Yesterday was a good day for children. Hard to believe it, given recent events and the news of death, violence, and the suffering of children around the world. Millions are living in adverse conditions, barely surviving, often completely alone. In response, on Wednesday USAID launched a "whole of government" approach to this global challenge in the form of the first ever U.S. Government Action Plan on Children in Adversity. This new framework for international assistance targets children who are affected by HIV/AIDS, orphaned, trafficked, exploited for labor, recruited as soldiers, neglected, or in other vulnerable states. It has the potential to dramatically increase the impact of our assistance to improve the lives of highly vulnerable children, especially those living outside family care, by coordinating efforts across multiple U.S. agencies and allowing greater collaboration with civil society. One year ago on this blog, I advocated for a bipartisan initiative, along the lines of PEPFAR, to improve our response to the pressing child protection needs around the world. Though the recently launched initiative sadly does not come with significant new funds, I am delighted to see the White House hosting its launch.
Two recent events highlight the importance of the current focus on child protection. The first, of course, is the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. As our country mourns the loss of innocent life, grieves for the families of victims, and tries to explain why this happened to our children, we understand, perhaps more than ever, the need to protect children from adversity or help them recover from it. The children who died at Sandy Hook were clearly loved by their families, their teachers, and their community. One of the teachers, Kaitlin Roig, gave an interview describing her experience saving several of her students by hiding in a bathroom. She made sure to tell them that she loved them all very much, because she wanted that to be the last thing they heard in case they died. There are millions of children in the world today who witness or directly experience horrors similar to the Newtown shootings but have no family or other adults to know their pain, mourn their loss, or comfort their fears.
The second event was the untimely death to cancer of Rwanda's Minister of Gender and Family Promotion, Aloisea Inyumba, at age 48. Mrs. Inyumba was, among many honorable achievements, a superhero for children. In 1994, immediately after the Rwandan genocide, she was a young cabinet minister in her twenties who knew that children, especially traumatized ones, belong in families. She worked tirelessly in intense circumstances, to ensure that the vast majority of the 100,000-plus children separated or orphaned by the genocide were reunited with their families or placed with new families through a national adoption campaign. After reassuming the role of Minister of Gender in 2011, she led the country to set as a policy goal the closing of all orphanages in Rwanda through placement of all children in families.
What the Sandy Hook teacher and Minister Inyumba knew to be true is also backed up by science. Research developments in neuroscience, health, and child welfare increasingly show the detrimental effects of "toxic stress", created by many types of adversity, on a child's development. Research also shows the importance of the love, care, and protection a family can provide to mitigate the effects of toxic stress and improve outcomes for children into adulthood. The Action Plan's primary objectives of building strong beginnings, putting family care first and protecting children will help all stakeholders focus on the most effective ways to improve outcomes for children. It is not just the right thing to do. It is the most strategic investment we can make with our foreign assistance and charitable giving.
The Action Plan also includes calls for more evidence-based research and child protection system strengthening. Both require new tools to enumerate children living outside family care and to help those working with the children to better keep track of their case histories and find solutions for each of them. That is the mission of a new organization I founded called Each Inc. We join many civil society groups across the political and religious spectrum in supporting the Action Plan that prioritizes partnerships and provides a way for all of us to work together. As we prepare for the holidays, many of us ponder the first Christmas when there was no room at the inn for Jesus. My hope this season is that more of us will make room in our hearts and homes for children suffering alone right now. If we do, the world will be better for generations to come, and we will be blessed.
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As someone who has worked on human rights and democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy, one of the questions I most often hear is "Why does the U.S. think it can 'impose' democracy on other countries?" My answer is always the same. We never impose democracy on other countries, we support the individuals and organizations in any country that share our commitment to universal human rights and a desire for freedom for themselves and their nations. Courageous freedom fighters risk their lives to stand against oppression whether or not we stand with them, but America is at its best when we do. The Freedom Collection website, newly launched by the George W. Bush Institute, provides an influential platform for dissidents and human rights advocates to speak publicly about their dreams of freedom and the risks they take to pursue them. It is a compelling reminder that democratic aspirations are not American things we impose but, in fact, reside in the hearts and minds of women and men in every nation.
