Balancing Humanitarian Issues With International Security

Posted by Tara Foley
November 17, 2007
Overseas Filipino Workers

My first assignment in Riyadh was a lesson in the overlapping but sometimes competing demands of humanitarian and security concerns in U.S. foreign policy. American foreign policy, to me, is anchored by two distinct objectives: fulfilling our responsibility to the American people to safeguard U.S. national security and interests, and fulfilling our responsibility as a member of the international community to achieve greater security and a better quality of life for us all. Overwhelmingly, I believe that these two goals are complementary, even essential, to one another. In a world of limited resources, however, we are not always able to pursue all of our goals simultaneously and with equal vigor.

In my first weeks at post, I went from ministry to ministry, trying to learn what I could about Saudi Arabia’s policies on Trafficking in Persons (TIP). Each year, the U.S. State Department, as mandated by Congress, writes a report describing the anti-TIP efforts of countries around the world. (View the 2007 TIP report here). Trafficking in Persons is a complex issue, but generally speaking we use this term to describe labor practices akin to involuntary servitude or modern-day slavery. In Saudi Arabia, our greatest TIP concern is the treatment of foreign laborers. Saudi Arabia is host to thousands upon thousands of foreign laborers, many from Southeast Asia. Many of these workers find amiable working conditions, kind hosts, and opportunity for greater financial advantages. Not all, however, are so fortunate. Some workers who travel to the Kingdom legally to work as drivers, housekeepers, and laborers, find unexpected conditions when they arrive, such as withheld wages, excessive restrictions on movement, and, in the worst cases, physical abuse. While these cases are the minority, the sheer numbers of foreign laborers in the Kingdom means that even if a small percentage of workers are mistreated, we still have a big problem. The Saudi officials I met with were dedicated and passionate about improving conditions for guest workers, but the government as a whole has yet to develop a systemic approach for addressing this problem.

As a result, in 2007, as in previous years, Saudi Arabia ranked in the worst tier for its efforts to combat Trafficking in Persons. Normally, this would require Congressional sanctions against the Saudi Arabian government. Last month, however, the President issued a Determination granting a full waiver of any TIP-related sanctions against Saudi Arabia. (View the President’s determination for a waiver here). In his determination, the President argues that continued funding of Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) activities in Saudi Arabia and continued military sales there are necessary to U.S. national interests and security. These programs are fundamental to continued security cooperation between our two countries and the effective prosecution of the Global War on Terror.

I was not surprised when I saw this determination published a few weeks ago. I cannot even say that I disagree with its conclusions. My heart breaks for victims of labor trafficking. I believe that the Saudi government, like the U.S. government and the governments of the workers’ home countries, can and should do more. We must continue to support and encourage the Saudi government in their efforts to combat TIP, but we also must continue to work with them on counterterrorism in order to ensure the security of U.S. citizens, interests, and allies, including Saudi Arabia. And, from my limited vantage point, the Saudi government is very, very good at counterterrorism.

In the long run, I believe that our humanitarian and security efforts are complementary to one another – that a more compassionate world is also a safer and more peaceful world. But in the day-to-day work of governments, the reality is that world leaders often have to make very tough decisions about what to do with limited resources. This first assignment in Riyadh was a fascinating glimpse at the parallel and sometimes competing priorities of foreign policy. It challenged me to examine my own priorities, and to consider the appropriate balance between my personal ideals (that is, my belief that creating a better world is possible, and that we in government can and should work toward that goal) and my realist worldview (my acknowledgement of an imperfect world and understanding that we have to work within existing realities in order to achieve anything, which sometimes means that we cannot achieve everything at once). I believe that we can continue to work closely with our allies, like Saudi Arabia, to improve national and international security while also working together to develop better and more cooperative approaches to our humanitarian problems. It will sometimes be difficult to achieve this balance. But I think it’s a challenge worth taking on.

Comments

Comments

Eric
|
New Mexico, USA
November 20, 2007

Eric in New Mexico writes:

If I may ask, how many members of Congress went to Saudi Arabia expressing concern on this issue?

The task of nation building lies in changing mindsets, and that can't usually be done from anywhere except within.

But you can offer some constructive ideas.

With a question.

Anyone who has witnessed the birth of one's child can tell you that yes indeed you create your own reality, the question is what do we wish to create for ourselves as reality on this planet, now and for our children's, and their children's future? Not just in this country, but the world as a whole, as an international vision.
Inherently, change is viewed with suspicion, as a threat to culture and ways of tradition and ethical belief systems. As it applies to developing countries in this nuclear age, the post-cold war aftermath presents a vast paradox that present no easy solutions, and has culminated in the reality of the war on terrorism as it exists today.

Having been in the construction industry much of my life, I can assure you all that we are in fact a nation of "nation builders" on many levels. And hopefully folks globally will learn from America's social evolution. A long, painful evolution at that.

