young Polish kids did that, spurred on by a Neo-Nazi from Sweden.
In Switzerland, to give another example, the government opposed this, but 57% of the people in Switzerland, in a referendum last fall, adopted a measure banning the minarets from being constructed. After the vote the head of the Christian Democratic Party got up publicly and he said, let’s ban new Jewish cemeteries. So you sort of look, and we’re talking here about Europe.
A lot of Western European governments, countries rather, there is a sense that people are increasingly intolerant, intolerant of everybody, Jews, Muslims, Africans, etc. But there really is a sense that antisemitism, rather than declining, is again spiking up. And it’s something that’s of great concern to us.
Sara Bloomfield: And are you tracking this just by monitoring incidents, or do you also do attitudinal surveys?
Mike Posner: We really primarily in the Human Rights Report are gathering anecdotal information, but we’re also looking, as is ODIHR, which is the monitoring group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. We’re also looking at government reaction to this. We haven’t done attitudinal surveys. Others are doing that and the attitudes are quite frightening. But what I think is the role of a government, our government, is to push others to think in a systematic way, how do you address these issues.
The U.S. government has an office in the Justice Department that tracks hate crimes, for example. We monitor it at a state and local level. Law enforcement officials know this is a priority for the government. We prosecute those crimes when they’re committed. We don’t see a lot of that, we don’t see enough of that in Europe, East or West Europe. Governments ignore the problem or they minimize it, or they don’t take the steps they need to take really to raise these issues to the level of high priority.
So for us, there’s enough anecdotal evidence that things are going wrong. The attitudinal surveys done by others reflect the fact that the animus is very real and growing. And so our job really is to push governments to be more responsible in fighting back.
Sara Bloomfield: And are you doing this work also trying to do it in the Islamic world?
Mike Posner: Yes and, you know, again Hannah and I and others are going out and, you know, I was in Egypt in January talking to government officials about things that are on television and are in the public media. The public media in the Middle East and the Islamic world is just full of hatred, and governments have a responsibility to do something about that. So we are now, they’re hearing from us pretty regularly.
Hannah’s going out to do an interfaith set of meetings in Tunisia. I’ll be following her, going to Morocco as well. It’s very important we keep raising these issues with friends and with countries we have a more difficult relationship with. With obviously Iran, the hatred comes from the top and it’s almost a daily occurrence. But we have to be also mindful of the kinds of things that are emanating from places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Strategic allies of the United States, but very much complicit in what is really a climate of intimidation and hatred.
Sara Bloomfield: So I wanted to ask you a little bit about when you think about hate today, obviously we’re dealing with the phenomenon of the internet. Something we didn’t have to deal with before. So issues of free speech and hate speech, and how we deal with the relationship of speech and violence in the age of the internet, how are you addressing that issue?
Mike Posner: Well the internet is for us both an opportunity and a set of new challenges, I think for all of us. Secretary Clinton gave a speech down a road here at the Newseum in January proclaiming our commitment to internet freedom. We see in places like Iran or China the power of the internet, and the cell phone technology to get the word out when human rights activists are in closed societies, the internet provides both a way in, it gives them information they need.
But it also allows them to communicate internally and internationally. That’s the good news, and we’re doing an awful lot. Congress has been very helpful in giving us some funds, $30 million now, to fund and support circumvention, the technologies that allow people to avoid the censorship that you have in places like China and Iran.
But the other side which you mention is the very frightening phenomena that both people use the internet to disseminate hate, and the governments use the internet to promote, to invade personal privacy and to put people at risk who are challenging them.
So we’ve got a range of issues both issues, how do we promote the powerful affirmative aspects of the internet, and the idea of internet freedom, and how do we deal with cybersecurity issues and how do we deal with hate. There is so many, it’s an unregulated space largely, it’s a global space. And there are a lot of crazy people and hateful people who use the internet, unfortunately, to disseminate the worst kinds of things we don’t want to see.
Sara Bloomfield: So are you saying that in a place like Iran where, when we saw the green movement get going, and we thought, gee there was a possibility of hope here, I take it a lot of that was done, well through the internet, through YouTube, things that like. Are we using, or maybe you can’t answer the question, but trying to use technology to allow those things to flourish the internet, to help groups like that in places like Iran?