The case of Burma highlights how steadfast American support for dissidents and their democracy movements can eventually lead to change that is good for them and good for America. As a tentative reform process unfolds under President Thein Sein, the elections scheduled for Sunday, April 1, in which Aung San Suu Kyi is contesting a seat, already are flawed but offer the latest reason for hope that democracy may still take root in this beleaguered S.E. Asian country. The road remains difficult and tenuous, but a cautious optimism has seized the country.
For decades, the U.S. has been providing unwavering support for the Burmese democracy movement -- rhetorically, financially and diplomatically. Every administration and members of the U.S. Congress on both sides of the aisle, have maintained a strong human rights policy on Burma. There has been a strong set of sanctions in place, but even more important has been the significant financial support we have given through the National Endowment for Democracy to the many small exile organizations along the Thai and Indian borders with Burma. With American support and protection, these activist organizations run by exiles have been tracking political prisoners inside the country, planning for a federalist system, documenting horrific human rights abuses of the military regime, convening diverse ethnic nationalities so that they may work together, and reporting or broadcasting news into the closed country.
For years, the influence of these groups was minimal, but it was for such a time as this that the preparations were made to take advantage of small openings and translate them into big change. Many, though not all, political prisoners have been freed and some exiles are returning. As dissidents and former exiles are allowed to participate in the political system, the preparations they have made will be essential for overcoming the serious challenges they will, no doubt, face.
The Freedom Collection highlights several of the most inspiring women's voices from diverse ethnic groups in Burma, all of whom have received support for their work from the U.S. government. Along with Aung San Suu Kyi, Khin Ohmar, Charm Thong, Cheery Zahau, and Dr. Cynthia Maung are from the Burman, Shan, Chin and Karen ethnic groups respectively and have modeled a peaceful and democratic future for the country through their advocacy and collaboration across geography and ethnicity. Burma watchers all agree that one of the biggest challenges remaining, even if democracy returns to the country, is resolving historical conflicts between the various ethnic groups. The military has perpetrated some its worst abuses against minority groups, including widespread use of rape as a weapon of war by the Burmese military. Women's groups across the spectrum all have been advocating an end to these terrible crimes.
I was privileged to work directly with Charm Thong and others of the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN) to raise awareness of this issue after they published their important report called Licence to Rape in 2002. Women's groups of other ethnic nationalities have published similar reports and all ethnic minority women suffer under this pervasive threat. The encouraging story is that all of these women's groups also work collaboratively together through the umbrella Women's League of Burma that includes majority Burman women. Together they have shown that all the ethnic groups in Burma desire human rights and are able to work together to achieve them. I'm proud to call these women friends and proud that my country stood with them in their struggle. On the Freedom Collection site, Mrs. Laura Bush narrates an important video on the power of women to bring change in countries from Iran to Liberia to Burma. Though every road from tyranny to freedom is rough and winding, I believe in Burma it will be paved primarily by women.
A nation can be judged by how it cares for and protects the most vulnerable. As our fearless curator Will Inboden pointed out, it was a welcome change when President Obama gave due credit to President Bush for one of his proudest legacies, combatting HIV/AIDs globally. It would have been easy for President Bush, when faced with the global suffering caused by HIV/AIDs, to look the other way or to do lip service to addressing it. Instead, he made it a signature initiative that saved millions of lives just because it was the right thing to do.
A related challenge presents a similar opportunity to President Obama. Millions of highly vulnerable children today are living outside family care in every country including our own. Some have been orphaned by HIV/AIDs, others trafficked or forced into labor and still others are living in institutions, on the streets or in refugee camps alone. The Obama Administration, mostly due to Secretary Clinton's leadership, has made significant progress addressing this global challenge and could leave behind a solid legacy if it builds upon it again this year.
I recently participated in two groundbreaking events focused on highly vulnerable children. The first in November was the Way Forward Project Summit sponsored by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) which brought together African and U.S. officials and experts in this field to make recommendations for strengthening child protection systems in six African countries. The event was held at the State Department and Secretary Clinton gave solid remarks making her the first Cabinet level official to specifically address this important cross-cutting issue.
