Engagement and dialogue will be the hallmarks of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama in its approach to regimes struggling with democracy and human rights, according to Karen Stewart, the principal assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. State Department's bureau of democracy, human rights, and labor. On a recent visit to Brussels, Stewart spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas about the Middle East, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Belarus, and well as attempts by the United Nations to tackle global rights issues.
RFE/RL: In his speech in Cairo on June 4, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the issue of democracy and human rights in the Middle East. Can we expect to see changes in the way the United States views undemocratic regimes in the region with whom it has cooperated in the past?
Karen Stewart: Well, I think what you hear from President Obama and the new administration is that we see our relationships as complex and complete. And we will be looking for -- and urging -- democratic development and supporting people in their countries as they seek their fundamental rights and human rights. But that does not mean that that's the only thing we pursue with a country. We have other national interests and we will work and discuss all of these with these different countries.
RFE/RL: Would you say there will be added conditionality?
Stewart: I don't think as a blanket rule we are going to be looking at conditionality. We are very much looking at [countries on a] case-by-case [basis], and feeling that dialogue and working for mutual understanding and supporting civil society is frequently often the most effective approach.
RFE/RL: It is going to take decades, at the very least, to change these societies. Do you think the United States has this kind of time?
Stewart: Yes, and I'm not sure it will take quite as many decades as you imply. But, yes, this is a path that is a bipartisan path that we continue on, and I think we will see improvements.
RFE/RL: Let's move on to Afghanistan, which is now the top foreign policy priority for the Obama administration. However, relatively little has been said about the role of democracy in overall U.S. goals in Afghanistan. Have democratic goals been eclipsed by the fight against terrorism?
Stewart: Well, certainly from the point of view of my bureau, where we are involved, along with the South and Central Asia bureau, in working to set up an environment for free and fair elections, and continue to work with women's groups, and to broaden society for minorities -- I guess I don't see there's been a lessening in the interest in democracy. But at the same time, of course, we are trying to resolve the security situation.
RFE/RL: Do you think the United States could accept a solution in Afghanistan which would not include the country being a democracy?
Stewart: No, I think our goal is a democratic Afghanistan. You put your question in kind of a negative fashion. I think our goal is to have a secure and stable and democratic Afghanistan that respects fundamental human rights.
RFE/RL: So the United States, which is spearheading the international effort in Afghanistan, will not pull out before Afghanistan is a functioning democracy?
Stewart: Well, it's not my… I don't have the insight to say when troops get pulled out or such, but we will continue to work toward supporting, as I say, a secure state, but also a stable and democratic one. That can be done in many different ways, with different kinds of tools. In fact, I'm sure we're going to be building up our civilian diplomatic tools.
RFE/RL: Is this buildup going to entail closer attention to the southern and eastern parts of the country where there is a 45-million strong, essentially tribal, Pashtun community straddling the border with Pakistan and very set in its ways?
Stewart: I can't speak to specific programs yet on that area, but in our planning, it's been countrywide planning to work in all the areas.
RFE/RL: Does this mean there'll be more of a local focus on individual communities, or would you still be working mainly through Kabul?
Stewart: Again, I'm afraid on this I don't have a firm idea of how specifically we would go at it. Speaking very parochially, for my own bureau, we tend to work at all levels, but we also tend to work very much with civil society groups and my focus is more on that area.
RFE/RL: In many ways, the Central Asian states are crucial to resolving Afghanistan's problems. Is there anything specific that your bureau is doing with regard to these five countries?
Stewart: Yes, we carry out similar programs to support civil society in all those [countries]. We have a particular interest in the freedom of the media; we have a particular interest in women's rights. We work on some projects to combat the worst forms of child labor. We have several projects in that region to promote religious freedom and religious tolerance. Those are our major themes.
RFE/RL: Kazakhstan, the largest country in the region, will soon take over the chairmanship of the OSCE. Does this amount to a recognition of Kazakhstan as a free and democratic country?
Stewart: Kazakhstan made several commitments for how it would change some of its laws in the time between when it was chosen to be chairman and when it takes on the chairmanship. It also made commitments that as chairman it would live up [to] and implement the OSCE commitments, and they have made some progress there. We would like to see more progress, so we continue to talk to them about the problems as they may [arise] and how they can fulfill that, and I see that as a continuing project.
RFE/RL: Belarus continues to pose a persistent problem in the post-Soviet space. You yourself were U.S. ambassador to the country. What would you say is the way to go with Belarus? More engagement and dialogue? Or more conditionality and sanctions?
Stewart: I'm sure that many of your listeners who follow Belarus know that we have sanctions in place on Belarus. Upon the release of the last of the political prisoners that we were seeking, we did relieve some of the sanctions -- gave a bit of a rollback on some of it. We still look for more democratic and human rights developments.
But in line with the new [U.S,] administration's willingness to reach out and talk to various governments and try and see where we might review our relationship and make improvements, I think we would be willing to engage -- and are engaging -- Belarus's current opinions and current views toward taking some steps toward human rights that would allow us to improve the relationship, maybe take steps on the sanctions. We would like to see a restoration of our embassy [which the U.S. ordered closed in May 2008, following an expulsion of U.S. diplomats by Minsk]. So, I think, the next step will be more dialogue.
RFE/RL: President Obama has announced his intention to bring the United States into the UN Human Rights Council, reversing previous U.S. policy. Why this change of heart?
Stewart: Because President Obama and his administration believe that even though the Human Rights Council has not lived up to its promise or the way that many of us hoped it would be when it was first created, that the United States can do a better job of protecting and defending human rights if we're inside it, where our voice as a member will be stronger than [that of] an observer, or [that of someone who's] not taking part at all -- as we were not doing for the last few months of the last administration. So I think it's again a reflection of our feeling that engagement is a more effective way of promoting human rights.