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Top U.S. Human Rights Official Gives Handa Center's Annual Public Lecture on Human Rights

Tom Malinowski in front of audience with United States flag behind him
Feb 3 2016

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Click here to watch the full remarks.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski delivered the Handa Center’s annual public lecture on human rights to a packed house on Feb. 3 at the Stanford Humanities Center.

More than 120 Stanford faculty, students, staff, and community members eagerly listened as Malinowski reflected on his two years in office, after the UC Berkeley alum took a few friendly jabs at Stanford.

“After all, it is my job, as Assistant Secretary of State in charge of promoting human rights around the world, to venture to the darkest places and there to defend what is right and true, to come face to face with dictators and demons and try to lead them to the light.  And if I can do all that on an almost daily basis, then I guess I can come to Stanford,” he said.

Handa Center Senior Fellow and Stanford Law School Visiting Professor Beth Van Schaack kicked off the evening and engaged Malinowski in a thoughtful question and answer session following his remarks. Van Schaack also served in the Obama administration as the Deputy Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues on the Office of Global Criminal Justice before returning to Stanford, her alma mater.

Malinowski opened by considering the relationship between the state and its people, invoking the words of U.S. President Barack Obama in speech in Belgium last year.

“Over time, ‘a particular set of ideals began to emerge, the belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose, the belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding.’”

He went on to discuss how these norms are being questioned by authoritarian states around the globe like Russia and China, as well as non-state actors like ISIL, yet he is constantly heartened by examples like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Tunisia, and Nigeria, where democratic norms are gradually taking hold.

“I happen to still be convinced that the good guys have the upper hand in that fight – the good guys who believe in human rights and in government bound by law,” said Malinowski.

He pushed back on assertions, including by Russian President Vladimir Putin, that the United States is attempting to remake the world in its image, and in so doing causing more harm than good.

“It wasn’t the United States that gave all those people from the Middle East to Ukraine to Burma to Burundi the idea that their governments should serve them instead of stealing from them,” Malinowski said. “Yes, its true that ideals that we professed have inspired those people in many places; legal norms we have helped to forge over many years have empowered many of those people.  But it was they who decided to remake their worlds in their image of what a just society demands.”

Such progress requires perseverance, discipline, patience, and realism, Malinowski said, citing examples like Bosnia, where 20 years after mass killings, the country struggles to find true stability, or Myanmar, where despite political progress, Muslims are demonized.

“Sometimes we make the world better.  Sometimes, as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote, all we can do is preserve ‘an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and constantly in need of repair.’”

During his three-day stay in the Bay Area, Malinowski visited with several Silicon Valley tech firms and spent considerable time engaging with Stanford faculty and students, including the likes of former Obama administration colleagues Ambassador Mike McFaul, head of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), and FSI Senior Fellow Jeremy Weinstein, also a member of the Handa Center’s Faculty Advisory Board.

Preceding the lecture, Malinowski participated in an intimate Q&A with about a dozen Stanford undergraduates from various disciplines.

“At Stanford we are so lucky to be able to interact with such high level policy makers that create the world we live in -- meeting Mr. Malinowski was a great example of this!” said Rebecca Mehra, a senior majoring in International Relations. “He was extremely personable and honest about the human rights situation around the globe, regarding everything from China and Burundi to issues the United States faces within its borders today. It was incredible and eye opening to hear this thoughts first hand."

Click here to read the full remarks.

Click here to see photos from the event.