And what hope in enlightened society would the King leave to the future of Saudi citizens?

Nathaniel
|
United States
November 20, 2007

Nathaniel in U.S. writes:

I'm not sure that "balancing" is the correct verb, because it implies that humanitarianism and security are doomed to be at odds with each other. This does not have to be the case.

Tara writes "a more compassionate world is also a safer and more peaceful world." Perhaps. Perhaps not. That fully depends on the situation and how one defines compassion. Furthermore, compassion can be interpreted as weakness, or arrogance, depending on the cultural viewpoint.

However, a more secure world will almost certainly lead to a more humanitarian world, so long as we don't find ourselves on a precipice of totalitarian rule (which isn't currently happening.)

Security comes first, because it sets the conditions of humanitarianism. Were humanitarianism to come first, we'd merely be supplying despots with the humanitarian rations while the truly deserving of compassion go without it.

So, it is not "balancing." Rather, it's aligning humanitarian concerns (which are matters of choice, certain moral imperatives aside. We can all think of extreme cases.), with security concerns (which are more concrete).

"Aligning" would have been the better verb.

Syrian P.
November 20, 2007

SNP writes:

"........In his determination, the President argues that continued funding of Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) activities in Saudi Arabia and continued military sales there are necessary to U.S. national interests and security......."

That was the Great German Leader Adoplh Hitler (bless his soul)excuse and motives for invading Europe and Russia. I guess since America feel that way too, he was not that bad after all.

Ronald B.
|
New York, USA
November 20, 2007

Ronald in New York writes:

Humanitarian concerns and security concerns have always been integrally tied. Viewing them as distinct or opposing issues will inevitably compound the the challenge of establishing and maintaining humanitarian and security goals. The new paradigm for the 21st century is Global Human Security. This can only be achieved by establishing a foundation of human rights, rule-of-law, economic, political and social civility and transparency, and equal protections under law. Currently, we are working
in a framework of the "Law-of-Rule" in many regions, and these conditions sometimes lead the USG into rationales which seem correct, but only feed into lawlessness and
reactionary insurgencies. The long-term goal of Human Security should yield a safe and secure feeling of "being home" no matter where you are on the globe.

Chris
|
Florida, USA
November 21, 2007

Chris in Florida writes:

Although my following comments may be a bit "off topic," I believe this section of Dipnotes may be as appropriate a place as any to discuss the issues surrounding the 6 month jail and 200 lashes sentence imposed on a young Saudi woman who was a victim of gang-rape.

I urge my fellow retired FSOs, active State Dept. employees, and others to check out the story, and consider the State Dept. spokesperson's comment that the Saudi Shar'ia court's verdict was "...surprising and astonishing..." WOW!!

Now here's a "humanitarian problem" that seems to fit within Ms. Foley's "challenge worth taking on."Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:

@ Chris in Florida -- I am familiar with the case you mention, and personally, I think it's outrageous, a horrible instance of blaming the victim. I think most Saudis agree. I think many people are shocked and dismayed at this most recent development, and Saudis are making their voice heard. The Saudi media has been covering this extensively for months. For example, see an article titled "A Slap in the Face of Justice" in today's Arab News.

Eric
|
New Mexico, USA
November 21, 2007

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@ Cris in Florida -- Yeah it caught my eye, which is partly why I ended my post with "And what hope in enlightened society would the King leave to the future of Saudi citizens?"

The King is not alone, and more than a few leaders if not all should ask it of themselves for their own citizen's sake.

Living in peace is a human right, and the President's decision to wave action regarding other human rights problems to ensure the peace in providing the King greater ability to protect his people, well..."Without security, nothing can be built." as Hamid Karzai put it.

State does its job , and sometimes above and beyond. When I'd called once about an imminent execution by stoning that the Iranian Republic was about to impose on a few women, I asked the desk officer for his email address and sent him the Amnesty Int. article with the details, along with a letter I'd tried to get to the White House in time (they had 5 days until the sentence was carried out, and the White house operator said their email was jammed up for six weeks before it could be read. It was after five on a Friday (Christmas weekend actually), and the White House was "shut down" so I asked her to give me the DOS switchboard, and I was transferred from there to State.) About a half hour later after I sent the article, I got this message in reply:

"This information has been sent through immediately to the Iran Security Desk for further action."

LaylaM was one of those women. Her story and the girl's from Saudi Arabia are not dissimilar. A lot of international pressure was put on (successfully ) to spare LaylaM and the others and ultimately it became included as part of the yearly DoS country human rights reports-Iran.

A "challenge worth taking on."? You betcha, and one well met.

Thanks again to folks at the State Dept., you make a world of difference.

jayanta
|
India
November 21, 2007

Jayanta writes:

i also work for U.S.A. government.