The second event in December was an Evidence Summit on protecting children outside family care. It was sponsored by USAID with participation and support from over a dozen U.S. government agencies or offices that work with vulnerable children. For the first time, a true ‘whole of government' approach was presented that is beginning to break through the silos that typically define our government's approach to children's issues globally. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah drew from his personal experience in Haiti seeing the devastating toll of the earthquake on children and ended his opening remarks by noting that the most important line of protection for vulnerable children is a safe and loving family.
There remains a strong disconnect between our diplomacy and foreign assistance when it comes to children's issues that I highlighted here. Still anyone who has worked on children's issues for awhile knows that this interdisciplinary gathering was a welcome step forward for USAID which is not always known for its flexibility or coordination. The credit here goes to the hard-working team from the P.L.109-95 Secretariat that manages a congressional mandate to coordinate the U.S. response to orphans and other highly vulnerable children. The mandate is of the dreaded ‘unfunded' sort, but USAID and the other offices involved have proven that hard work, commitment and a little cooperation can accomplish much. They also have shown that a relatively small amount of money directed strategically through coordinated mechanisms could go a long way in protecting children from exploitation, abuse and neglect. The social return on investment (SROI) numbers for money targeting at-risk children are impressive. There are huge benefits to children, families and whole societies by decreasing crime, human trafficking, gang violence, unemployment and poor physical, mental and emotional development of entire populations. It's a strategic opportunity to use our limited foreign assistance dollars wisely.
There are two big challenges to launching a global initiative to help vulnerable children. Money is tight and it's an election year. But money also was tight when President Bush launched his Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. He made it a priority and did it anyway. It may be wishful thinking to believe any progress could be made on a major new initiative for children and families in an election year. But like HIV/AIDs, this is a strongly bipartisan issue. It garners broad, passionate support on both sides of the increasingly polarized political divide. The Congressional Caucus on Adoption is the largest bipartisan caucus in the U.S. Congress. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) is one of its House co-chairs and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), who attended both the events I referenced above, is one of its most vocal Senate leaders. Many Members of Congress - both Republicans and Democrats - also are champions of the fight against human (child) trafficking. For these reasons, I will continue my wishful thinking that, even in these difficult times, we might still pull together as a nation to help the very poorest and most vulnerable. Because securing liberty and justice for all is simply the right thing to do.
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Today, Secretary Clinton begins her historic visit to Burma. In 2009, as the Obama administration was conducting an initial ‘review' of its Burma policy, I cautioned the secretary to be mindful of the nature and history of this thuggish regime. A lot has happened in two years. There have been a number of significant changes and overall there seems to be a sense of cautious optimism about both the changes to date and the potential for this visit to bring more. I too am hopeful, but like many long time Burma watchers, it still feels a bit like we have been down this dead end road before.
Joshua Kurlantzick from the Council on Foreign Relations has articulated some useful indicators for judging the success of the visit. The release of all political prisoners is critical, but Kurlantzick also highlights the importance of the U.S. obtaining regular interaction with senior members of the military. This often overlooked point is probably the key to any real and lasting change in Burma. There will be no freedom or national reconciliation in the country until the Burma army ends its rampant rape, torture, forced labor, forced conscription, pillaging and razing of civilian villages in ethnic minority regions. In contrast to other lauded improvements for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy, the suffering of the ethnic nationalities has only intensified in recent months.
The abuses are so severe, widespread and longstanding that the U.N. has called for an investigation into crimes against humanity. The amount and brutality of the sexual violence against Kachin, Shan, Chin, Mon, Karenni and Karen women and girls is especially disturbing. Over the years, the Women's League of Burma and its member organizations have documented hundreds of incidents of rape and sexual violence, and in their recent letter to Secretary Clinton cited 81 documented cases of rape just since March of this year when Thein Sein became president. When they meet on Thursday, the Secretary hopefully will outline in detail his legal culpability for military crimes on his watch and the importance of taking action to end impunity.