Mike Posner: I can say we have been quite explicit in saying we want a global internet that’s connected universally, that allows people to speak freely within the bounds. Again, we don’t want pornography, we don’t want the kind of hatred that spews antisemitism, but we want the people who are in the streets after the Iranian election to be able to organize, to get images and words out about what’s happening in the street.
And Congress, Senator Hoffman, Senator Brownback and others, have sponsored legislation, a piece of legislation called The Voice Act, which is intended to encourage the U.S. government to find ways to work with groups both inside and outside of Iran to make sure that information is disseminated as widely as possible. Clearly the government of Iran doesn’t want that, but the people of Iran do. And I have to say, I have lots of anxieties about a whole range of things in Iran, but I don’t think the movement against the government has been shut down.
They’re facing unbelievable oppression and challenges. Thousands of arrests, many people killed. But there is still a spirit of freedom there and an awful lot of unhappiness with the government. I think we’re going to see a resurgence of opposition to the government in the coming months, and that’s certainly something that we’re watching very closely.
Sara Bloomfield: I hope you’re right. I’m going to move onto a few more questions and then we’re going to open it up to the audience for questions, so you might be thinking of things you’d like to ask Mike. I wanted to shift for a minute to genocide and ask you about where do you see that particular problem today? I know you’ve dealt with that a lot in your career, are we getting any better at anticipating it, well prevention would be too far to go, but responding to this. And what’s your role at the State Department in genocide?
Mike Posner: We are so conscious of the fact that beginning with the Holocaust we have observed, and I use that word, we’ve observed genocides in our lifetime in places like Uganda, like Cambodia and like Rwanda, and most recently in Darfur in Sudan. And we haven’t as a government or as a global community responded as we should. Last year, 18 months ago, former Secretary Albright and Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen did a study on preventing genocide, which you all co-sponsored.
And it really was an excellent study. We’ve now set up in the White House an atrocity response/prevention working group of which I’m part, and I’m going to play a leading role. And part of what we’re trying to do is figure out what do we do in the immediate term. We had a meeting last week about Sudan, what are we going to do in the weeks and months ahead if there’s more violence in the south of Sudan.
But I think the real question here is how do we really decide the early warning, what are the things we do three years, five years before these things turn into genocide. How do we deal with countries that are wavering, and where we know there’s a likelihood that things are going to deteriorate. How do we get in there fast enough, diplomatically, politically, with aid, with multi-lateral approaches. How do we get in there really to prevent these kinds of horrible things from happening.
Sara Bloomfield: Are you referring to what we call the Genocide Prevention Task Force, which the museum did with the U.S. Institute for Peace. And I wondered, the premise of that report is that our government is not really structured to respond to genocide. And when something breaks out, it’s always at the last minute when it’s hardest to respond. And then there’s no positions in place, no structures like your committee in place. Do you agree with that premise?
Mike Posner: Yeah, and I see it in real time in a place like Sudan. We didn’t act fast enough when the genocide was really raging in Darfur. We still have a very, very fragile country, not only Darfur but also relations between the North and the South, and even within the South. There’s a real prospect of an escalation of violence. And the government, you’re right, I mean the reality is everybody does their job in their place.
But even by convening a meeting I saw last week, you realize how important it is for a central body in the government with White House backing and support, with the President’s support, to be saying a priority for us is to identify ways to combat the worst kinds of violence, and to have contingency plans, and to really be thinking in a three dimensional way, what do we do as these things are happening in real time.
So I think we’re going to, the report that you all helped sponsor I think has provoked us to think, let’s re-think the way the government organizes itself and make this a priority item where everybody knows, whether they’re in the Defense Department or USAID, or the State Department, this is something we’ve got to pay attention to. And it’s going to be somebody’s job to convene those meetings and to make sure that at a high level when we see a crisis emerging, the President, the National Security Advisor, the most senior people in government are given the warning, we’ve got to do something, and then they call on their staff.
Sara Bloomfield: Along those lines, do you think people just don’t see preventing genocide as a real national security issue, and don’t weigh the costs? So, for example, the Rwanda genocide was not stopped and you have all this killing as a result of those genocidaires who went into Eastern Congo and have now inflicted millions of deaths and lots of suffering, or Sudan you have refugees from Darfur, I think two million of them in the camps in Chad. These create so many problems. We tend not to hear about the aftereffects of genocide, but it seems pretty costly to me. But I wonder if people just don’t see it in our interest to deal with it.
