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March 10, 2014 9:09 AM U.S. Leadership is Essential for International Human Rights

By Keith Humphreys

LGBT rights activist Kevin Jennings sounds the alarm about the persecution of gay people in Russia, Uganda and Gambia:

even as the momentum in the U.S. seems to be accelerating in the right direction, a disturbing countertrend has emerged in other countries, where justice for LGBT people is being dismissed as a “Western” assault on “traditional values” and alarming new laws are literally threatening the very lives of LGBT people and their allies.

What Kevin is describing is more prevalent than many people realize. Here is Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, repeatedly telling a persistent Guardian reporter that consensual homosexual behavior will remain a crime in Liberia.




After seeing this interview, which includes former British PM Tony Blair being unwilling to take Sirleaf on, Guardian subscribers all over West London were probably stamping their Birkenstocked feet and thinking that the post-imperial multipolar world wasn’t supposed to be like this. Similarly, a non-negligible number of Americans believe that the US is a unusually repressive country that just needs to get out of a way in order for tolerance and human rights to flower around the globe.

But Americans don’t have to travel much outside of the developed world to realize that their homeland respects individual rights to an extraordinary degree. If you want to openly love someone of the same sex, or make a speech critical of the government, or start your own newspaper, or access birth control, or hold a political rally, to cite only a few examples, the US is one of the very best countries in which to live.

China is not going to push for freedom of the press around the world. Russia is not going to pressure countries to expand gay rights. India is not going to demand that other countries combat sexual violence against women. Americans who think that retreating from the international scene will somehow facilitate an expansion of individual rights suffer from ignorance of other cultures and a lack of gratitude for the freedoms they themselves enjoy. Kevin’s words should be weighed by any American planning to sit out the fight for human rights around the world:

Baby Boomer children often asked their parents, “What did you do during the War?” Similarly, future generations will look back on this time of international crisis and ask us, “What did you do?” We either must act, or be remembered in shame for doing nothing.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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