Jacob R.
|
Alabama, USA
November 21, 2007

Jacob in Alabama writes:

I was not surprised when I saw this determination published a few weeks ago. I cannot even say that I disagree with its conclusions. My heart breaks for victims of labor trafficking. I believe that the Saudi government, like the U.S. government and the governments of the workers' home countries, can and should do more. We must continue to support and encourage the Saudi government in their efforts to combat TIP, but we also must continue to work with them on counter terrorism in order to ensure the security of U.S. citizens, interests, and allies, including Saudi Arabia. And, from my limited vantage point, the Saudi government is very, very good at counter terrorism.

In the long run, I believe that our humanitarian and security efforts are complementary to one another -- that a more compassionate world is also a safer and more peaceful world. But in the day-to-day work of governments, the reality is that world leaders often have to make very tough decisions about what to do with limited resources. This first assignment in Riyadh was a fascinating glimpse at the parallel and sometimes competing priorities of foreign policy.

mdaham
|
United Arab Emirates
November 22, 2007

M in U.A.E. writes:

As long there is dictatorship there will be human rights violation dictators against human rights by nature and there is no way to balance it.

Patrick
|
New York, USA
November 29, 2007

Patrick in New York writes:

I have two points, which would make you think this comment would be short. It isn't and for that I apologize. I say this as a warning. If you don't like reading long comments and hate starting a comment only to find out that it is very long, then don't read this one:

1. The term "U.S. interests" is a convenient one for politicians, because it is doubly ambiguous. It is not clear what is covered by "U.S." or by "interests". So a reasonable way to read "U.S." is to refer to the set of all citizens of the United States, and a reasonable way to read"interests" then, would be whatever the majority of them wish to see done. But it is clear that in the mouths of politicians, it cannot be read that way. It is clear that the majority of Americans are not interested in the "continued military sales" to Saudi Arabia, nor in our being the largest arms exporter in the world. If I may be permitted a bit of optimism about my fellow citizens, I also will assume it is obvious that if the choice was between providing an incentive to fight slavery and continued arms sales, the American people would choose to provide the incentive. Now the corporations that sell the arms certainly like the idea of continuing to do so, and so we see how the natural reading of "U.S. interests" is perverted in the mouths of politicians. To anyone paying attention it is clear that this is not a fault found only in Republicans. I remember that Bill Clinton intervened on behalf of Bristol Meyers Squibb to prevent the production of generic AIDS drugs in Brazil. These generics would have saved thousands of lives at least. I do not think, if that issue was put to a vote, the American people would have supported BMS, no matter how popular their cycling spokesman is.

"Interests" is also a funny word. The most liberal interpretation would make it mean something like "desires" or "wants" (a horrific word as Harry Frankfurt once noted). When given this liberal reading it becomes clear though, that U.S. interests need not be all that weighty, even to U.S. citizens. I right now desire to go get a pizza, but I am on a budget, and so I do not take myself to have anything like good reason to go get a pizza. If to get a pizza I not only had to break my budget but also go to a shop were they used slave labor (I suppose I live in Sudan in this hypothetical, though I am not sure you could find a pizza place Khartoum), I certainly would take my desire for pizza to be a trivial desire not worthy even of recognition, given the context. But of course natural languages are plastic entities, and "interests" like many other terms can take on diverse shades of meaning. It is common to use "interests" to mean something more significant than desires or whims. I think it is this more significant reading of "interests" that people hear when President's speak of U.S. interests. But when all that makes something an interest is that there is something there that some group of rich white men in a stockholder's meeting want (like gum Arabic in the previously mentioned Sudan, or sugar in Cuba a long time ago) we are clearly dealing with the liberal reading, on which we should always ask "Should we care that it is a U.S. interest"?

2. Now most Americans are interested in effective counter-terrorism, so I will go along with the claim that a good relationship with Saudi Arabia is important (even if most Americans, hippies that we are, object to some of the ways the House of Saud prosecutes the war on terror). So going along with the claim that there actually is a tension between U.S. interests and humanitarian issues, we then have a dilemma about democracy. Democracy is often thought to be either the morally best, or the only moral form of government. It is thought to be so because democracy brings along with it both individual rights and the empowerment that comes with political involvement. I accept all that. But think about the humanitarian issues which are opposed to U.S. interests. Slavery entails the violation of some, if not all, the fundamental rights of human beings. Rights are not the kinds of things that can justly be violated. That is what it is to be a right. (Someone could try to bring up moral relativism and say "what is a right for us need not be a right for others." I have trouble deciding whether moral relativism is more a sign of a poor character or a weak mind. Either way relativism almost always relies on the confusion of morality with anthropology. Morality is about what people ought to do, not what they believe they ought to do.) If the morally best government yields decisions which are themselves unquestionably morally wrong, which moral value do you sacrifice or fail to respect? If you really believe that the U.S. is a democracy in more than just name, it seems you have to choose between disrespecting the best kind of government, or being complicit (in fairness, it is complicity at one remove) in slavery.

.

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