Mike Posner: It’s enormously costly, and I think to be fair and honest about it, a lot of these conflicts, if it’s in a place like Sudan or Rwanda, it’s so far away, these are countries in the middle of Africa. We don’t have enough other interests that people say this is a priority because it’s happening there. So even to catch enough attention is difficult. And all of us in our daily lives have other things going on, this seems like another world to us. But the cost is enormous.
And as you say, we wind up paying on the back end as well as societies are brought to their knees, and we spend then years or even decades trying to put the pieces together. We spend billions of dollars in these places, Uganda or Cambodia or Rwanda, trying to get these countries back on their feet. But there’s also a huge cost in terms of just human suffering and human life.
Sara Bloomfield: Do you think with the rise of these terrorist networks we will redefine our understanding of genocide? We think about it as being sponsored by states, and now we have these terrorist networks who are trying to achieve the power, state-like power. Do you think we’re headed into a new world, you know, as we say at the Holocaust Museum, the unthinkable becomes thinkable.
Mike Posner: We’re living in a new world but we just haven’t sort of announced it. The United States government is the most powerful government in the world by far in a world where governments are much less powerful. The terrorist organizations you describe, people now have the capacity, outside of a government, to have weapons that can terrorize whole communities, whole countries. And they’re not afraid to use them, they’re looking to use them.
We also have a world economically where half of the biggest economies in the world are not countries or governments, they’re private corporations. So government, and we have a non-governmental world on the positive side, another positive side. We have lots, thousands, tens of thousands of organizations doing thing that 30, 50 years ago would have been the domain of government. So I think all of us in government are still sort of adjusting to the fact, while we may be powerful among the group of states, we’re dealing with lots of forces that we don’t control.
And so adjusting to that I think requires some humility and some recognition that we have to view the world differently. The problem of terrorism is not going to go away, it does reshape our security environment in very fundamental ways. And it’s hard for a government to know how to combat it. It’s clearly going to be something that’s going to be with us for a long, long time.
Sara Bloomfield: When you look around the world and look at places that, where you see genocide or just mass violence might be a possibility, what are the regions or countries on your radar screen?
Mike Posner: Well, we clearly have a range of issues in South Asia, the former Soviet Republics of Asia, Middle East and Africa. Those are, you know, places like Nigeria and Kenya in Africa. Not yet there, they’re not where Somalia is or Sudan, but they make me very nervous because they’re very important countries in East and West Africa, in a way the pillars of those regions. And those are both countries now in a pretty serious state of instability.
Zimbabwe in the south is already sort of past the line to me. But we have Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have Iran, we have I think Egypt in a different way with a transition likely in the next few years, and a pretty unstable situation. We have more, it’s long list unfortunately.
Sara Bloomfield: Is Burma on the list?
Mike Posner: Burma is in the list for sure. Burma with a, about to have an election that I think will be broadly discredited because they’ve essentially told Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, ‘You’re not going to participate’. So there is 50 million people living in Burma and they’re more or less disenfranchised. Sri Lanka, you know, the list goes on and on. We’ve got many, many challenges, and even within countries that are relatively stable.
Russia is a stable country but if you go to the north caucuses, places like Chechnya, that’s hardly a stable situation. The same thing in China with the Uygurs in Xinjiang and with Tibet. So we have a world that’s full of conflicts. The conflicts tend to be based on ethnic, religious or racial differences or conflict. And many of those conflicts turn into ugly wars, and the most vulnerable, women and children, are on the receiving end. That’s the world we live in.
There are 30 wars going on in the world that fit the description that I just mentioned. And I think for us we’ve got to get to the underlying causes of those conflicts, and they tend to be these racial or religious differences which boil over into fighting.
Sara Bloomfield: Seems like human nature, which is what this Museum is about, is not going away, and we haven’t done a very good job of figuring out how to manage it.
Mike Posner: Well, you’ve done such a great job here. You know, I told you this privately, but I just feel this Museum has been such an important educative tool, not just for the Jewish community but for the United States, for Americans and people all over the world. It really is. I think as we think about how do we tell the story of human rights, both the tragedy and the triumph, this Museum has managed to capture that narrative in a really brilliant way.
