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Human Rights

Promoting International Human Rights

A very large majority believes promoting human rights is an important priority for US foreign policy. A very strong majority feels that with the increased economic involvement that has come with globalization, the US should be more concerned about human rights in other countries. Majorities feel that promoting human rights serves US interests. Denying human rights is seen as leading to political instability, and a majority believes that using US military forces to remove a government that is abusing human rights is justified. A majority also supports using foreign aid as a means of promoting human rights.

An overwhelming majority says that promoting human rights should be an important priority of US foreign policy. When asked in a February 2005 Gallup poll how important “promoting and defending human rights in other countries” is as a US foreign policy goal, 86% said it was important (52% said “very important” 34% said “somewhat important”). Only 10% said “not too important” and 2% said “not important at all." Numerous other polls on the topic in recent years have found similar results. [1]

When ranked against other objectives, however, human rights falls below several other concerns. In Gallup’s End of Year Poll 2004, only 4% of respondents selected “improving/maintaining human rights” as the most important priority for leaders of the world, while 29% chose “the war on terrorism” and 13% selected “restoring trust and honesty in government, in business and in international institutions.” [2]

There is evidence that the end of the Cold War brought some change to the public's evaluation of human rights as a priority. Since 1974 the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations has asked quadrennially whether "promoting and defending human rights in other countries" should be a very important, somewhat important, or not an important foreign policy goal for the US. The percentage calling human rights "very important" rose at the end of the Cold War from 42% to 58%. In 1994 this percentage dropped to a low of 34%, but in 1998 it returned to the average levels of previous decades, at 39% (the same figure as in 1978). In every quadrennial survey since 1974, more than 80% have said this goal is important, and the percentage saying it is very important climbed to 47% in 2002 from 39% in 1998 and 34% in 1994. [3]

Large majorities also favor putting diplomatic pressure on specific countries. In a September 2005 PIPA/CCFR poll asked about putting pressure on Burma (also known as Myanmar), China, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Two-thirds or more of respondents (66% to 70% on each country) favored putting diplomatic pressure on the government to respect human rights, speaking out against its human rights abuses and encouraging other countries to do the same. [4]

The poll also found that Americans appear ready to accept significant political costs as part of pressing for human rights. Asked whether the United States should have called for an international investigation of a May 2005 protest in Uzbekistan, in which the government shot and killed several hundred Uzbeks and as a consequence Uzbekistan ordered the U.S. to close its airbase and leave, 72% of Americans said the United States did the right thing. [5]

A large majority of Americans believe that the US has a positive impact on other countries when it comes to democratic values and human rights. In an August 2002 Investor's Business Daily/Christian Science Monitor poll, 81% described as positive (24% very positive) "the impact the US has on the rest of the world [on] democratic values and human rights." Only 15% felt the US had a negative impact in this area. Also, in December 2001, 75% said that US "involvement" in "human rights around the world" over the past 10 years had made a positive impact. Thirteen percent felt US activity in this area had been negative, with 11% offering another response or not sure (Ipsos-Reid). [6]

But, while Americans feel that the US is producing a net positive effect for human rights, they are less enthusiastic about how well the US lives up to its ideals. A June 2005 poll by the Public Agenda Foundation gave a mixed report card on how well the US lives up to its human rights ideals in conducting foreign policy. The poll asked the following question:

(What grade would you give the US [United States] when it comes to achieving the following goals? Please give an A, B, C, D or F for fail. If you don't know, just say so.) ... Living up to our ideals of human rights and justice in the way we conduct our foreign policy.

Only 15% gave an A; 29% gave a B and another 29% gave a C; 12% gave a D and 10% gave the US a failing grade of F. [7]

Globalization and Human Rights

A strong majority feels that as economic involvement with other countries has increased due to globalization, the US has an increased responsibility to address human rights in those countries. In a January 2004 PIPA study of attitudes on globalization, respondents were asked "Do you think that as we become more involved economically with another country that we should be more concerned about the human rights in that country, or do you not feel that way?" A very strong 71% said they did feel that way, while 25% said they did not. The numbers were statistically equivalent to results when the same question was asked in 1999. [8]

In the same poll, an overwhelming 90% agreed (66% strongly) with the statement: "Because the world is so interconnected today it is important for the US (United States) to participate, together with other countries, in efforts to maintain peace and protect human rights." When PIPA asked this question in October 1993, 88% agreed (51% strongly). [9a]

