Providing humanitarian aid to dictatorships is acceptable only if those regimes remedy their human rights practices, President Bush’s special envoy on human rights to North Korea said at a Yale Political Union debate Tuesday night.
In an address to about 200 students in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, Jay Lefkowitz discussed current U.S. aid programs to North Korea, arguing that dictatorships should be given foreign aid only if they are held accountable for their decisions about how to spend the aid.
While some students interviewed said they found Lefkowitz’s assertions convincing, others in the audience questioned the morality of his policies and expressed doubts about its effectiveness.
In his speech, Lefkowitz defended the Bush administration’s decision to deliver humanitarian aid to North Korea only if it halts its efforts to build nuclear weapons and rectifies its poor human rights practices.
“We need to keep our eyes on the ball by linking economic aid with genuine human rights progress,” he said.
In discussing North Korea’s human rights record, Lefkowitz mentioned certain policies “that keep the country in stasis,” such as the deportation of political dissidents to concentration camps and the lack of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Lefkowitz said North Korea’s shabby human-rights record should not be overshadowed by the attention focused on the regime’s budding nuclear program. Human rights abuses that go unchecked inevitably lead to the committing of greater atrocities, he said. Quoting former Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, Lefkowitz said that “how a nation treats its own citizens is the best indicator of how it will treat other nations.”
“Hotel Rwanda will become Hotel Pyongyang,” Lefkowitz said.
Lefkowitz was followed by three scheduled speakers: Holly Ovington ’10 of the Party of the Left, Matthew Klein ’09 of the Conservative Party and Marie Diamond ’10 of the Independent Party. Ovington, who spoke first, attacked Lefkowitz’s claim that human rights issues should be used as a pretext for ensuring national security, arguing that “people should not be used as political tools.”
“It disgusts me that people’s basic rights are used as bargaining chips,” Ovington said.
In his talk, Klein said current aid policies allow North Korea to continue employing policies that lead to famine, since there is no system in place to ensure appropriate spending of humanitarian aid.
“Whether or not we want to help North Korea, we need to realize that aid isn’t doing the trick,” he said.
Diamond said he supports conditioning humanitarian aid on a regime’s willingness to compromise, but he disagreed with the Bush administration’s policy of withholding aid from North Korea until regime change occurs. Such an approach inevitably leads to a “reckless game of chicken” that stands in the way of diplomatic progress, she said.
Some audience members said they found convincing Lefkowitz’s claim that there is no absolute rule governing whether and to what extent the United States should offer humanitarian assistance to dictators.
“I never thought I would agree with a Bush official, but Lefkowitz had a good point and a logical argument,” Jonathan Thirman ’11 said.
Danila Kabotyanski ’11 said Lefkowitz “challenged my opinions on idealism and forced me to think more practically.”
Instead of sending U.S. aid directly to other countries, Party of the Right member Alex Gragath ’09 said he would prefer a system in which American citizens gave charitable donations to non-governmental organizations — such as the Red Cross — that would then administer humanitarian aid programs.
Prior to joining the Bush administration, Lefkowitz served as director of the New Citizenship Project, a conservative nonprofit organization.