And the fact that so many people, so many people from around the country and around the world come here, it’s a departure point. It gives people a tangible way to think about these very profound issues and to think about what can I do next and how do I make this a better world. And I think for all those reasons, you and everybody associated with this needs to be really commended.
Sara Bloomfield: Well, you said so many nice compliments, I’m going to give you a controversial question.
Mike Posner: Please, go ahead.
Sara Bloomfield: And then we’re going to open it up. I just wanted to ask you about the decision to join the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has had a pretty bad history. Talk a little bit about why the State Department made that decision and what you expect out of it.
Mike Posner: You know, when President Obama came into office, he and Secretary Clinton both articulated a vision of how we’re going to be involved in the world. And at the center of that vision is a notion of engagement, a principled engagement. That doesn’t mean that we abandon our values or our principles, quite the contrary. It means that we get into the middle of things and try to figure out how do we use our influence and our moral authority to make things better.
And so we had a decision to make last spring about whether to join the Human Rights Council. It’s a deeply flawed institution on a range of fronts. There are lots of mischief-makers, lots of human rights violators that are members of the Council. And the United States didn’t join when the Council was created in the mid, I guess 2005, 2006. We made a judgment, let’s get in there and try to see if we can fix it from within.
We have our work cut out for us. And now having been there almost a year, we know the dysfunction probably better than we did a year ago. But I think it’s the right decision. It’s the right decision because when the United States is not there to lead on these issues, there’s a huge gap, there’s a huge void. And so to cite one example that is relevant here, the U.N. has a, the Human Rights Council has a permanent agenda item on one country.
That country is Israel. There’s a totally disproportionate attention to Israel. If we don’t say that, the only country saying that is Israel. Others mumble it or murmur it in the halls, we say it will full voice and we say it all the time. And so this past session, in March, there were five resolutions relating to Israel and the Palestinians. Now there are real human rights issues there, I’m not saying there’s no -- that Israel ought to be exempt from the discussion.
But the idea that it’s the only country with a permanent agenda item is totally unacceptable. If we’re not part of that meeting and not part of that council, and it’s going to take I think a couple of years to turn that around. But I’m pretty confident that if we get in there and fight on things like that we can make a difference, and that’s what we’re there to do. There’s a risk, but I think there’s also a reward. And at the end of the day principled engagement means you get into tough situations and you do your best to try to fix them.
Sara Bloomfield: Who are some of the other countries on the council?
Mike Posner: Well, Russia, China, Cuba, Libya, it’s a long list, Pakistan.
Sara Bloomfield: The usual suspects.
Mike Posner: Yeah.
Sara Bloomfield: Okay. Let’s open it up to the audience. We want to have, where are the microphones. Here’s a microphone if anyone would like to come out, or if you raise your hand we’ll hand you a microphone.
Question: Talk about doom and gloom. You cited a couple of dozen nations on that I never even thought about that are sitting time bombs. But what I’m concerned about is the next step. You say they’re on a radar screen, you have committees that anticipate certain problems before there’s a genocide. But even when we realize there’s a genocide going on, the time factor. You talk about Bosnia, how long it took us to get involved there.
I’m not saying -- right or wrong. But we know about the Darfurs. I guess my question is, you cite all these couple of dozen nations, what do we do with that information? The right answer is, if you speak to my kids, would say, we’ve got to go in there and prevent a Darfur. So if you go into Darfur, why not Nigeria? If you go into Nigeria, why not Burma? I mean, you understand the question.
Mike Posner: I understand the question. I would say at the outset that I’m a kind of eternal optimist, and I came into this job with an expectation that there were going to be all kinds of challenges in trying to move a big, unwieldy government. And I must say, I’m happy to say that there is a great receptivity to trying to answer the most difficult questions like the one you pose. Secretary Clinton, the President, lots of people in the Administration, on a personal level are deeply committed to these issues.
So I had a conversation with Secretary Clinton in September and I said -- I’m going to identify a dozen or 14 countries. These are countries that matter to the United States, they matter in the world, there are these human rights issues that are very serious, and we’re going to come up with plans. And the plans are going to look very different for Egypt or Pakistan or Russia, but we’re going to take these issues on and we’re going to come up with an action plan, not just for my bureau, but for the State Department and the government.