Perhaps because increasing globalization is seen as necessitating greater awareness about and involvement in other parts of the world, a majority feels that globalization is good for human rights in other countries. In the June 2002 Chicago Council on Foreign Relations poll, 61% felt that globalization is "good" for "democracy and human rights abroad." Just 16% thought it was "bad." Three percent felt it was neither good nor bad and 16% did not know. [9b]

Polls have also found support for the idea that violations of human rights create a threat not only to US interests, but also to international security. A June 1994 ATIF poll asked respondents to evaluate "various kinds of actions by national leaders of countries or factions" and "rate how serious a threat to global security these things are." Asked about "Leaders who grossly violate human rights, including torturing and murdering their own citizens," a very strong 72% rated this as extremely (44%) or very (28%) threatening. Another 22% found it somewhat threatening and just 6% found it not at all threatening. [10]

Human Rights and US Foreign Policy

Strong majorities also feel that promoting human rights in other countries serves US interests. In the October 1999 PIPA poll, respondents were told: "Currently there is some discussion about whether it is important for America's self-interest to do something about cases in which human rights are being violated." Respondents were then presented two arguments in favor of the idea and two arguments against it, and were asked to rate each argument as convincing or unconvincing.

The arguments in favor did quite well. Sixty-three percent found convincing the argument that "When a minority is being deprived of its human rights, this often leads to political conflict and instability, which can spread and ultimately harm US interests" (35% found it unconvincing). Fifty-three percent found convincing the argument that "When a minority is being deprived of its human rights by a government that is supported by the US, this may lead that minority to use terrorism against Americans" (44% found it unconvincing). (This latter argument may have been less convincing because it could be interpreted to mean that the US should put pressure on Israel or deny aid to Israel for fear of Palestinian retribution against the US.)
Arguments against the idea that the US should take action in regard to human rights did not fare as well. Only 20% found convincing the argument, "The world is so big that we should not worry too much if human rights violations are being committed in distant parts of the world, because such things are unlikely to affect us" (79% found that unconvincing). However, respondents were evenly divided on the argument (49% found it convincing, 49% found it unconvincing) that "Some countries are major trading partners for the US. If we get involved in trying to promote human rights in these countries we may irritate them and we may lose their trade." (This latter argument may have been found more convincing because it may have brought to mind the debate about trade with China.). [11]

In the same poll, an overwhelming majority agreed with the idea that it serves US interests to participate in international efforts to protect human rights, among other objectives. Seventy-eight percent agreed that "Because the world is so interconnected today, the US (United States) should participate in efforts to maintain peace, protect human rights, and promote economic development. Such efforts serve US interests because they help to create a more stable world that is less apt to have wars and is better for the growth of trade and other US goals." [12]

Clearly one of the highest standards of commitment to a foreign policy goal is the readiness to use military force and Americans do show some readiness to do so. When asked in a in a June 2004 German Marshall Fund/Compagnia di San Paolo poll about using US military forces “to remove a government that abuses human rights,” a majority (57%) said they would approve, while 36% said they would disapprove. [13]

However, it should be noted that this question did not specify the conditions of such an intervention. Extensive polling has shown that Americans are also quite sensitive to the norm of non-intervention and are quite reluctant to intervene militarily except as part of a UN-approved multilateral operation (see US Role in the World). At the same time Americans have shown a readiness to intervene in the event of extreme human rights violations, especially genocide, even without UN approval. Thus the readiness to take military action in the event of human rights violations is likely to be highly specific to the conditions.

Foreign Aid and Human Rights

A strong majority supports the idea that US foreign aid can and should be used to help promote new democracies and thus human rights.

In the September 2005 PIPA-CCFR poll, two-thirds (66%) favored “giving more developmental aid to a government that is becoming more democratic.” [14]

That finding is similar to what was found in a January 1995 PIPA poll, when a robust 67% agreed (23% strongly) with the following statement:

Foreign aid to newly democratic countries is a good investment for America. Democracies are more stable, have better human rights, and are more likely to be friends with the United States. Foreign aid improves these new democracies' chances of success. [15]

Other surveys have found that majorities support using foreign aid to promote human rights and democracy – both by increasing such aid and withholding it if recipient countries fall short on human rights. In a December 2001 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Public Opinion Strategies poll, an overwhelming 81% felt the US should "target" foreign aid by "monitoring human rights and denying assistance to governments that violate them." A mere 16% opposed that idea. In the same poll 56% wanted the US to increase foreign aid spending for "strengthening democracy and human rights." Just 6% wanted to see the amount spent on such activities decreased, while 35% wanted it kept about the same. [16]



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Recent Data Updates
Human Rights - August 2008 (PDF)