A stated goal of the Secretary's trip is to see how the U.S. can support a transition to democracy in Burma. As part of that process, she would do well to begin a discussion about the importance to any democracy of civilian control of the military. If the trip goes well she might even suggest that on his next trip to Burma, Special Envoy Derek Mitchell bring a relatively high ranking officer from U.S. Pacific Command with him to model successful collaboration in government between civilian diplomats and military officers. Such engagement, soldier to soldier, might even lead to a broader discussion under the auspices of ASEAN, of successful military transitions to civilian control. Thailand and Indonesia especially have relevant experience to share in this regard. Australia has been providing human rights training on and off to senior officials, including military, for years and may be willing to help with such a dialogue. And if Burma's desire for a closer relationship with the U.S. to balance China's influence as some commentators are saying, they might welcome a joint military dialogue with ASEAN, Australia and the U.S., even on sensitive issues like impunity.
Historically, the Burma Army (Tatmadaw), was a well respected institution that produced war heroes like Aung San Suu Kyi's father, Aung San. She has said herself that the military has an important role to play in Burma's future. That role will only be a positive one if the Burma army transitions from its role as the worst perpetrator of violence against its own people to its proper place of honor as the protector of all the people groups of Burma. It's a tall order, but creative diplomacy and careful, strategic engagement could help.
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The bungled handling of the requirements of the Child Soldier Prevention Act last week is a clear and disturbing sign that the U.S. policy apparatus around global children's issues remains seriously broken. Back in 2009, I urged Secretary Clinton to fix these problems by appointing a high-level Ambassador for Children. To her credit she has appointed Ambassador Susan Jacobs as her Special Advisor for Children's Issues. This was an important step forward, but not enough. Ambassador Jacobs sits in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, limiting her remit to children who are either adopted internationally or abducted across borders. These issues, especially adoption, desperately needed more attention and I wish the Ambassador well in her efforts. The sad recent death of Steve Jobs, adopted as an infant, was a reminder of the positive outcomes adoption can have for children. While important for thousands of needy children and American families, adoption issues are a small part of the equation for adequately protecting the world's children.
No high level attention exists for the millions of other vulnerable children -- street children, child trafficking victims, unaccompanied minor refugees and the most neglected of all, children affected by war (including both forced conscription and gender based violence). Several bureaus and offices at State and USAID have some responsibility for each of these groups of children, but with no high level official responsible for tracking both policy and foreign assistance directed to all of them, they continue to fall through the cracks, all while disjointed policy decisions persist. This is the second year in a row that the Obama Administration granted waivers to every country identified in its own Trafficking in Persons Report (2011) as using child soldiers and under sanction threat. Josh Rogin reported on the debacle both years. I have no inside knowledge of the process either year, but to someone involved in this type of policy debate in the past it looks like the decision memo for the Secretary was cleared at low levels. The regional bureaus' standard desire for waivers won over efforts by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) and the Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons to use the diplomatic pressure Congress had given them with the CSPA. The result was the administration again playing catch up with an angry NGO community and Members of Congress who are fighting back.
National security waivers, like those included in the CSPA, are important for the Secretary's discretion to weigh counter-veiling U.S. interests in each country impacted by legislation. Some of the waivers given this year may even have been justified. Yemen, for example, makes sense for a waiver based on important counter-terror cooperation. In the justification memo for the waivers, the arguments for the importance of our counter-terror efforts in Yemen are clear. Unfortunately, there is not a single mention of anything we are doing to address the issue of child soldiers in Yemen, probably because we are doing nothing. Youth can become the fiercest and most undisciplined soldiers and also the most susceptible to recruitment into terror networks. Linkages between child soldiers and counter-terrorism are clear to someone looking for them and seeking to find creative solutions to both threats.