So that’s what we’re doing. There is not a one size fits all approach. There is not a realistic possibility that we’re going to go to the Pentagon and say to them, have the Army go into Nigeria or Kenya, or any number of places. It’s not going to happen. But we need to be thinking creatively of how do we use a combination of our diplomatic muscle, our economic might, and in some ways our security, our powerful military security assets.
They don’t have to be troops on the ground. Our military is very good at gathering information, they’re very good at helping train, they’re very good at sealing borders, they’re very good at dealing with humanitarian crises. So it’s the combination of things that’s really going to make the difference. And to me, I think the essence of your question is and my answer is, we’ve got to figure out ahead of the game, we can’t wait until Bosnia becomes Bosnia or Sudan, Darfur becomes Darfur.
We’ve got to be a year, two years, three years, looking around the corner and say, this is the place that the world’s going to be writing about and looking at in three years or four years time, and what are the things we can do now to mobilize all the resources we have in a coordinated way. I think in the past the government has wished to do that, we’re determined we’re going to at least try to figure out the best way to pool the resources to make a decision, to take it to the highest level early enough that we can really make a difference.
Question: As a follow up to this gentleman’s question, what do you feel is the essence of recruiting other countries to have the type of vigor and vitality, and the priority that we have in the United States to recruit other countries to feel the way that you feel, and to dedicate 30 years of their lives to human rights issues around the world?
Mike Posner: It’s a good question, and I guess one of the things I would say is that we need to -- there is in the world now a kind of paralysis. We see it at the Human Rights Council, where countries so much look in their self-interest, and they so much look in terms of their regional solidarity. The Europeans now speak with one voice through the European Union. It tends to be the lowest common denominator. So at the U.N. we have a European Union position which is often much less rights oriented than what we would see ten or 15 years ago being expressed by the Swedes or by the Dutch.
We need to figure out how to de-link the human rights issue from the larger issue of theirs which is creating political integration. We see the same thing now because the Europeans now, the African Union has a single position. And if the European position is mediocre, the African position, lowest common denominator, is very, very low. And the same thing with the Islamic Conference. So one of the things we’re trying to do is get away from the notion that the world is divided into blocks.
It’s north versus south, or Africa versus North America and Europe, and really identify countries that can be leaders with us. We have countries in the world like Chile, like Mexico, like the Philippines, like South Korea, like Liberia, that have leaders that care about these issues, that are important countries for us to be figuring out strategies. We have countries like Brazil and South Africa and India that are emerging powers in the world.
We’ve got to figure out, where do our interests and theirs coincide on issues of rights, and how do we begin to change the dynamic of the world. I think I see this. There are a lot of governments that are represented by diplomats. Deep in their heart is a commitment to human rights. Some of them because of their own life experience. I look at a government like Chile or Argentina, the people in the government lived in an era where they were on the receiving end of human rights violations.
I don’t have to draw them a diagram. Poland is another example, and the Eastern Europeans. They know what it’s all about, they understand what it’s like when you don’t have human rights. They’re now running governments. We ought to view them as natural allies and say let’s figure out together how we begin to tackle some of these issues. When the United States leads, again, I said it before but I’ll say it again, it’s unbelievable how much energy and excitement there is that this government is now engaged in these issues in ways -- people want to be part of a winning team. They regard us as a leader, they want to join with what we’re doing. We need to build on that momentum and really make some difference.
Question: Your comment about looking ahead two or three years brought this question to mind. What would have to happen for the United States to say to Russia and China, we’re through talking about Iran, we’re now going to do something about Iran, and what could they do if they made that decision?
Mike Posner: Well, you know, it’s an interesting question, one in which people in this town are talking about in real time, yesterday and today. The fact is we are having those discussions with exactly those countries. And I think there is a recognition that the mood of the world, and the mood of the permanent five in the Security Council has shifted. Again, I can’t promise or predict that we’re going to be in a different place in one or two months.
But I certainly would say we have put in President Obama, the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense have put an unbelievable amount of time and energy to shift this debate. The issue of Iran and nuclear weapons is a threat to the world. And it’s a threat to the Arab world, it’s a threat to the Russians, it’s a threat to the Chinese. And it’s certainly a threat to Israel and to the United States and Europe.
