Kenneth Roth, executive director

© 2010 Sarah Shatz

No repressive government enjoys facing public pressure to respect human rights. These days, their favorite avoidance strategy is to state a preference for private "dialogue" and "cooperation" - an attractive option because it takes place behind closed doors. Sadly, the major Western powers have fallen for this ploy. Reluctant to ruffle feathers while eager to be seen as "doing something," they increasingly embrace the same subterfuge.

There is nothing inherently wrong with dialogue and cooperation to promote human rights. It makes sense when a government demonstrably wants to respect rights but lacks the necessary resources or technical know-how.

But when the political will to uphold rights is wanting, as it so often is, public pressure is needed, from statements to targeted sanctions. Exclusive reliance on quiet dialogue and cooperation becomes a charade designed more to appease critics of complacency than to secure change. And because quiet dialogue and cooperation often look like acquiescence, domestic rights activists sense indifference rather than solidarity.

Western governments remain willing to apply public pressure when a government's behavior is so outrageous that it overshadows other interests, as in Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe. But in too many cases, the shifting global balance of power (especially the rise of China), an intensified competition for markets and natural resources, and the decline in the moral standing of Western powers because of their own counterterrorism abuses have made Western governments less willing to take a strong public stand for human rights. Instead, they embrace "dialogue" and "cooperation" regardless of their futility.

A key offender has been the European Union. For example, it refused to endorse a commission of inquiry to investigate atrocities committed by the Burmese junta. The E.U. high representative, Catherine Ashton, said at the time: "Ideally, we should aim at ensuring a measure of cooperation from the national authorities." But obtaining such cooperation from the Burmese military in the absence of further pressure is a pipe dream.

In Uzbekistan, which provides an important route for resupplying NATO troops in Afghanistan, the E.U. lifted targeted sanctions against those responsible for the 2005 Andijan massacre because, it said, sanctions were "alienating" the government and "standing in the way of a constructive relationship," as if making nice to a government that denied responsibility for killing hundreds of its citizens would be more successful at changing it than sustained pressure. The E.U. cites similar fears of alienation in contending that human rights concerns should not stand in the way of a new cooperation agreement with Turkmenistan, a severely repressive country with large gas reserves.

Human rights dialogues might have some impact if tied to concrete, publicly articulated benchmarks. But being held accountable for concrete results is exactly what dialogue participants want to avoid. Instead, the E.U. has argued that benchmarks would introduce tension into a dialogue and undermine its role as a "confidence-building exercise," as if the purpose of dialogue were to promote warm feelings rather than respect for human rights.

Even when benchmarks exist, the E.U.'s willingness to ignore them undermines their usefulness. For example, the European Commission is pursuing the partnership and cooperation agreement with Turkmenistan even though the government cannot conceivably be said to comply with such an agreement's standard human rights conditions. The E.U. rationale? "Deeper engagement" and a new "framework for dialogue and cooperation."

Similarly, Serbia's accession discussions with the E.U. were supposed to await sincere efforts to arrest the former Bosnian Serb military leader, Ratko Mladic. That has not happened, but the E.U. agreed to start discussions anyway.

This is a particularly inopportune moment for the E.U. to lose its public voice, because repressive governments have had no qualms about raising theirs, whether challenging international war-crimes prosecutors as selective, trumpeting China's authoritarian path to economic development, or endorsing the Sri Lankan military's indiscriminate killing of civilians.

The use of public pressure need not preclude engaging with repressive governments. Human Rights Watch's own experience shows that the sting of public reporting, and a desire to influence it, spurs governments to more meaningful conversation. If a nongovernmental organization can engage with oppressive leaders while speaking out about their abuses, governments can too.

Quiet dialogue and cooperation still have their place when an abusive government shows a genuine willingness to acknowledge rights violations and embrace solutions. Otherwise, public pressure should be the default response to repression.

Defending human rights is rarely convenient. But if governments want to pursue other interests instead, they should have the courage to admit it, instead of hiding behind meaningless dialogues and fruitless quests for cooperation.

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.