The second CSPA mishandling reveals that no one is ‘minding the store' when it comes to global rights-based child protection issues. There are special challenges to dealing with child rights and interests. Someone who understands those special security issues and vulnerabilities needs to be specifically tasked with monitoring and advocating for the full range of children vulnerable to abuse and neglect. There are several options. The Secretary could choose to create a separate office, like the Office of Global Women's Issues, responsible for child protection issues. Concerns about a proliferation of such offices within the State Department makes this a big ask. Another option would be to handle children's issues much like disability issues. In 2004, an Advisory Committee on Disability Policy was formed with participation from external experts and jointly chaired by State and USAID. This led to the appointment of the new Special Advisor on International Disability Rights who sits in DRL with the mandate to rally attention and cooperation around disability. Something similar for child protection would help avoid mistakes like the handling of the CSPA. It also would provide a natural ally and advocate within the Department for efforts such as the Child Soldier Initiative led by retired Lt. General Romeo Dallaire of Rwanda fame, or organizations focused on advocacy for children affected by armed conflict such as Invisible Children or the Network for Young People Affected by War.
Everyone, in theory, supports greater child protection. Specific challenges, however, are easy to forget and ignore. We do so to the detriment of U.S. interests and the future of our world. Inspired by my own view of these foreign policy disconnects, I have launched a new platform for cooperation and support called Each Inc. to help address the dire need for more attention to child protection globally. The private sector is waking up to the issues and Congress clearly wants to do more. Secretary Clinton is the perfect leader to implement the important changes required to avoid a third strike on the CSPA next year and better protect the world's most vulnerable children. I hope she does.
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Through her bloody death on June 20, 2009, Neda Agha-Soltan, 26, galvanized the Iranian opposition protests. But she was not the first woman to play an important role in promoting freedom, democracy, and equality in Iran. The Iranian women's movement has a proud history of fighting for women's rights and has been a driving force behind the green movement's push for reform. Nobel Laureate, Shirin Ebadi, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist of many years, has represented many other women fighting for justice. Women's groups like Mothers for Peace and the One Million Signatures Campaign are grassroots Iranian women's organizations promoting peace and gender equality in law and practice. For years now, members have been beaten, harassed, arrested, and imprisoned for their work.
Authorities have systematically denied women permits to hold peaceful protests and while pressure on women leaders was increasing even before the broader protests began in June 2009 things have deteriorated further since. Women human rights defenders like Shadi Sadr, a lawyer who has campaigned against stoning and Shiva Nazar Ahari, a member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, as well as journalists and bloggers like Hengemeh Shahidi, Zhila Bani Yaghoub and a pregnant Mahsa Amr-Abadi were all arrested and imprisoned after the post-election protests began last June. Many other women from ethnic and religious minority groups have been detained and persecuted across the country after joining forces across ethnic and religious divides to stand for freedom.
My post here last month appealed to Secretary Clinton to emphasize human rights and freedom of expression in her speech on Internet freedom. She did and Iran was even highlighted. It was a good speech that also included the importance of online interaction for religious freedom. Secretary Clinton's longstanding support for women's issues is also well known. Iranian authorities censor dozens of websites and blogs, especially those covering women's issues, are disrupting communication technology today as protests mount, and have banned Google. They also severely persecute religious minorities, especially the Baha'i. Iran thus poses a diplomatic challenge as all the themes of the Secretary's speech come together there. But as protests are invigorated today, the United States must throw its support squarely behind the Iranian people, especially women seeking peaceful democratic change. This could be by making a strong and clear Presidential statement (or better yet an Obama webcast in Farsi), by naming and shaming perpetrators of the arrests, rape, and execution of political prisoners, or by turning some U.S. government websites green. Whatever is done, it's time to choose sides. One thing is certain. I'm voting green.
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By Jean M. Geran
On Jan. 21, Secretary Clinton is scheduled to make an important speech on new technology and 21st-century statecraft. After a year of weak U.S. leadership on human rights and democracy issues, this speech is an important opportunity to reiterate a strong U.S. commitment to freedom across the board. The latest Freedom in the World 2010 survey results from Freedom House highlight an overall decline in global freedom for the fourth consecutive year. Now is the time to redouble our support for human rights and democracy, not cut back as the Obama administration has done. As my colleague David Kramer pointed out, the Secretary began digging the Administration out of the human rights hole it was in last December with her speech at Georgetown University. She has a lot more digging to do. But the inherent link between new technology and freedom of expression, assembly, and association makes her upcoming speech an ideal tool.
