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Does Human Rights Talk Matter?

Hillary Clinton is not exactly the belle of the human rights ball these days: During her recent trip to China, she refused to discuss Tibet and press repression, and she made it clear to Chinese leaders that human rights concerns would not impede U.S.-China relations. Fortunately, Anne Applebaum tells us this morning, it doesn't matter:

Yet, while I sympathize with these critics, I find I increasingly don't care what Hillary Clinton says about human rights to the leaders of China. Neither should they: Clinton is right; these exchanges have become ritualized. I also don't care what she says about human rights to the leaders of Iran, Zimbabwe or North Korea, if those words will have no meaning in practice.

But that's an incredibly facile point. No one argues that words alone are sufficient; of course they need to be backed up by action. But words are necessary nonetheless, particularly now. The Bush Administration, despite its early, self-serving rhetoric about democracy promotion, did a great harm to human rights in both its words and deeds. While Applebaum is absolutely right to call for more spending on Radio Free Afghanistan and the like, those things will take time to have an effect; what the world is looking for now is a clear sign that Obama will prioritize human rights in American foreign policy.

This matters for American hopes of reasserting global leadership, but also for the millions of people still looking to us for inspiration. So while Clinton (and Applebaum) may be technically correct about the pointlessness of speaking human rights to China, they miss the broader import of such words: When the world's most powerful country tells an oppressive regime that human rights don't matter, it is a green light to human rights abusers everywhere, and a stop sign for groups opposing them. Will it matter if, a few years from now, they get better reception from Radio Free Whatever?

--Clay Risen