And I think there is a greater recognition now than there has been at any time in the last several years. I don’t think it’s too late for us to turn the tide. There’s a huge challenge ahead of us, but I really credit our diplomatic team for making this priority one or two. It’s right up there. And a very concerted effort. I think it’s bearing fruit. There is a sense now, a sense of urgency, a sense that sanctions at the U.N. Security Council are a real possibility in the next few months.
And if we get there, there’s a chance we can avert a crisis. And if we don’t get there, then we have some very, very tough choices ahead of us.
Question: My question was: what event would have to happen to stop talking and start acting.
Mike Posner: Well, I guess I’m differing with you a little bit in the notion that we are talking and acting at the same time. The preferred solution here is one that imposed global pressure on the Iranian government to discontinue a weapons program. That is by far the preferred solution. We are aiming to do that and we are working around the clock to make that a reality. I’m not telling you it’s going to succeed, because we don’t know if it’s going to succeed.
But we are mindful of the risk and we’re mindful of the fact that if we can’t succeed diplomatically, we’ve got to explore other options, and those options are very much on the table, and the Iranians know it.
Question: First, I agree that you have to be an optimist. Anybody who’s involved in any of these volunteer activities has to believe that all of our efforts are going to eventually bear fruit. But we’re speaking from clearly the country that in the world is the most advanced democracy. Yet we also talk in terms of the liberation just 65 years ago, and the United States was a different country then. So even as an advanced democracy, we didn’t have an integrated armed forces then, we hadn’t gone through the Civil Rights Revolution.
There were people before the second world war who discouraged us from getting involved in the war, or even sided with the Nazis. So I think there’s a recognition, or there has to be a recognition that we’re not going to change this over night and we alone, the United States as the moral persuaders. But I think we’re also taught, maybe it was the great teachers, Roger and Hammerstein in South Pacific, that it’s largely education, how they’re brought up.
And though I understand you’re talking about opening the internet and certainly discouraging governments from brainwashing their people, we really don’t have much in the way of influence. And clearly what’s happening around the world is that there are agendas, local agendas, governments, and be they quasi-governments, religious, theocracies, etc. how do we deal ultimately with those underlying causes?
Mike Posner: You’re going to discourage me. I have to go to work tomorrow. All of what you say is right. On the other hand, we live in a world where because things happen so quickly, because images and words travel so quickly, because we can travel so easily between places, people are feeling a greater sense of urgency for change than ever before. When I started doing work in the human rights field 30 years ago, my first experience was in Uganda, when Edi Amin was there.
There were no human rights groups in Uganda in the mid 1970’s or late 1970’s. There were no human rights groups in most of Africa. Today you can’t, you virtually can’t go to any country in the world, save North Korea, where there aren’t people agitating for human rights within their own societies. Those people are the change agents, those people are the ones that are going to provoke sustainable change and difference.
And what those people are looking for are models, they’re looking for ways to amplify their voices, and they’re looking for a lifeline when they get in trouble. As they almost always do. And so the way I view the world, a little bit is inside out. We can’t force change from abroad, but the American model is an unbelievably powerful model. Our culture is unbelievably attractive because of it’s openness and it’s innovation, our creative and our freedom.
And we are, our government has the capacity to play on those strengths and to be a reinforcing agent for the people within Indonesia or Peru or Haiti, who are really trying to make change a reality. You’re right, it takes a long time, it will take generations in many places. But what I see all the time, and it’s again part of what allows me to go to work tomorrow, is that there are people who are absolutely frantically trying to change their own societies.
They are impatient beyond belief. And given what they’re up against, unbelievably idealistic and determined to face off against great odds. And I think we have the ability, we as the government, you as influential Americans working in this great institution, to be part of the inspiration and part of the support system that those people need to make change real. Change is occurring in lots of places because people have had enough.
And they see with their own eyes, through the internet, through television, through travel, that it doesn’t have to be this way. People are frustrated, they’re impatient, and they’re committed to change. That’s our hope.
Sara Bloomfield: You just actually articulated our vision. We often say around the museum, you see on our tagline, it says, What You Do Matters. And that’s really what we want to encourage. Not only leaders, but individual citizens to hold their governments accountable and to try to make change. I’m sorry, but we’re going, because we have more to do, we’re going to have to conclude and just say thank you to Mike for this really interesting interview.
And most importantly, I think I can speak on behalf of everyone here, we wish you a lot of luck and success. You have a big agenda. Come back next year and give us a report. Thank you.