There are promising signs that this will be a good speech thanks to some creative stars on her policy planning staff and others peppered around the administration. State has commendably been leading the use of new technology for the Haiti response with several initiatives. Mobile text giving, crisis mapping and database innovation have contributed to a transformation in how the international community is responding to a horrible natural disaster. I hope the administration continues to think big and in a bipartisan fashion on Haiti. They should do the same on human rights.
Creating innovative partnerships and delegations to Iraq and Afghanistan with leaders in the technology industry and asking Twitter to delay maintenance while protests were underway in Iran have been examples of creative diplomacy in the midst of an otherwise flawed foreign policy. But Iran also illustrates the limits of this kind of diplomacy when it is not backed by a robust commitment to human rights in U.S. policy.
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It is a sad bit of irony that International Human Rights Day and President Obama's formal acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize coincide today.
Much has been written about the strange choice of the Nobel Committee and good suggestions made on how the President could redeem his premature award. My favorite suggestions were that he accept it on behalf of American men and women in the military who have fought for freedom or donate his medal to Shirin Ebadi (her Nobel medal was recently stolen by regime thugs) and invite her to the White House for the handover. Regardless of how he handles the acceptance speech, the president already has said that the award should serve as a "call to action." Action from Obama on human rights globally is long overdue.
Obama is increasingly criticized in the United States and other regions for his persistent refusal to promote universal human rights and democratic values or speak out in support of those around the world risking their lives to defend them. It's time to change course. After an imperfect but bold decision on the use of U.S. hard power in Afghanistan, the president now needs to do the same with soft power issues.
Obama's foreign policy instincts, especially on these issues, are not great and he needs to start listening to those within his own administration who understand the importance of promoting human rights and democratic values globally. There is no doubt that bitter battles were waged within the State Department and across the interagency over whether or not the president should meet his fellow Nobel Laureate the Dalai Lama and over what the words he should, or should not, use when speaking about the Iranian opposition (including fellow Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi). But at the end of the day, it is the president who sets the tone of U.S. foreign policy and decides who wins those internal battles. And so far, the administration's internal human rights defenders appear to be losing most of them. They must be frustrated.
Obama has prioritized talking with our enemies which can make sense if done right. But if we compromise on universal principles like human rights from the outset we already have lost. And talking for talking's sake leads nowhere. But if the United States holds fast to principles in the midst of negotiations, talking may bear fruit. Take Burma as an example. I remain wary of the dialogue the United States has opened with the generals who rule Burma because I've seen the pattern before with U.N. envoys coming and going with no results from "dialogue." Talk is not progress unless the generals are speaking to Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, other democracy movement leaders and the ethnic nationalities directly about the future of their country. But I would be delighted if the United States discussions succeeded in facilitating change and led by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, perhaps they will. The State Department has thus far kept to longstanding, principled demands for progress on human rights, including the release of political prisoners, before lifting sanctions on the regime. Also positive was ambassador-at-large for global women's issues Melanne Verveer's recent meeting with Burmese women activists to discuss sexual violence by the Burmese military. I met with some of these same women, nearly 8 years ago, and the widespread rape continues unabated. As I have articulated before, sexual violence, the use of child soldiers and other crimes against humanity against ethnic minority civilians have long provided justification for U.N. Security Council action on Burma. Sadly, the Obama administration has dropped the U.S. effort at the Security Council begun under President Bush and Ambassador Verveer has little to offer the women she met. Thus we see the limits of engagement on these issues without support from the top.
President Obama campaigned on change and has had nearly a year of trying to be "Anything But Bush." But it is time to move on and become the leader that Americans -- and human rights activists around the world -- expect. We want a leader who stands for universal principles in line with our own -- even when it is difficult to do so -- and builds alliances with nations or people within nations who share our commitment to human rights, democracy and peace -- not with tyrants who don't. The president cannot rely on his personality to win over dictators and convince them to change, but his popularity could benefit human rights defenders around the world if he chose to stand with them. The current situation of downtrodden dissidents and frustrated friends is certainly not the best that U.S. leadership has to offer, but principled choices leading to real action on human rights is change I could believe in.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.