Courtesy Freedom House

Before becoming an associate dean at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service last August, Jennifer Windsor *91 spent 10 years as executive director of Freedom House, an independent human-rights group perhaps best known for its annual rankings of freedom around the world. Windsor, who also has worked on Capitol Hill and for the U.S. Agency for International Development, spoke with PAW about current prospects for democracy, political freedom, and human rights.  

Freedom House said in its 2011 report that freedom has declined worldwide for five consecutive years. Why?

First, it is important to point out that the report covers conditions in 2010, so there could be some upgrades in the coming year. But the fact is that we recently have seen regression in freedom, especially in the critical areas of freedom of expression and freedom of association. We are seeing some new democracies stall in efforts to reduce corruption and advance the rule of the law, and we are seeing authoritarian governments getting more repressive.

Is the so-called Arab Spring a sign that things are getting better?

A lot depends on how fair and competitive the elections will be. It’s hard to imagine that there will be much movement backward, but the future of democracy, in Egypt particularly, is not at all secure. Moreover, governments in Bahrain, Syria, and Libya are fighting for their lives and are willing to be extremely repressive in order to stay in power.

Isn’t respect for the rule of law also important?  

At a minimum, democracy means a system in which leaders are chosen in free and fair elections. For that environment to occur, you have to have freedom of expression, freedom of association, the right to campaign, and a judiciary that can guarantee the outcome of an election. The media tend to focus on elections, but the incremental fight to change, say, a country’s judicial system gets less attention, although it is probably more important in the long run. An independent judiciary is the mechanism that best reflects the social contract between a government and its citizens. In any country, freedom is not just about predictability and clear rules. China’s system is very predictable, but it is not free. Freedom is about rules that are based on a guarantee of fundamental human rights.

What should the United States do to promote freedom?

We must continue to prove to the world that we are as committed to making progress in this country as in other countries. We should not be afraid to discuss our own shortcomings openly — whether that is the need for ­criminal-justice reform or the use of interrogation techniques at Abu Ghraib and other places that violated international norms and could be seen as cruel and unusual punishment, if not torture. We also should provide positive incentives to countries that move toward democracy, and let countries that violate human rights know that there are consequences for doing so. That doesn’t mean that human rights and democracy should always be the preeminent considerations in our foreign policy, but they should mean something.  

Does foreign aid serve a useful purpose?

There is tremendous public misunderstanding about the amount of money that goes to foreign assistance. It’s less than a half of 1 percent of the budget. Our national interests are not advanced when the world is not making progress in fighting climate change or fighting outbreaks of infectious diseases. Those are some of the kinds of programs that our aid supports, and continuing that aid is in our own long-term interest. If more people around the world are moving into the middle class, there are more people in a position to buy American goods and services. Foreign aid has done so much more than most Americans realize. It enables us to communicate that we are not just concerned about our own short-term interests, but are on the side of people around the world trying to make their lives better.

What role does China play in promoting or retarding freedom in other countries?

China has been very destructive in democracy and human rights, particularly as it has taken over from the West as the biggest donor in some African countries. The Chinese are not interested in trying to promote good behavior by foreign governments. China has created very sophisticated methods of Internet surveillance, which it uses against its own ­citizens. It is now exporting those tech­nologies to enable other countries to repress their ­populations as well.  


— Interview conducted and condensed by Mark F. Bernstein ’83